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Attawapiskat First Nation chief Teresa Spence is not engaged in “terrorism,” as one Postmedia writer notoriously suggested last week. Terrorists blow themselves up. Ms. Spence, by contrast, is sitting in a snow-covered teepee on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River. Let’s not play the game of using the T-word to describe everyone we simply don’t like.
On the other hand, Ms. Spence isn’t a true “hunger striker” either, since she reportedly is drinking fish broth and various herbal potions. We don’t know how many calories she’s taking in on a daily basis, so we can’t discount the possibility that she really will starve herself to death. But she is not a true Bobby Sands-style hunger striker. Terminology is important, whether you’re talking about death by Semtex, or starvation.
Finally, Ms. Spence is not an icon of “grass roots” native rage — as some suggest. She is a band chief, with an office and salary paid for by regular Canadian taxpayers. Attawapiskat may be tiny and poor, but it has its own development corporation, airport, local services and homegrown management scandals. The band takes in millions from a local diamond mine. True “grass roots” organizations can only dream of such resources.
But even if Ms. Spence is not a terrorist, nor a true hunger striker, nor a genuine grass roots activist, I would argue that we still need to pay attention: The very real plight of Attawapiskat First Nation encapsulates everything that has gone wrong with aboriginal policy for generations.
“Idle No More,” the independent movement that Ms. Spence has helped to promote, calls on Canada to “live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship.” In the case of Attawapiskat, and the rest of Ontario’s Cree First Nations, the treaty in question would be the 1905 James Bay Treaty, also known as Treaty No. 9. The Attawapiskat Band of Cree — a versatile group of caribou- and goose-hunters, trappers, and fishers whose traditional roaming grounds extended beyond the Attawapiskat River, over a large swathe of James Bay’s northwestern shores and river systems — were brought under the treaty in 1930.
The century-old accounts of the government’s Treaty commissioners — Duncan Scott, Samuel Stewart and Daniel MacMartin — make for fascinating reading. In June, 1905, these men set out by canoe into the vast 90,000-square mile expanse of provincial lands drained by the Albany and Moose river systems, methodically traveling to isolated First Nations tribes one by one, such as Lac Seul, Osnaburg, Fort Albany and Moose Factory. Relying on local traders and missionaries who were fluent in Cree and Ojibway tongues, the commissioners methodically recorded the names of the 1,617 Indians they met, their discussions and rituals, and the amount of money they gave them to seal the Treaty.
(To a modern reader, it’s shocking how much these commissioners accomplished in a matter of mere months with a few canoes and a pot of cash. If this treaty-making exercise were performed today, by contrast, it would involve years and years of webcasted “stakeholders” sessions — all of which would come to naught when the Assembly of First Nations or some other group decided to boycott the proceedings on some pretext or other.)
The travel was exhausting, especially on portage. This is a region that remains remote and obscure even to this day. But the commissioners were dumbstruck by the beauty of the terrain. They also were impressed by the Indians they met, and their extraordinary facility with (what we would now call) outdoorsmanship: “It is considered worthy of record to remark on the vigorous and manly qualities displayed by these Indians throughout the negotiations. Although undoubtedly at times they suffer from lack of food owing to the circumstances under which they live, yet they appeared contented, and enjoy a certain degree of comfort.”
For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/01/03/jonathan-kay-to-understand-how-we-got-to-attawapiskat-go-back-to-the-1905-james-bay-treaty/