Chief Spence Calls for Indian Act Chiefs to “Take Control” of Grassroots Movement

by Zig Zag, Warrior Publications, Dec 30, 2012

Indian Act chief Theresa Spence at her Ottawa hunger strike.

Indian Act chief Theresa Spence at her Ottawa hunger strike.

During a Dec 30 press conference on her 20th day of hunger striking, Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence called on other Indian Act chiefs to take control of the grassroots movement, stating in a written text (read out by one of her aides):  “First Nations leadership needs to take charge and control of the situation on behalf of the grassroots movement.”

It would appear to be a poor political move on her part, revealing the historical role of the Indian Act band councils in controlling Indigenous peoples and suppressing any real grassroots resistance.  Yet it will undoubtedly hold some significance among the more naive participants in Idle No More, who early on began promoting the chief as a heroic leader of the grassroots.

Chief Spence also seems unaware that many of the rallies, highway, and even train blockades, were promoted and assisted by the band councils from the start.  Perhaps the only actions that haven’t seen the chiefs as central players have been the flash mobs.

Flash mob in Edmonton mall, December 2012.

Flash mob in Edmonton mall, December 2012.

It is ironic that what began as a grassroots movement against Bill C-45 has morphed into one that backs the central demands of chief Spence: a meeting between the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, and an undefined “First Nations leadership,” which can only mean the Indian Act chiefs.  Ironic because it is due, in part, to the work of the Indian Act band councils that there isn’t a stronger grassroots Indigenous resistance in Canada.  They are tools of counter-insurgency, commonly used by colonial regimes throughout history.

Spence’s hunger strike has been a central component in the mobilization of INM over the last three weeks.  While fasting has spiritual significance among virtually all Indigenous peoples, we also need to remember that she is doing it as an act of civil disobedience to pressure the government to meet her demands.  Many Natives appear to be caught up in a spiritual mysticism due to the fact that she is on a hunger strike and ignore the fact that she is also a political actor: a band council chief with a political agenda.

Indian Act chiefs arrive for Crown-First Nations summit, Jan 2012.

Indian Act chief executive officers arrive for Crown-First Nations summit, Jan 2012.

Gandhi, for example, used and abused hunger strikes throughout his political career.  He used them to protest British policies, to pressure political opponents to submit to his will, and as punishment against his disciples who violated his many rules of conduct (as a lawyer he liked making laws, it would seem).

Spence’s statement calling for the chiefs to take control comes two days after INM’s “official” organizers issued a statement attempting to impose pacifist codes of conduct on INM participants  (“Idle No More calls for only peaceful acts of resurgence” Idle No More website, Dec 28, 2012).

INM has no doubt been a very empowering experience for thousands of Indigenous people across Canada, many of whom can truly said to have been formerly “idle.”  This may be its single greatest achievement.  But it was exploited early on by the Indian Act chiefs to pressure the government in their own private dispute with Ottawa (for money & power).

The 4 founders of INM: L to R: Sheelah McLean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam and Jess Gordon.

The 4 founders of INM, L to R: Sheelah McLean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam and Jess Gordon.

It was reformist from the start, despite the rhetoric about “revolution.”  And, while much attention has been focused on the fact that INM was started by four women, little has been said about the fact that they’re also middle-class lawyers and university professors (who sound like they’re using Professor Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasase book, a pacifist guide to “resurgence,” as their guide book).

They did a great job analyzing Bill C-45 (being lawyers and academics, it’s right up their alley).  But does this mean they are therefore capable of directing and controlling a grassroots resistance movement, comprised of many diverse peoples and groups?

The very idea that any one group of people can dictate the methods, tactics, strategies and objectives is itself contrary to the nature of genuine grassroots movements.  They are comprised of diverse individuals and groups, self-organized in an autonomous and decentralized manner.  Just like many of our peoples were, prior to colonization and the imposing of the Indian Act.

The middle-class reformists who started this movement, along with the Indian Act chiefs, are now attempting to impose greater control over what they perceive as a potential rebellion they will be unable to contain.   This is always the problem with arousing the grassroots people, but then that’s what the Indian Act band councils were created for, even if they sometimes use this threat as leverage in their disputes with the government.

