Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fasting solves little

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It would be a mistake to dismiss the aboriginal hunger strikes and demonstrations occurring now across Canada as merely the latest in a series of angry outbursts that will disappear as suddenly as they appeared, only to surface again in the future following the next complaint of injustice and violation of rights.

It would also be a mistake, however, to presume that the issues are one-sided -- that the national government must alone act before equity for Canada's beleaguered First Nations can be achieved. Aboriginals, too, must also be prepared to consider and propose fundamental reforms that would help lift them out of poverty and despair.

It is not enough to simply demand more, without offering a plan for a different way of doing business.

The current disturbances are qualitatively different from those in the past, when aboriginals blocked a road for a few days, or rode their horses, dressed in war bonnets, to the legislature, before going home and waiting for changes that never seem to come.

Three aboriginals, including an Ontario chief, have started hunger strikes -- an ancient method used to achieve justice or even to collect debts -- while a new protest movement known as Idle No More has harnessed the power of the Internet and social media to rally aboriginals from coast to coast in peaceful protest.

The Oka crisis in 1990 and the 2006 dispute over land in Caledonia, Ont., were more violent and lasted longer, but the current movement could have long legs.

It has attracted worldwide attention, including from such unlikely places as Norway and Egypt. A few Americans have even launched four-day hunger strikes in support of the Canadian movement. Celebrities, too, including actor Adam Beach, have met Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation in her tent in Ottawa to show support, as have opposition political leaders.

And unlike many aboriginal protests in the past, national aboriginal leaders have offered their blessing and endorsement.

Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nation demanded "immediate and urgent attention" to native complaints about a series of federal bills that they claim will undermine their treaty rights and threaten the country's natural resources.

"The time is now," Chief Atleo said.

Chief Spence's demand, however, for an immediate audience with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Governor General before abandoning her hunger strike is unrealistic and borders on blackmail. Her diet of lemon water, fish broth and medicinal teas means her health is not in immediate danger, but a conversation with the prime minister next week or three weeks from now is unlikely to deliver the results she is seeking.

Mr. Harper, moreover, met last January with First Nations, when all sides agreed progress would have to be measured in stages, beginning with education and infrastructure.

Aboriginals are also concerned about housing, drinking water, employment and recognition of their right to be consulted on decisions affecting lands and resources in their territories.

There are many issues that need to be resolved and aboriginals are right to be angry about the appalling health and social conditions on many reserves, but it is not a one-way street.

Among other things, aboriginals ought to explain why some of them continue to live on remote, inaccessible reserves where there is no opportunity for economic development and living conditions bear little resemblance to what might be understood as native culture.

Canadians are largely sympathetic to the tough circumstances facing aboriginals, but few people believe the problems can be solved without fundamental reforms in the way First Nations are organized and administered, while legal rights can be interpreted by the courts.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2012 A12

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