Media Coverage of Chief Theresa Spence and Idle No More Winter 2012-13

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.

December 28, 2012 Edmonton Alberta

December 28, 2012 Edmonton Alberta

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. 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.

Newspaper Articles:

Coren, Michael “Chief Theresa Spence and Attawapiskat Exposed” Sun News Network January 3, 2013

Driscoll, Kent “Chief Spence meets the spin cycleAPTN 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 hypocriticalVancouver 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 TorontoNational 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 TaxationHuffington Post, December 13, 2011


Further Resources:

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


Idle No More

December 28, 2012 Edmonton Alberta

December 28, 2012 Edmonton Alberta

Idle No More, a grassroots protest originating in Canada and founded by four Indigenous and non-Indigenous women in early October, began to capture national and international attention by December 2012. The founders, Sheelah McLean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam and Jess Gordon hail from Saskatchewan, a Canadian province with a longstanding history of both Indigenous protest (such as Louis Riel) and progressive politics (it’s the birthplace of both the radical Saskatchewan Women Grain Growers and Canadian medicare).

The Saskatchewan four began offering local “teach ins,” a tactic dating at least to the 1960s, to foster resistance to the federal Conservative Government’s omnibus Bill C 45 (2012).  This “unilateral and paternalistic” (1) piece of legislation seriously threatens Canadian environmental protections and Indigenous control of reserve lands, in effect a direct violation of Treaty agreements that are the legal and moral foundation for the Canadian state. By passing Bill C-45, as well as seven other pieces of legislation, without proper consultation with Indigenous peoples, the Conservative Party (with a mandate from less than 40% of voters in the last federal election) violated Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Vancouver, December 21 2012

Vancouver, December 21 2012

Analysis of Idle No More reveals three key issues, namely grassroots democracy, treaties between Canada and Indigenous nations, and Indigenous sovereignty.  These causes remain at the heart of an escalating movement, although it now goes far beyond one prairie province in Canada and is gaining support in United States, New Zealand and Australia.   The very name, ‘Idle No More’, chosen by the four leaders, promises a popular awakening in the spirit of the slightly earlier but contemporaneous Occupy Movement with its invocation of the no longer silent ‘99%’.

Arguing that Bill C 45 threatens not only Indigenous peoples but the environmental heritage of all Canadians, Idle No More activists employed social media to spread the message of potential disaster.  After declaring 10th December 2012 as a National Day of Solidarity, the movement expanded rapidly to include rallies, marches and protest in places as diverse as Texas, Hawaii, New Zealand and London, UK.  Its message of environmental solidarity proved especially powerful in the context of growing evidence of the dire effects of climate change (Superstorm Sandy had only recently devastated the east coast of North America for example) and poor environmental stewardship (Canada’s federal government for example has been busily dismantling critical research capacity on the environment).


Vancouver, December 21, 2012

Vancouver, December 21, 2012

Within short months of its founding, Idle No More has been characterized by diverse supporters and demonstrations. Especially notable is the presence of women as leaders and participants. Indigenous youth and their allies are also taking leadership roles in organizing and demonstrating. A skillful and immediate use of new social media reflects a generational shift in global protest. Events such as round dance “flashmobs” in shopping centres and active twitter feeds are very much of the 21st century even as blockades of rail lines and transportation routes running through Indigenous territories and of Canada-US border crossings, are tactics that date to the 19th century building of  Canadian railways through Indigenous lands.  In the spirit of Gandhi, Idle No More has remained resolutely non-violent. As of January 2013, its disruption of the economy has also been minimal.

As Idle No More grew, founders distanced the movement from the National Chiefs of the over-whelmingly male Assembly of First Nations (AFN). Committed to grassroots mobilization, they issued a statement thanking individual chiefs for support but reiterating determination to work outside of “systems of government.” This plan of action includes supporting local education forums, building relationships with partners across Canada and internationally, including the United Nations, and supporting creative acts of Indigenous resurgence and allied support. Such strategies resonate directly with the founding inspiration of the populist Occupy movement.

In December 2012, Idle No More became inextricably linked with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, just in sight of the federal Parliament Buildings. The leader of a small Indigenous community, which had been in the news for over a year after she declared a state of emergency because of food and housing shortages in 2011, began her hunger strike on December 11th to demand that the prime minister and the governor-general honour treaty obligations and address the systematic failure to deal justly with First Nations. Revealing longstanding tensions within Indigenous communities, Chief Spence, asked the Saskatchewan founders to cease ‘shaming’ the chiefs, “who are, after all, our people” and to unite in opposing the Harper government (2).  The Idle No More leaders did not respond directly but reiterated the movement’s commitment to work outside systems of government.

