Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hunger strike over, hard work begins

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She leaves Ottawa with her head high. Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's courageous 44-day fast epitomized the hunger of Canada's First Nations for recognition and a square deal, and her camp-out near Parliament Hill helped drive the issue to the top of the national agenda and onto the international stage.

While Spence couldn't compel Prime Minister Stephen Harper to convoke Gov. Gen. David Johnston to a meeting with First Nations leaders, her protest had a far wider impact by highlighting the plight of many native communities: high unemployment, youth suicides, underfunded schools and services, mouldy housing, unfit water, missing and murdered women. After having roused the nation's conscience and having catalyzed other protests, Spence was right to call off her fast. There was no cause to risk her health any further.

As Spence's spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, put it on Thursday: "We will not be forgotten. We will not be put behind. We have awakened." That is the raw message of the youth-driven Idle No More movement as well. It is a demand for justice that political leaders should take to heart.

Spence's fast was controversial. Skeptics question how much she really accomplished, apart from a hurried, firefighting meeting on Jan. 11 between Harper, Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo and other chiefs. Many Canadians take a dim view of Idle No More and doubt her fast will have lasting impact. A critical audit of Attawapiskat's books didn't help.

Moreover, the AFN very nearly split as Spence and younger voices defiantly challenged traditional negotiating methods. But divisive or not, this was a cry of anguish that cannot be ignored.

Canada's treatment of 1.7 million First Nations people is a national scandal that demands urgent action. We've seen mass rallies on Parliament Hill, in cities across the country and disruption along rail lines and highways. A crisis is brewing that threatens Ottawa's plans to exploit $600 billion in natural resources on or around native lands.

The ambitious 13-point declaration by the NDP, Liberals and AFN that formally ended Spence's fast is designed to keep up the pressure when Parliament resumes. It reaffirms Spence's call for a meeting with Harper, Johnston and the chiefs. It seeks a better funding deal from Ottawa, starting with investments in housing, schooling and native languages. It seeks a "meaningful consultation" on federal legislation that impinges on native interests and rights. It calls on provinces and territories to share resource revenues and seeks an inquiry into violence against women.

It is a checklist for a healthier relationship between Canada's governments and indigenous people. For that, Chief Spence deserves her share of credit and respect.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2013 A10

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