It may indeed be that the greatest achievement of INM is in mobilizing thousands of formerly “idle” Natives into the streets in opposition to government policies.  But this achievement will be tempered by the fact that it was exploited from the start by Indian Act chiefs, who will reaffirm themselves in the minds of some as genuine “leaders” of the grassroots.  Chief Spence will have played an important role in this co-optation, irregardless of the praise she has received.Real Grassroots meme 3

As a reformist movement, INM has been severely limited, despite the extent of mobilizing achieved.  It was entirely focused on legal-political methods, which the rallies and acts of civil disobedience were meant to reinforce.   The main “actions” carried out have been rallying large numbers of people and mostly symbolic displays of power (i.e., temporary blockades of highways and trains).  It has psychologically disarmed people and diminished their warrior spirit with its emphasis on “peaceful” protests.  And, like other reformist movements, it isn’t even about real social change.  It’s actually about maintaining the status quo.  The imposing of control by the Indian Act chiefs over a grassroots movement is itself an example of the status quo, and genuine grassroots Native people should reject this.

Whatever the latest slogan or trend, or title attached, the real grassroots has always been here and always will be.  It has been engaged in over 500 years of resistance to colonization, generation after generation.  That is, in part, how we as Indigenous peoples have survived to this day.   No Indian Act chiefs or band councilors, no middle-class academics or lawyers, can claim this resistance as theirs.  Nor are we obliged to follow their dictates.

Weakening Attawapiskat Chief Spence issues ‘call to arms’

By Jorge Barrera, APTN National News, Dec 30, 2012
OTTAWA–A weakening Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, now into day 20 of her hunger strike, issued a “call to arms” Sunday during a rare press conference outside her snow-covered teepee on Victoria Island.

Spence, who began her hunger-strike on Dec. 11 with the aim of forcing a treaty meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the governor-general and First Nations leaders, said she was feeling weak and tired.

“I am feeling a little bit weak and I get tired easily,” said Spence, while surrounded by TV cameras and reporters shivering from the -21 C temperatures with the wind chill.

APTN National News was told that Spence suffered through a rough day on Saturday and Sunday’s press conference and meeting with MPs during a two hour open-house at the log fence-lined compound was expected to exhaust her.

While Spence spoke briefly, repeating her position that she plans to continue the hunger strike until the meeting happens, one of her closest aides Danny Metatawabin, from Attawapiskat, read a statement on her behalf.

In the statement, Spence called on First Nations chiefs to start leading the Idle No More movement, which was sparked and maintained by grassroots people through round dances, blockades and rallies across the country throughout December.

“This is a call to arms and a call to action in the most peaceful and respectful way that reflects our natural laws as Indigenous nations,” said Metatawabin as he read the statement. “First Nations leadership needs to take charge and control of the situation on behalf of the grassroots movement. We need to reignite that nation to nation relationship.”

Over a dozen MPs and Senators from the Liberal and NDP parties also visited with Spence Sunday, lining up to shake her hand and later waiting their turn to enter the teepee where Spence sleeps, which is warmed by a woodstove and insulated by blankets on the inside.

“How could it be that in a country like Canada that someone has to have a hunger strike in order to get the prime minister to meet nationally elected leaders?” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat. “I am asking the prime minister, don’t be a fool.”

Liberal leadership candidate Marc Garneau said he didn’t agree that Harper would set a problematic precedent by agreeing to the demands of a hunger-striker. Garneau said the current situation was comprised of a number of factors that set it apart.

“This is a dramatic situation, this is a manifestation of a huge amount of frustration between a huge amount of frustration between Aboriginal people, First Nations and the government,” said Garneau. “This is a very, very serious and important part of being a leader in government. He should meet with Aboriginal leaders and Chief Spence.”

Across the country again Sunday, the Idle No More movement continued apace through round dances, traffic slowdowns and two ongoing rail blockades in Ontario and British Columbia.

Also in Ottawa Sunday, a group of about 30 chiefs met to discuss their next plan of action.


Posted on December 30, 2012, in Indian Act Indians and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Autonomous Action Radio and commented:
    Good analysis of #IdleNoMore cutting through the hype…

    • I am incredibly disappointed with the Canadian press, and journalists in particular who continue to belittle and discredit the spectacular Idle No More movement. Who says Chief Spence is politically naive, or unaware of her own history, and the historical role of band councils, etc. The suggestion is completely ridiculous!! Dont assume a leader is naive or that she made an uncalculated move, just because she is a woman, or Indigenous. HOw about Canadians begin to examine our inherent racism and treachery with respect to First Nations people, and make some genuine movement and effort ourselves to rise beyond our own cynical privileged racist places .

