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Sin and redemption

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

Definition of SIN:
a : an offense against religious or moral law
b : an action that is or is felt to be highly reprehensible

It’s this time of year when Christians celebrate a holiday rooted in the notion that 2,000 years ago Jesus died atop a cross near Jerusalem to absolve them of their sins.

For Canadians there is an ironic twist this holiday season, however, as somebody is dying for Canada’s sins in a teepee on Victoria Island at this very moment.

Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat Nation is in the 16th day of a hunger strike against the Canadian government, calling for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to meet with her and other aboriginal leaders to discuss the desperate plight and living conditions of Aboriginal Peoples throughout the country.

Irish roots, worldwide last resort

It’s disturbing to see some anti-aboriginal commentators dismiss her hunger strike as a pressure tactic. It is, but the hunger strike has a strong symbolic root in western culture, deeply embedded in Irish heritage. When all else had failed, as a last resort any free person who felt they had been wronged, and that the prevailing justice system had failed them, would sit down on the doorstep of the person who had wronged them and fast. Hospitality was a core concept in traditional Irish culture, and the notion that you would allow somebody to die of hunger on your own doorstep was viewed with abject horror: allowing that to happen would shame you in the eyes of your neighbours and stain the character of your household beyond recovery.

The practice has been adopted as a desperate last measure by those seeking peaceful means to change systems of injustice in the 20th century, from the Irish hunger strikers against British military activities in Ireland, to South Africans struggling for freedom from apartheid in their own country. In each case, the principle is the same: to be willing to starve oneself indicates the desperate end of a struggle for justice, and any person or institution which would allow that to happen would be so morally vacuous that their inaction would deprive them of any moral, social or political legitimacy.

And that, to this moment, has been the Harper government.

A Canadian tragedy

The tragedy of the Harper government’s inaction on First Nation and aboriginal concerns, and on Chief Spence’s hunger strike, must be considered in an international context because we are dealing, fundamentally, with relations between two groups of peoples and their respective nations: aboriginals and non-aboriginals in Canada. These relations are [supposed to be] governed by treaties, and it is the failure of the Canadian government to uphold those treaties which is being protested.

Protestors in St. John's show their solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence and the Idle No More movement on Dec. 21.
Protestors in St. John’s show their solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence and the Idle No More movement on Dec. 21. Photo by Justin Brake

The inaction is being protested by means of such desperate measures because of the deep power imbalance between these two peoples and nations; the Canadian government has all the cards, so to speak, so when they decide to ignore the treaties or to fail to adequately fulfill their obligations, and when Aboriginal Peoples cannot rely on the honour and good faith of the Canadian government to uphold its side of centuries-old treaty obligations, there is little they can do beside turn to the desperate measures called for by increasingly desperate times. In the case of Chief Spence that means being willing to lay her life on the line.

It is a true measure of leadership to be willing to do so, and renders doubly shameful the inaction of the Canadian ‘leader’ who has failed to respond. It is also inexplicable. When leaders call for assistance in desperate circumstances, it is not without precedent for nations – Canada foremost among them – to respond. Indeed, only a couple of days after Chief Spence began her hunger strike, the Canadian government offered millions of dollars in emergency assistance to the Philippines to help that nation deal with conditions arising from the recent typhoon. Same with disasters in other parts of the world, or even within our own borders. There are circumstances which are so desperate that they require extraordinary action to bring them under control.

Unacceptable irony

It is no different in this situation. The embarrassment is that the veritable disaster which is living conditions in aboriginal communities has not been the product of a sudden storm or hurricane or typhoon, but rather a process of ongoing neglect and failure to uphold treaty obligations. It has reached a crisis, and those subjected to such conditions are suffering and dying – as symbolized by Chief Spence’s willingness to put her own life on the line to try to save those of her people. This is true leadership, and the cowardly and irresponsible reaction of the Canadian government belies what weak and morally vacuous leaders we are saddled with. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is watching with horror as a country that purports to play a leadership role in the ‘first world’ of industrialized nations is casting a blind eye as growing numbers of Aboriginal Peoples live – and die – in ‘third world’ conditions, and with no apparent urgent effort to stop the spreading crisis.

It is also deeply hypocritical that at a time when Stephen Harper is presumably sitting in a church reaffirming his faith with a Messiah he believes died for his sins, he is single-handedly responsible for the fate of a woman who is dying on behalf of her people for the sins of the Canadian government. Meanwhile, Harper hides in the background, seeking to wash his hands of any responsibility for aboriginal affairs, like a modern-day Pontius Pilate.

It would behoove all Christians to reflect on the horrible, tragic irony of the circumstance, and to take a few moments of the time they dedicate to their worship, to send a message to their government as well.

For comprehensive coverage of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement in Canada, visit the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) online.

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