By Kelsey Wrightson
In the winter of 2012-13 the Canadian media accelerated its coverage of Indigenous peoples, largely in response to the actions of one individual and one movement. The first was Chief Theresa Spence, who had first been elected chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario in August 2010; the second were the Idle No More protests that originated in Saskatchewan in December 2010. At its best, media coverage provides an important forum for public education and discussion, a key foundation for the healthy functioning of democracy. However, coverage of Chief Spence and Idle No More provoked both backlash and debate.
Chief Spence first came to prominent media attention in the fall of 2011 when poor housing conditions on her reserve drove her to declare a state of emergency. On December 11, 2012, Chief Spence re-emerged in Canadian news headlines when she went on a 44 day long hunger strike to highlight the desperate conditions at Attawapiskat and elsewhere on Turtle Island. In particular, she requested a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston (the representative of the Crown) to discuss Canada’s treaties and the obligations of a nation-to-nation relationship.
Spence’s initiative occurred at two critical junctions. First, it emerged in the context of the government’s continuing rejection of both the recommendations of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and the principles of the Kelowna Accord (2005) agreed upon by the previous Liberal administration. Second, Spence’s hunger strike took place just after the grass-roots protest movement, Idle No More, had begun to highlight both widespread racism in the Canadian political and social system, and the shortcomings of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Canadian state-sanctioned leadership mandated through the Indian Act.
Since her emergence on a Canada-wide stage, Chief Spence has faced serious media scrutiny. In itself, this is hardly surprising. A healthy democracy requires persistent investigation by journalists. All public leaders should be subject to the same examination, and all administrations should be held responsible for financial mismanagement. In this instance, however, much of the Canadian media appear to have promoted and joined in a chorus of denunciation and personal assault. In the process, any sense of history, especially the history of colonialism, went conspicuously missing.
In their fascination with the supposed flaws of their targets, some journalists deserted their posts as critical guardians of a well-functioning democracy. Rather than investigating the specifics of Chief Spence’s political messages or examining the structures that led to the conflicts within Canada’s Indigenous communities and between them and the federal government, many commentators in both the “mainstream” media and alternative social media forums such as Twitter, Facebook and blog sites resorted to gendered and racialized stereotypes.
The media’s coverage of Chief Spence is disturbing. When it was learned that Spence was taking fluids and traditional medicines in the form of tea and fish broth, her action was downgraded to a “so called” hunger strike. Although the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers (1991) states that clear liquids can be consumed during a hunger strike, the media court largely decided otherwise. Further dismissals referred to her “liquids only diet” and questioned the danger to her health. Michael Coran of Sun media invoked a cultural (and often racist as well as sexist) ideal in prefacing his disparaging comments by saying “I mean no disrespect- but this is a heavy woman.” He was not alone in focusing on Spence’s physical appearance whle largely ignoring her political message. Sun Newspaper columnist Ezra Levant tweeted “Tomorrow is Day 40 in Chief Snackalot’s hunger strike. She still weights a deuce, deuce and a half.” The same network held a contest for descriptions of Chief Spence. The published results included “fat, oink, garbage, chief two-chins, and Stop sucking Lysol.” Only certain kinds of people, with particular kinds of bodies are effectively credited with endangering themselves on hunger strikes. Nor was this all. Another Sun reporter further trivialized her protest by targeting “Theresa Spence’s mood swings.” Like many others of her sex, she was effectively deemed biologically predisposed to be unreliable.
The repeated dismissal of Chief Spence’s fast reveals the media’s pervasive ignorance of Indigenous ways of life. As Leanne Simpson has highlighted, fish soup serves as a key signifier in Anishinaabeg history and governance. The designation of Chief Spence’s fast as a “liquid diet” originates in a modern western discourse of enormous privilege. For her community, fish broth serves instead as a potent symbol of hardship and sacrifice: the yoke of “colonialism” left little else but watery soup for “generations upon generations.” Much like the potato symbolized physical and cultural suffering in British ruled Ireland, fish broth is both a metaphorical and literal invocation of the starvation experienced by colonized peoples in Canada.