      • No one has suggested chief Spence is naive etc because she’s a Native woman, that’s your interpretation. Are you, however, saying that Native women can never make mistakes and that we should therefore obey every dictate they issue?

  2. hey there buddy Im not a lawyer, university professor or an academic. Im a mother of 5. although if I held any of those titles I would be quite proud. If we posted our resumes out there Im sure everyone would find issue with that as well . damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    • Jessica Gordon attended the University of Regina, majoring in business administration and has served in various Aboriginal organizations (including the Saskatoon Urban Aboriginal Strategy & the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority). You’re right Jessica, you’re not an academic or lawyer, but a business administrator. My bad…

  3. oh and never read Wasase. I do remember reading peace power and righteousness years ago tho.

    • PEace Power and Righteousness is in the Great Law of Peace and is what we all are to make our way to. Keeping those three words in your heart all the time is what will help you determine how you are going to stay on the right path throughout your life. It is what I keep in my heart and mind every minute of my life just as a reminder, especially when tested and going through trials and tribulations, this is what keeps on the straight path to PP&R. Aho

  4. Human beings have conflict
    How to resolve?
    Conflict Resolution: mediation can take time but better than GUNS and NRA mindset
    Many non Natives sUpport INM because want to join in protection of planet:water,food security,pollution
    and harmful corporate/government projects, activities
    Need GOOD lawyers: eg> Jack Woodard
    Much KNOWLEDGE to share between First Nations and Whole Earth crowd
    Housing: ecobuilders: strawbale,off the grid.Mike Reynolds/Eartships,solar,wind ,sustainability
    Climate Change
    Need to share TOOLS

  5. I am reblogging this at – thank you very much for the coverage on Chief Spencer and #IdleNoMore. Megwetch!

  6. lara harlow-hentz

    Reblogged this on lara harlow-hentz and commented:
    Send prayers up for Chief Spencer

  7. An uncomfortable analysis, but one we must carry over to other struggles.

    Indian Act band councils “are tools of counter-insurgency, commonly used by colonial regimes throughout history”.

    It could be argued that this technique became the template when dealing with rebellion. An example would be the early working class being subjugated to state-sanctioned unions by the enforcement of various laws such as the anti-combination bills and the trade labor act; these in-turn created a labor aristocracy who collaborated with the bosses in the repression of peoples struggles.

    It’s easy enough to see how this imposed representation has been used by the state throughout its conquest, and continues to be used systematically against all grassroots movements.

  8. Royal Proclamation was signed long ago and basically guaranteed that the “Indians” not be molested or bothered in exchange for settlement and access to the resources. When one party decides to break the Treaty by altering or ignoring the treaty without the others consent, then the Treaty is broken which by International Law one party can decide to break off from the terms as PM Harper just did with Bill C-45, therefore, you have decide to break the Treaty as a result, you (Canada) do have access to the resources anymore, hand over the money you currently make from the resources.