Until January 4th 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper preserved a familiar hard-line in dealing with opposition. In contrast, many politicians and public figures, including Green Party Leader and M.P. Elizabeth May, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo, Liberal leader Bob Rae, longtime feminist activist Judy Rebick, and contender for the Liberal leadership, Justin Trudeau, issued statements of support.  Rebick’s has provided some of the most progressive commentary on Spence and Idle No More, and Trudeau took to twitter, distributing an Idle No More information pamphlet written by Indigenous scholar Taiaiake Alfred and PhD student Tobold Rollo. At least as important was the huge response by social justice organizations, including Amnesty International, Lawyers Rights Watch Canada, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Seemingly sensitive to widening support,  Harper suddenly agreed to meet with First Nations leaders, including Chief Spence, on January 11th.

The response to the Idle No More movement from the Canadian public has been deeply polarized. While many Settlers of diverse origins have supported the cause, others misunderstand and fear the movement. With some exceptions, the mainstream media has used Idle No More as an opportunity to mobilize pervasive racist stereotypes. This includes National Post, Globe and Mail and Toronto Star journalist Christie Blatchford, who went so far as calling Indigenous political movements “horse manure” and questioning the legitimacy of Indigenous cultural survival and resilience. Racism is also visible in twitter feeds and newspaper comments sections which clearly believe that Indigenous communities have failed to take up the opportunities offered by the modern liberal project and which ignore its recurring privileging of European males (on liberalism’s shortcomings see David Moscrop).

In contrast, some observers have offered more nuanced and sophisticated responses, connecting Idle No More to a complex and diverse Indigenous renaissance and allied political movements of recent decades (see further sources). As scholar and member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Glen Coulthard concluded, Idle No More is part of the same heritage of Native resistance, namely Cree Chief Elijah Harper’s 1990 filibuster of the Meech Lake Accord, the 1990 Oka conflict between the Canadian military and Kanesatake Mohawk, and the struggle of the Lubicon Cree against oil and gas development in Alberta, which forced Canada to establish the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1991.

The phenomenon of Idle No More suggests that many Indigenous people and their supporters no longer believe the promises or the leadership of official representatives, whether chiefs or governments. It also exemplifies the significance of female leadership in many Indigenous communities and the continuing inspiration for feminist engagements. Idle No More’s call for decolonization puts it in direct conflict with the neo-liberal political agenda embodied in Bill C 45 with its prioritization of global resource exploitation, indifference to environmental degradation, willful disregard for founding Treaty relations and denigration of local democracy.

Please note that Idle No More is a rapidly changing movement. As such, this post reflect the situation when published on January 8th, 2013.


1) Idle No More: Press Release

2) “Attawapiskat Chief Spence urges idle No More to unite with leadership, says chiefs ready to ‘humble themselves’”, APTN National News, 2 Jan. 2013.

For background on the founders:

Peter Wilson, “First Nations’ culture shared by Sask. Author”, The Star Phoenix (8 March 2010) on Sylvia McAdam, who holds a law degree and is a member of the Big River First Nation and author of Cultural Teachings: First Nations Protocols and Methodologies.

Leah Davidson, “’Indian head’ logo raises controversy in Saskatoon,” Canadian University Press, 7 November, 2011, on Sheelah McLean, “a doctoral student at the U of S and a Saskatoon public school teacher”.

For further academic sources, please see “Defining Settler Colonialism


Further Information on Idle No More

Idle No More Official Blog

Canada’s indigenous movement gains momentum,” Al Jazeera, 2 Jan. 2013

Further Commentary on Idle No More

Alfred, Taiaiake and Tobold Rollo, “Resetting and Restoring the Relationship Between Indigenous Peoples and Canada” (December 19)

âpihtawikosisân, “The natives are restless. Wondering why?” December 11, 2012

âpihtawikosisân, “Idle No More: Where do we go from here?” December 26, 2012

Coulthard, Glen “#IdleNoMore in Historical Context,”  Janurary 7, 2013

Moscrop, David. “Chief Theresa Spence may fall victim to liberalism’s blind spots,” Globe and Mail, 4 Jan. 2013.

Rebick, Judy. “Idle No More, a Profound Movement that is Already succeeding” January 8, 2013

Simpson, Leanne “Aambe! Maajaadaa! (What #IdleNoMore Means to Me)”, December 21, 2012

Walia, Harsha “Debunking Blatchford and other anti-Native ideologues on Idle No More” December 30, 2012

 Resources for Settler Allies

Irlbacher-Fox, Stephanie. “#IdleNoMore: Settler Responsibility for Relationship” December 27, 2012

Rollo, Tobold. “I AM CANADIAN! (Because of treaties with Indigenous Nations)” January 1, 2012

Sjoberg, Kate. “I am a Settler

Walia, Harsha “Decolonizing TogetherBriarpatch Magazine, January 1 2012

The Multiple Sites of Indigenous Resistance

Political mobilization occurs in different sites. Canada’s Indigenous populations both resist within Canadian state structures and outside or against state laws and institutions. They may also do both.  The choice of where to mobilize, and the implications and limits of those choices, persists as a central challenge for members of Indigenous communities.