Chief Spence also become the primary media target of accusations of financial mismanagement of Attawapiskat funds. While the independent audit by Deloitte and Touche reveals shortcomings, it does not directly condemn the chief. The National Post, however, typically singled her out with its headline “Federal Government audit ‘severely critical’ of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. ” Most media chose to ignore the joint responsibility for spending and the fact that Spence was chief in only one of the five years audited. Such assessment left the public prey to ready prejudices about the supposed extravagance and mismanagement of both Indigenous people and women.
Racist and gendered stereotypes went well beyond Spence herself. Social media forums have attacked contemporary Indigenous protest generally, notably Idle No More. In a typical example, one Twitter user claimed non-racism even as he repeatedly invoked old arguments that justified imperial occupation: “You see that’s the problem with a good percentage of F[irst] N[ations] there (sic) uneducated and know very little about what’s really going on in the world.” Particularly worrying have been threats of violence. When a human skull was found north of Toronto, National Post readers responded with “jokes” about Chief Spence. One twitter user posted photos of his gun and ammunition when he insisted that no blockade would stop him getting to work. The Winnipeg Free Press had to delete numerous abusive comments from its coverage of both the movement and the hunger strike. One editorial by Matt Henderson concluded that much of the outpouring was “so offensive that one wonders where this hatred comes from. The comments attack indigenous people in this country because of who they are and what they look like.” Even his outrage, however, did not deter observers determined to flaunt their distain for Indigenous people.
The efforts of the Winnipeg Free Press demonstrate the existence of an alternative, more respectful point of view. A few mainstream journalists have taken their colleagues to task. Of particular note is Stephen Hume of the Vancouver Sun. His column on 25 January challenged rampant hypocrisy in the treatment of Attawapiskat spending. Perhaps still more important are the ways that Twitter and Facebook have hosted diverse discussion and practices of ‘speaking back to power.’ On Twitter, a user employing the hashtag #Ottawapiskat brilliantly took official Ottawa to task in a devastating portrait of ill-spent millions, including the apparently doomed F-35’s. Elsewhere, the commonly progressive Huffington Post Canada has republished critical blogs, most notably a detailed breakdown of Attawapiskat funding by Chelsea Vowel. Rabble.ca has also supplied alternative perspectives that address the historical context of colonization and systemic racism and sexism.
Unfortunately, this alternate discourse still struggles for space. Given the racism and sexism, detailed in the recent Missing Women Commission of Inquiry reports (November 22, 2012), this is not surprising. The coverage of Chief Spence and Idle No More cannot be disconnected from a history of oppression. Until more of Canada’s press does its homework in investigating relations between Native and non-Native Canada, the legacy of colonialism will hobble Canadian democracy.
Coren, Michael “Chief Theresa Spence and Attawapiskat Exposed” Sun News Network January 3, 2013
Driscoll, Kent “Chief Spence meets the spin cycle” APTN January 4, 2013
Henderson, Matt “Idle No More commenters could use some lessons in critical thinking,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 19, 2013
Hume, Stephen “Finger-pointing at Attawapiskat more than a little hypocritical” Vancouver Sun, January 25, 2013
MacCharles, Tonda “Federal government audit ‘severely critical’ of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence,” The Star, January 7, 2013
Morrison, Kristopher “Human skull found on highway on-ramp north of Toronto” National Post, January 14, 2013
Piapot, Ntawnis, “Racial Tensions rise along the edges of Idle No More Rallies” January 3, 2013
Simpson, Leanne “Fish Broth and Fasting,” Divided No More, January 16, 2013
Taylor-Vaisey, Nick, “What is Known about Chief Spence,” Macleans, January 10, 2013
Vowel, Chelsea “The Idiot’s Guide to First Nations Taxation” Huffington Post, December 13, 2011
Ipsos Reid Poll “Fast Fallout: Chief Spence and Idle No More Movement Galvanizes Canadians Around Money Management and Accountability” January 15, 2013
National Film Board, “People of Kattawappiskak River” 2012