The case of Theresa Spence and the barely spoken racism of Canadian media

The swift slide from unreasonable to mad

Claims of madness, mental illness, and the like, are often overt and gross, but it’s the subtle ones I wish to focus on below. Fine implications, understated insinuations, unspoken but firmly held convictions – that’s the real stuff of language, how it works when we are only barely paying attention. The recent media coverage of the ‘hunger strike’ of Theresa Spence and the related ‘new politics’ of First Nations in/with Canada (to the attentive reader the rub all lies in what is quickly indicated, the ironic hesitancy of the quote marks surrounding ‘events,’ the ambiguous slash between ‘in’ and ‘with’ in stating the new terrain of First Nations politics – more on that, i.e., an explanation, later).

The event that brings Spence to national prominence – the hunger strike, that is, that ended last Thursday (Jan. 24) – has itself been doubted by the media, euphemistically, sceptically eviscerated (as if such a thing could not, should not, happen in Canada). To pull the rug out from under her, I’d suggest. But think about it: doubting, even making fun of – by turning cups of fish broth into jokes, for example – someone who, on the face of it, has put her own life at risk. The political decision to risk one’s own death in order to protest existing conditions of life, to martyr oneself for a cause (has this word been attached, yet, to Spence?) makes us uncomfortable; so much so that refusal to admit what is going on will likely follow.

Between politics and psychiatry

Suicidal thinking and action as far as contemporary psychiatry is concerned are signs of mental illness (not only signs, but essential markers). The conflict between psychiatry and politics may not, it seems, be confined to the USSR of the old 20th century. I have not yet run across any explicit claims in major media outlets that Spence is mentally ill but subtle versions of the same abound. The world-historical phenomenon of political suicide is, at the same time, alive and well: as we see now in Canada, as we saw two years ago in the Tunisian self-immolation to which much of the Arab Spring is traced (not as cause but trigger), as we might be able to see in Tibet over the last four years (the same Globe and Mail newspaper of Jan. 23 announcing the likely end of Spence’s strike also carried a story with the telling title ‘Monks self-censoring about self-immolation‘ proclaiming that the 98th monk in four years had killed himself in political protest and quoted one monk among many actually willing to talk about the events as summing it up with the phrase: ‘You know, because of politics’).

The media coverage of Spence and the broader political actions of the First Nations, in my opinion – based on 30 years of critical observation of the media coverage of politics – has been the most patronizing, faux paternalistic, sanist, racist expression I have seen on public media in Canada (with some notable exceptions, namely the Lang and O’Leary Exchange, to which I am perversely, oddly loyal and which communicated good news because they obeyed a simple rule, namely: let those who you are speaking about speak. And so they had a First Nations speaker on their panel, which simple fact was forgotten or ignored by most of the other media panels and gossip shows).

Madness is brought onto the scene to take over whatever is politically uncomfortable and deemed politically impossible.

How did major Canadian media cover the hunger strikers (for Spence is/was not the only one) and their political demands? The great swift slide from barely reasonable to obviously irrational and the unstated but implied ‘childish’ and ‘mad.’ That’s my general proposal. Accusations of mad, crazy, insane, etc. take many forms. The coupling of mad and childish fits well with racism: the slurs belittle but with a gentle, paternalistic patina (as if the person insulting you were saying, under their breath, ‘but we know you cannot help it, you poor child – go play and come back when you’ve grown up’).

What’s my case? Besides the questioning of Spence’s character and the jokes about fish broth, the nub of the open criticism of the political events was that Spence and others following her demands were just clueless: unreasonable in a startlingly naive and unrealistic way. Politics and madness move closely together here – that is, madness is brought onto the scene to take over whatever is politically uncomfortable and deemed politically impossible. The premise of the comments/reporting was that Spence and other ‘extreme’ First Nations voices were politically unreasonable and thus showed the pointlessness of the political action and the bankruptcy and poor, endangered status of ‘the indian’.

Shaping the story

I have so far skirted around describing the ‘political event.’ How the media and other political actors describe and define events affects the events themselves – that’s why this is important. Let me try my description: a major, radical uprising of life and death proportions by First Nations people and associations with various critical demands focused on the constitutional process of recognizing First Nations as nations. The constitutional, national dimension of the uprising is a threat to Canadian national sovereignty and interests (primarily natural resource revenue, territory, and self-determination).

