(9 September, 1943- 26 January, 2013)
Daurene Lewis scored important “firsts,” including the title of Canada’s first female Black mayor. Her favourite quotation was from Rosemary Brown, Canada’s first Black female member of a provincial legislature: “Remember you are twice blessed … you’re Black and you’re a woman.” (McRae). Her lifetime resonated with protest against injustice.
Born in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia in 1943, her family proudly claimed descent from Black Loyalists who settled in Canada after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Upon graduation from high school, she trained as a nurse, worked in Toronto and Yarmouth, and taught at Dalhousie University. Later she ran her own weaving and design business and earned a Master of Business Administration from Halifax’s St Mary’s University. She was also director of the Centre for Women in Business at Canada’s women’s university, Mount Saint Vincent, a board member of the Vanier Institute for the Family and chaired the Africville Heritage Trust to address the loss of Halifax’s north-end Black community. At her death she was principal for the Nova Scotia Community College.
Her family history provided a firm foundation for achievement. She never questioned that she would be attending university after completing high school. The National Film Board documentary Black Mother Black Daughter (1989) portrayed a woman who was determined to get all the education she could. Lewis never married and had no children. She offered a humorous explanation for those choices, suggesting that if she had taken a planned trip to Europe with two high-school friends, she might have returned with a husband as they did (Sage).
Like many other women, single or married, Lewis dedicated herself to care-giving, both for her mother and in the public sphere. Her desire to care for her ailing mother prompted her return home from Toronto when she was between nursing jobs. It also offered her an opportunity to take up the family tradition of weaving. This in turn led to her second career as a textile artist and entrepreneur.
Lewis also took up a political career, first serving on the Annapolis Royal Town Council in 1979. Three years later, she was appointed deputy mayor. In 1984 she won the top job, marking her as both the province’s first Black mayor and the first Black woman elected to such a position in Canada. In 1988, her unsuccessful bid to join the House of Assembly as a Liberal made her the first woman and African-Canadian to run for such office in Nova Scotia.
Lewis remained wary of defining her political career only by notable “firsts.” Shortly after her election, she told Nova Scotia’s Herald Chronicle that she just wanted to be known as a good civic official “not a good lady mayor or a good black lady mayor.” At that time, there were only 13 Black residents in Annapolis Royale. As she explained in 1989, “the black vote did not put me in” (Lightstone).
Despite such denials, the racial and gendered dimensions of her victories remain remarkable: they represent a significant shift in Canadian social and political practices. Lewis was born only a few years before Black women could register in the province’s nursing schools. She was three years old when Viola Desmond (1914-1965) made history by refusing a segregated seat in a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia (Backhouse), and ten when school segregation ended in her province. Although a prominent and productive member of his community, Lewis’ father could never get his hair cut in a local barber shop (Lightstone). Political welcome was similarly slow across Canada. Not until 1968 did Ontario Conservative Lincoln Alexander became Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament and not until 1972 was New Democrat Rosemary Brown elected on the west coast. Nova Scotia lacked a Black legislator until 1993 (the Liberal, Wayne Adams).
When not in office, Lewis remained an active member of the community. Her explanation set out her philosophy: “Involvement on boards, commissions and advisory councils allows me to have input that will help shape policy and practice. Too many of us are limited by societal convention and geographical perspectives to live life to the fullest. I want people to feel valued, happy and excited about their very existence.” (McRae). She served as Chair of the Africville Heritage Trust Board, which aimed to restore some of the iconic community that had fallen to bulldozers and racism in the 1960s. In 1993 she received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Mount Saint Vincent University. Two years later, she accepted the United Nations Global Citizenship award. In 2002 she became a Member of the Order of Canada and was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.
Lewis’ path from a daughter whose father could not receive basic services to a distinguished citizen captured Canada’s slowly shifting attitude to racial prejudice. Her life also confirmed the value of individual action. As she said, “If I could teach one thing to the next generation, it would be that no one should accept the status quo” (McRae).
Backhouse, Constance. Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 . Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Hamilton, Sylvia and Claire Preito. Black Mother, Black Daughter National Film Board of Canada, 1989
Lightstone, Michael. “Respected Trailblazer Daurene Lewis Dies,” January 27, 2013
Mahoney, Jill. “Mayor was a trailblazer for black women,” Globe and Mail, January 27, 2013.
McRae, Ricardo. “Dr. Daurene Lewis,” Who’s Who in Black Canada, Accessed April 5, 2013
Sage, Amanda. “Dr. Daurene Lewis, nurse-educator-politician-catalyst” August 17, 2011.
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
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater (Mi’kmaq), member of the Eel River Bar First Nation, is a prominent lawyer and activist for the rights of Indigenous people and nations. During the 2012 leadership race for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Palmater challenged incumbent Sean Atleo, in hopes of becoming the first woman to lead the assembly.
Palmater is chair of Indigenous Governance and an associate professor in Ryerson University’s department of Politics and Public Administration. She is the academic director of the university’s Centre for Indigenous Governance. Prior to her academic career, Palmater worked at Justice Canada and for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. In 1998, she was called to the bar in New Brunswick. She received her doctorate in the Science of Law from Dalhousie University in 2009.
Until 2011, Palmater did not have full membership in her family’s first nation. Her grandmother married a non-Aboriginal person, which made Palmater ineligible for status until recent changes in the law under Bill C-3. She maintains the Indigenous Nationhood website. Her doctoral work focused on Indigenous nation membership, the Indian act and issues of status. Her thesis, Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity, was published by Purich in 2011.
Palmater’s AFN campaign sparked a great deal of interest and became a hot topic of conversation on social media, particularly amongst Aboriginal youth. She called for more involvement of the grassroots in the AFN and was a strong critic of Atleo’s approach to working with the Conservative government. Palmater’s platform was also critical of what she sees as assimilationist policies undertaken by the current government. She called for first nations to gain a bigger share of the wealth from natural resources on their territories and for Canada to honour the agreements it has made with Aboriginal nations.
“Everyone talks about resetting the relationship. There’s nothing to reset. The treaty relationship is there. We just now have to get Canada to live up to its part of the bargain.”
During the campaign, Palmater also talked about the need to call a “state of emergency” to address housing issues in some first nations communities.
Prior to her AFN leadership bid, Palmater had never served as chief of a first nation. Palmater finished second to Atleo in the Assembly of First Nations race, with 141 votes in the third round of ballots to his 341.
Lawrence, B. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).
Palmater, P. Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity. Saskatoon: Purich Publishing, 2011.
Palmater, P. “Stretched Beyond Human Limits: Death by Poverty in First Nations.” Canadian Review of Social Policy/Revue Canadienne de Politique Social 65/66 (2011): 112-127.