  9. (My Opinion) This is clearly written by a disinformation agent. 1) This author puts down Ghandi as though he were a corrupt power hungry lawyer. This is because this article reflects a hatred for non-violent resistance, despite the obvious powerful force and achievements of Ghandi’s and King’s leadership. Were it not for Chief Spence’s hunger strike, we would not be getting the worldwide attention and support that we are getting. There would not be round dance flashmobs taking place all across the United States at the same time. It is precisely the Chief’s brave action, that has moved so many people to get out and show up at a rally, dance or blockade. 2) Chief Spence is adamantly against the Indian Act and has said so in her interview on December 16, that this has been a major problem for First Nations People. This is actually one of the things that she wants to see changed in order for First nations people to be treated as equals. This was a spin of her word. The Indian Act Chiefs, to whom she is referring are the ones that Canadian Government recognizes and the ones that have a responsibility because of their oath of office and their paycheck, to show true leadership which is to serve the people. It is not their responsibility to control the people and I think the what Chief Spence is talking about is for the Chiefs to get involved and back up their people, as she explained in her December 16 interview, and to use their voice as elected chiefs to influence the people to keep it peaceful. This does not weaken the power of the grassroots people in any way. Again, Chief Spence has said that it is the responsibility of Chiefs to listen to get behind and listen to their grassroots people who will tell the chiefs what to do. She also said and continues to say that the Canadian government needs to listen to not only the chiefs but the grassroots people as well. 3) This author puts down the work of Idle No more founders as pacifists, again because of the lack of respect for the power of peaceful resistance, and invokes a class war dialogue by emphasizing that they are “middle class” as though our middle class achievers have no business being leaders of a grasssroots movement. That is a sneaky way of trying to separate the lower class people from the important support and assistance of Natives who have been somewhat successful in the colonist world, as if they can not possibly be care about their Native People. In fact, many young Native Academics make it their primary objective to use the successes in the world to help empower their people who have been taken advantage of. Just because we are a grass roots movement does not mean we need to b constantly challenging anyone who takes on a roll of “rallying the people.” No one is claiming to be the leader of the people as a whole, but leadership is an action and one does not need to “take over” in order to show leadership. Also a person being a leader does not mean that they are controlling anything. The founders have repeatedly said that they are maintaining their websites and promoting rallies to encourage the people to rise up in protest. This does not mean in any way that they are assuming a roll as our direct leaders. This does show true leadership however, and does not need to be mocked. Anyone in the movement can show leadership qualities and that does not need to be put down. This is not a “dictate” for people not to disagree with Chief Spence or Idle No More founders as so many say whenever someone says something about why we should respect and support the work that the founders and Chief Spence are doing. We all have influence on those around us, and the more influence we have, the more responsibility we have. That’s what leadership is. Responsibility, to do all that you can to offer solutions, advise and lead by example. This kind of leadership, which plays out naturally in any grassroots movement is not in any way dictating what others can or can no do and is not some kind of power grab. The primary target in any conflict are the leaders. So, naturally the disinformation agents will always try to get us to stop listening o anyone who is showing true leadership and inspiring a powerful resistance. Regardless of what anyone says about whether or not we need to follow their every word of advise (of course not), these women have shown true and admirable leadership, as I said anyone who has a clear impact on inspiring and motivating people to get active and rally is a leader, not a dictator, and Chief Spence and the founders have been successful at bringing so many thousands of us together around our Fist Nation plight of oppression from the colonizers. This deserves respect, not blind faith, and has already helped all of us greatly by bringing our cause to the worlds attention. And anyone who is saying that they are trying o control us is totally missing the point that they are actually effectively weakening the control that the government of Canada has on us and inspiring many thousands of us to stand up for our rights and empower our local communities. No wonder disinformation agents so carefully plan to undermine the work of activists at every level. If they has no job then they would be targeted as living off the system and whining about their benefits checks. There is no end to divisive statements except when we call it like it is and let the detractors from our powerful unity try to make it seam as though our grassroots movement is just another form of their corrupt political system. PS I know that there are a lot of critical thinkers out there. More power too you. Keep it up. However, just because we respect critical thinking does not mean we should be blind to the work of the saboteurs.Again taking down those who show true leadership in the movement is the first step to dispersing the resistance.

    • Well this is very long comment. Let me say that 1) just because someone doesn’t agree with the dominant narrative presented that doesn’t make them a “disinformation agent.” 2) Gandhi was a corrupt, power hungry lawyer and his pacifism was the result of his middle-class position and his adaption of Christian pacifist beliefs. 3) the Indian Act band councils are not “leaders” they are paid gov’t bureaucrats who do not hold positions of power because the people put them there, but becuz the gov’t did. 4) people are claiming to be the “leaders” of INM and if you can’t see that then there’s little point discussing this with you.

  10. Some excellent commentary (by Jay Taber) on this well-written article here:

    • Politically speaking yes but this is not the be all end all. Idle no more brought our situation to the forefront of the news. We learned how great is the fear Canadians have for us native peoples. We had found how strong is our ancestry!! Most of all we now know how important spirituality is to our lives.
      This written piece does not include how many broken generations it took in prayer & sacrifice to gain this day. Our prayers aren’t limited by time or space but they will be answered. The women have cried for these days to come. Many of you Canadians never knew about our stolen sisters or the government policy of exterminating us as a people. You will need us again Canada are you prepared for the answer No!! Hoka!!

      • Of the many criticisms of INM, one is that they presented themselves as some kind of re-invention of the wheel, when in fact all that they claimed to stand for we as Native peoples have been doing for many generations, long before INM became a news article, and which will continue long after INM is a faded memory.

  11. Call to arms? If one person is hurt, on either side of this struggle, it will be a tragedy. If she is truly issuing a “call to arms” then the blood will be on her hands. We need cooler minds to settle this issue.

    • Colonialism is a tragedy, and many people are already being hurt. But you can rest assured that chief Spence, and the chiefs in general, would never seriously issue a “call to arms,” although that doesn’t mean that such a call can’t be made.

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