How the media and other political actors describe and define events affects the events themselves – that’s why this is important.

Spence and others demanded a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Governor General and, to keep the story shortish, there were disagreements concerning who wanted what and how much. This was the terrain on which many media outlets began to sort out the reasonable from the unreasonable. The PM’s willingness to change his schedule at short notice and meet with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leader was taken by most pundits as a sign of amazing political success by the AFN. To these outlets, the real political parties were obvious: the PM and the leader of the AFN. Politics, the implication goes, is all about political representatives (but so much so that we have forgotten they are representatives and act as if they are the only agents involved). So much for democracy, or so weak is the democratic spirit that it quickly reduces to a cult of leadership.

Spence’s, and others’, rejection of the meeting was, apparently, manifestly unreasonable. Let’s examine. Further, non-agreement among First Nations was seen as unfathomable and a blockage to the process. ‘The poor children scream at us but don’t even agree as to what they want.’ Let’s examine. Two issues to concentrate on: the apparent unreasonableness of insisting on the PM and the GG in the same room at the same time, and the manifest irrationality of a split amongst the First Nations (a multiplication of voices and demands rather than the rational, peaceful, univocal agreement and subordination to a single representative voice). Two issues to help think through the character of contemporary politics in and around Canada.

So, first, why wouldn’t Spence stop her (drastic, irrational, unfair) ‘action’ when the PM agreed to meet with the AFN? The mainstream, doubting, demeaning answer: attachment to a symbol (the GG) together with the incapacity to compromise. Fetishism for a symbol and inflexible dogmatism. Could it be something else? Would the CBC explain the relevance of the GG as symbol? Could ‘we’ take seriously the calls to involve the Queen or are we not obviously out of it, in the absurd and impossible? My answer: that depends. Depends on what you take politics to be, the power of symbols, and the aspirations and commitment of the people of the First Nations. I shall only expand on the latter.

The unspoken ‘reality’ of the mediaspeak on Spence and the First Nations is that getting the PM’s attention was sufficient, a political achievement. The PM decided to take an hour, and then a few, to play with the natives. Now come on, what else would they want, what else could they possibly want (other than recognition and a bit of time from the great white man)? How about what representatives of the First Nations actually said they wanted: recognition of independent sovereign status? Of course that had to be written off by the authorities, though without saying so, as if it did not need saying for it was so preposterous. Especially because of the related economic issues: primarily natural resource revenue sharing.

Politics beyond media

On the same day that the PM extended his infinite regal charity to play for a few hours with the poor, needy First Nations representatives who showed (actually at the very same moment), in the Northwest Territories negotiators for several FN groups and representatives of the Territorial Government were putting the finishing touches on a resource revenue sharing agreement that, when signed, will result in direct transfers of millions of dollars in resource royalties per year paid directly to the aboriginal groups. Following the lead of the NWT, aboriginal governments in Yukon have undertaken similar negotiations and will likely reach a deal soon. The impossible, the always-to-be-denied and eternally deferred (that is, territorial and resource control by the First Nations) happened, in part, to start, quietly – somewhat silently, in fact – while most of the newscasters screamed about children’s games.

Why wouldn’t the First Nations speak with one voice, or shut up and let its elected leader speak for them? The media dogma, unstated of course, is that politics – in Canada – is about calm, rational, uniform discourse and agreement. Not struggle, not contestation of powers, not combat. The demand for a single voice in this case is utter hypocrisy. The Canadian voice demands a single message from its First Nations (after destroying any capacity for such and without offering the democratic institutions, education, and safeguards that would help develop responsible action, as in the case of the unaccounted moneys with which Spence was slapped by the media at the start of December in an obvious attempt to delegitimize and silence her). The Canadian voice, split between east and west, that still holds the perpetual threat of separation from Quebec, demands of its most entitled and most violated first populations what ‘it’ itself is incapable of. Right. Madness indeed.

I could go on and on but I’d prefer to stop and watch. I am excited about politics in Canada, perhaps for the first time. Excited about the positive developments in the territories, excited about dynamic, foundational, constitutional argument and action. Excited about the open possibilities for the future in/with Canada and about the strength and resolve of the First Nations. It would be mad not to be, unless, of course, you take madness to be disagreement with what you believe is possible or comfortable for you. I watch and wait.

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