The noted Indigenous theorist and Bear Clan Mohawk member, Taiaiake Alfred, argues that  “the most important and immediate imperative” of the Canadian settler project “is to assimilate indigenous peoples culturally” (2005, 56). The only effective response is an anti-imperial struggle grounded in indigenous cultural resilience.

Idle No More Rally, Vancouver, Dec 21 2012

Idle No More Rally, Vancouver, Dec 21 2012

He argues that practices of resistance must  “transcend colonial culture and institutions” (2005, 23). The first target should not be the Canadian state. Indigenous politics need to locate political practice outside and against colonial institutions. The initial goal should be the creation of a distinctly indigenous political base that builds resilience. This may include working within communities to revitalize language and cultural practices through “language nests” or actively building connections between generations through cultural education. Such strategies are essential for future vitality and resilience.

Alfred’s focus on centering political practices within Indigenous communities stems from his conclusion that “how you fight determines who you will become when the battle is over” (2005, 23). From this perspective using Canadian institutions will not result in practices that honour indigenous politics; politics will instead will be defined, determined and practiced according to the law of the colonial state. Leading Indigenous intellectual Andrea Smith has further argued that indigenous political action must include the creation of “organizations, movements and communities that model the world we are trying to create” (2007, 106). Alfred and Smith’s perspectives invoke the message of Audre Lord that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984).

However, Alfred’s is not the only position taken by Aboriginal scholars and activists. Others argue that because Canadian state institutions and laws are never going to disappear, it is important to engage effectively with state institutions. One indigenous advocate of this strategy is Dartmouth university professor and Teme-Augama Anishnabai, Dale Turner. Turner says that indigenous traditional forms of knowledge must be understood “in relation to the legal and political discourses of the dominant culture(2006, 98).He argues that if Aboriginal peoples want to argue that “differences ought to matter in the political relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state, they will have to engage the Canadian state’s legal and political discourses in more effective ways” (2006, 5).

According to Turner and others, while the Canadian state may be limited, the institutions and legal framework carry a great deal of power for good or bad. It may be possible to use the ‘master’s tools’ to gain particular political rights and move towards equality. Thus, state institutions and law should be employed to forward the interests of Indigenous peoples.

One example of working within the Canadian institutions is employing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to challenge gender discrimination in the Indian Act. Prior to 1985 the Indian Act, rooted in traditions of European patriarchy, assigned First Nations women the same status as their father or husband. In other words, the Indian Act imposed a model of European legal patriarchy (Irving). When they married, non-status men they lost legal Indian status and rights. In equivalent situations, men did not. The 1982 adoption of the Charter gave a legal foundation within the Canadian court system to challenge this clear gender discrimination. Challenges produced useful, if modest, gains. Joyce Green, professor of Political Science at the University of Regina and of English and of Ktunaxa and Cree-Scot Metis descent, argues that while changes to the Canadian Constitution have not “erased the consequences of state-sponsored sex and race discrimination and colonialism, constitutional changes have gone some distance to identifying these matters and creating legally enforceable rights” (141). For example, scholars Bonita Lawrence and Andrea Smith both argue that gendered oppression is fundamental to colonial dispossession and marginalization. Although the gains made by Indigenous women are significant, there are the limits to the legal route of political transformation. Thus, resistance to oppression has often advanced on multiple levels.

There are three key critiques of working within the state institutions. First, Canadian state institutions are by their nature not Indigenous and therefore, cannot fully consider or include the complexity and diversity of Indigenous political and legal thought. Second, working within Canadian state institutions may ‘infect’, mutate or otherwise influence the Indigenous thinking and acting to conform to the values of the state. The third argument is that working within the Canadian state institutions will not transform the political relationship between Indigenous peoples and Settlers.

This debate about working within and without existing state governance shows no sign of resolution. Indigenous scholars, activists, and others are engaged in a longstanding and familiar struggle about how to engineer equality that while honouring the potential and the reality of difference.


Work Cited:

Alfred, T. (2005). Wasase. Ontario: Broadview Press, Ltd.

Green, J. (2007). Balancing Strategies: Aboriginal Women and Constitutional Rights in Canada. In J. Green (Ed.), Making Space for Indigenous Feminism (pp. 140–159). Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Irving, Helen. (2012). “When Women Were Aliens: The Neglected History of Derivative Marital Citizenship,” Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 12/47,

Lawrence, B. (2003). Gender , Race , and the Regulation Native Identity in Canada and the United States : An Overview. Hypatia, 18(2), 3–31.

Lorde, Audre. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. California: Crossing Press.

Smith, A. (2007). Native American Feminism, Sovereignty and Social Change. In J. Green (Ed.), Making Space for Indigenous Feminism (pp. 93–107). Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Turner, D. (2006). This is not a peace pipe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Further Reading:

Alfred, T., & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism. Government and Opposition, 40(4), 597–602.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. University of Otago Press.