Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Newsmaker of the year - Chief Theresa Spence

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is the newsmaker of the year in Canada. She brought the third world reality of many remote First Nations to an international audience. Something that Native people have been living with for many years is now known to the world. It is thanks to Chief Theresa Spence who raised the issue to all our attention by declaring a state of emergency on the Attawapiskat Cree Nation. What many people don't know is that this was the third year in a row that a state of emergency had been declared. This was the first time anyone listened.

It was not quite the Arab Spring, but it was a story shared and influenced by new media, facebook, twitter and of course, youtube. It was the shaky cam video images that showed the shocking truth. The deplorable living conditions. And winter rolling in on the coast of the James Bay. The story couldn't be swept under the rug again. Not this time.

Chief Spence represented her community well as the heat was turned up. "Where did the $90 million go?" "It is mismanagement by the Chief." The federal government accused the community of creating the crisis under the leadership of Chief Spence. The comments pages of news site, the blogosphere and twitterverse were aflame with hatred and accusations. "Where is all our money going?" Such a wide swath of racism from all corners. Such anger.

Some of the commentary and editorialists were revelling in the same mud. "Why do they have Big Screen TVs?" Who asks this kind of question, why did I hear it more than once. It began to smell like a smear campain. "The Chief and Finance person are lovers. Hmm. Hmmm. Wink, wink. Nudge, Nudge. Know what I mean." What the hell was that? How could that come out during the coverage of this story. If you didn't get the sour whiff of a clumsy smear campaign at that point, you weren't paying attention. Attawapiskat was eventually linked to fricken' Moammar Ghadaffi for christ sakes. Ghadaffi and Attwapiskat, google that and see how many stories come up.

Chief Spence maintained her position, steadfast under the glare of the media, both welcome and unwelcome. When the Minister of Indian Affairs announced that Chief Spence had accepted third party management, Chief Spence called the minister on the lie and railed against the failure of third party management. The Minister of Indian Affairs, John Duncan couldn't stand the glare. He began to pause and stumble, wilting under the heat and the pressure. He had to be dragged away from the microphone on a number of occasions like a drunken uncle at a wedding.

It is no easy thing to speak out against powers that control every aspect of your life. It is not easy to bite that hand that feeds you. But when the other hand is beating you, it's no longer enough to bark. It is hard for anyone to understand how much communities are ruled with an iron fist. I recently spoke to a non-Aboriginal professional who has worked in remote First Nations for over a decade, he says, "if a community complains about woeful and inadequate funding the department of Indian Affairs threatens to put them in third party management."

Indian Affairs manages from a distance and with a whip. It is no easy thing to go up against. There may likely be ramifications for Chief Spence and Attawapiskat when the media eye has turned away.

Nevertheless, this year the little gal won. Chief Theresa Spence won a great victory. Chief Theresa Spence brought the issues of her community to the attention of the world. Chief Theresa Spence stood up to a heavy handed abusive federal government and won. Houses are being delivered.

Chief Theresa Spence, Attawapiskat Cree Nation, 2011 Newsmaker of the Year

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