What happens when a First Nation's business interests collide with a national tide of protests?
People in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation north of Thompson say they're getting a close look at that dilemma and they don't like what they see.
Cree residents of the northern Manitoba First Nation say their leaders are nervous about supporting Idle No More protests because they don't want to do anything to jeopardize the community's ownership stake with Manitoba Hydro in the $1.4-billion Wuskwatim dam.
"I'm pretty upset about this. They're our leaders, and everybody else across the globe is protesting. Why can't we?" said one woman reached Sunday in Nelson House, Nisichawayasihk's largest community, about 80 kilometres north of Thompson.
The fact there is a hunger striker in the First Nation only adds to the discontent, residents said Sunday.
"There are people here who know who they are. They are sovereign, but their hands are tied. They need the band to stand with them," another woman said.
Among the few willing to speak openly about the dilemma Sunday were the faster and one of his cousins. "We're standing with him. That traditional law still stands. We're in Treaty 5... But there are not very many of us," admitted Ralph Moore, the cousin.
He said there's an additional irony here, too. The faster, Wilson Hartie, is the grandson of the community's last hereditary chief, Moore said.
Hartie said Sunday he's "pissed off" at the elected chief's lack of leadership. However, Hartie said the political waves aren't stopping him.
He said he hasn't let food pass his lips in 21 days, living only on traditional teas and water and sleeping in the shed behind his sister's home.
It's hard to fast like that, Hartie said.
"I'm trying to support the other chief (Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who is on a hunger strike in Ottawa), and it feels like this one's pushing me down," Hartie said.
Beyond Nelson House's borders, word of Hartie's fast and the political disconnect with elected leaders is the subject of guarded talk. People compare Nelson House's lack of support with Pimicikamak Cree Nation's enthusiastic support for a similar fast by Cross Lake elder Raymond Robinson, now at Spence's side in a teepee on Victoria Island near Parliament Hill.
And those in Nelson House shake their heads.
Nelson House is a community in transition, with old ways of living off the land vanishing as hydroelectric development alters the landscape.
That brings to bear some political realities that shape Nelson House's official response to the tide of protests sweeping the country, its chief said Sunday.
Chief Jerry Primrose said it's true he and his council can't be seen protesting against Ottawa right now. They put their position on paper in a newsletter to the community before Christmas. Some residents interpreted the statement to mean they can't protest either, but that's a misunderstanding, the chief insisted.
"It's politically sensitive," Primrose said. "We're in the process of trying to get stuff done with the federal government. You're not going to see me on the front lines, because I don't want to jeopardize (that)."
That means protesting on band property is off limits and Nisichawayasihk won't take busloads of protest supporters to rallies in Winnipeg or Thompson, he said.
But what people do on their own is their own business, the chief said. "I'm not discouraging anybody else. If Wilson wants to do a hunger strike, by all means," Primrose said.
"We have a trust and we need the province and the federal government to sign it off before we can use the trust monies and put it toward our equity in Wuskwatim," he said. "You can't (protest) and turn around and say, 'Can you do this for us?' "
The $40-million trust is the community's lifeline to help pay Nisichawayasihk's 33 per cent ownership stake in Wuskwatim and bring hydro revenues into the community, Primrose said.
"Wuskwatim is THE most important thing," the chief said.