As the Idle No More movement and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike gain notoriety across Canada and the world, criticism of the two events and questions about their legitimacy are on the rise. A leaked report suggest that Spence’s isolated northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat has failed to properly account for millions of dollars in government funding between 2005 and 2011. This has created considerable criticism of Spence and of Idle No More.
In October 2011 Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency, saying that poor housing had become too dangerous as the temperature began to drop. Appalled, Canadians blamed the horrible conditions experienced by the native inhabitants of Attawapiskat on government inaction. Yet, following this leak, many are changing their minds and beginning to point fingers at Spence and other native leaders for causing the myriad of issues facing native communities in Canada through their incompetence and corruption. Leading questions like, ‘what is Chief Spence be hiding?’ or ‘how widespread is corruption amongst native leaders?’ are being posed in the media, seeking to discredit Chief Spence and Idle No More. One National Post contributor even went so far as to proclaim that, “$100 million dollars buys a lot of housing, sanitation and health care, even on the shores of James Bay.”
However, this viewpoint is clearly missing the point of both Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement. Idle No More’s stated purpose is “Indigenous rights and respect for the treaties… and stopping environmental degradation and economic/social inequality,” while Spence is seeking a meeting between the Prime Minister, Governor General, and Aboriginal leaders. Any administrative incompetence of native leaders is an issue that should be addressed. But, one only needs to look at the real issues facing the indigenous population of Canada to clearly see that they do not lie in any leadership’s corruption or incompetence.
Arguments being made against Spence and Idle No More — calling them “illegitimate in the wake of clear evidence of Chief Spence’s incompetency, or even criminality” — are using the recent leak as a means of distracting attention away from the legitimate claims of Idle No More and Spence. To suggest that improperly balanced books are the sole cause of the issues facing indigenous Canadians today is outrageous. In what way can this alleged incompetency be tied to, for example, the disappearance and murder of over 600 native women in Canada since 2000? How can the so called, “widespread corruption within indigenous Canadian leadership” be a causal factor in the endemic health issues facing indigenous communities, including mental illness, addiction, high rates of miscarriages, cancer, and tuberculosis?
Corruption and mismanagement exist in Canada at various levels of government — both in native and non-native communities. Maclean’s magazine called Montreal one of the most corrupt cities in Canada, yet for some reason Montrealers share next to none of the issues plaguing natives in many areas of Canada. The reality is that incompetence or corruption of native leadership are not the root of the issues facing indigenous Canadians. Many of these issues are, in reality, firmly rooted in a history of iniquitous treatment by the government of Canada — a government which kidnapped and abused native children in residential schools, denied natives their right to their traditional cultures and land, and entrenched racism into our police and justice system.
Those who point towards the spotty financial records of a single native community as a means of distracting attention away from the legitimate calls for justice are distracting attention away from legitimate issues, which must be addressed. Our longstanding refusal to treat indigenous Canadians equally, or with respect for their land and customs is the real root of the issues facing natives today. Spence may need to focus more time on properly administering her community’s finances, but this will not aid in repairing the legacy of injustice that Idle No More and Spence seek to repair.
Cameron Becker graduated from the University of Toronto in 2012.