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The Tale of Two Hunger Strikes

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Dr Wayne Kublalsingh
Dr Wayne Kublalsingh
Chief Theresa Spence
Chief Theresa Spence

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. In two very distinct places very similar paths of struggle are underway. In the nation states of Canada and Trinidad & Tobago, the Prime Ministers of the respective countries have been challenged about the lack of process and accountability of the industrial-promoting state. In both cases the 'weapon' of choice has been a hunger strike. The pattern of events established by the hunger strike of Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh in T&T has almost been mirrored by the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat.

The hunger strike of “Dr. Wayne” in Trinidad began after months of efforts to have the government of T&T be accountable to the population; an entire section of a double highway that reaches into the deep south of Trinidad has been opposed for environmental and social reasons. After government office occupations and even the army dismantling a camp erected to block highway construction, a hunger strike began as the culmination of all other avenues ending in repression. A more detailed description of the struggle and the issues surrounding the “Highway Re-route Movement” before the hunger strike began can be found here.

In the case of Attawapiskat's Chief Spence and her still ongoing hunger strike, the first nation's story involves the continuing grinding poverty of colonialism, specifically a housing crisis as well intolerable living conditions for this Anishnaabe first nation. The beginning of the now four week old hunger strike was reported here.

When these hunger strikes began, the main demands involved not so much the complete acceptance of demands for new policy, but dialogue and democratic accountability in a public manner over the existence of failed policy that brought these issues to the point of a hunger strike in the first place. As part of the resolution, demands in both situations have been that the Prime Minister him/herself (Stephen Harper in Canada, Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Trinidad) undertake to meet with the hunger striker(s) directly. As the huger strikes have unfolded, a noticeable template for resolution of the situation seems to have as well.

In the case of both Chief Spence and Dr Kublalsingh, the following developments have stacked up strongly with one another:

The government sends ministers and expresses concern over the health of the hunger striker.

From the office of the Prime Minister in T&T:

"I share a deep concern for the health and welfare of Dr Kublalsingh.

It is most unfortunate that he has chosen to pursue such an action and I regard this matter as I would anyone who puts themselves in harm’s way.

I have asked the Minister of the People, Dr. Glenn Ramadharsigh to have trained members of staff from Social Services visit Dr. Kublalsingh in the hope that in his own interest he can be reasoned with and given some measure of solace.

I have also requested that Minister of Health, Dr. Fuad Khan, who is also a medical doctor, to pay Dr. Kublalsingh a visit and to place an ambulance on standby if ever necessary at any time."

(The ambulance sent by the government was refused by Dr Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-route Movement, who ultimately covered their own health expenses in a country without public health care.)

A letter sent from Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan on December 25 stated that:

"It is unfortunate that you are unwilling to speak with me about the issues you have raised publicly...."

"I remain concerned about your health and hope that you will accept my offer to speak about how we might move forward with improving the treaty relationship."

In both cases the government minister sent to “express concern” was someone without the executive power available to actually even begin a resolution of the issues brought forth, seemingly sent only to help their own government in the court of public opinion.

Opposition parties and politicians – many whose prior policies in governance helped create these crises to begin with-- begin to show at the site of the hunger strike for “meetings” (photo ops).

From the Trinidad Express, daily national newspaper in T&T:

Former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley, Port of Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing and Roman Catholic Priest Father Clyde Harvey were among those visiting a weakened Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh as he entered Day 7 of his hunger strike on Wednesday.

[...]

Shortly after noon, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday visited the activist.

The former UNC Political Leader praised the UWI Lecturer's conviction before telling reporters that as Prime Minister, he would not have let the situation get this far.

[...]

Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley visited Dr. Kublalsingh along with Port of Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing and wondered why an alternative route was not being considered. He said the Government should concede in this matter.

Dr Rowley's party, the People's National Movement [PNM], was the majority government of the country when the original plans for the highway were drawn up, prior to the election of the current People's Partnership alliance, involving the United National Congress (UNC) formerly led by Panday before Kamla Persad-Bissessar became UNC leader and T&T's PM.

Appearing in the Globe and Mail:

This is much bigger than Theresa Spence, it’s much bigger than any individual community,” [Charlie Angus NDP MP from the riding which includes Attawapiskat] said. “This is across the country now; it really needs the Prime Minister to take action.”

Liberal leadership candidates Justin Trudeau and Marc Garneau also spoke out in support of Ms. Spence this week, and Mr. Trudeau visited the chief on Wednesday.

It was deeply moving to meet @ChiefTheresa today. She is willing to sacrifice everything for her people. She shouldn’t have to,” Mr. Trudeau wrote on Twitter.

The official opposition NDP, though never having held power federally, has a less than exemplary record on the provincial level, including orchestrating the siege at Ts'peten, commonly referred to as Gustafsen Lake, while in power in British Columbia.

Justin Trudeau's father Pierre was PM at the time then future PM Jean Chrétien issued the White Paper, perhaps the single most blatant (and failed) attempt of the Canadian state to assimilate and “extinguish” First Nations, Métis and Inuit rights altogether.

Opponents casting doubt on the veracity of the hunger strike itself, make allusions to criminality and accusing fraud.

A letter than appeared in Jyoti Communication included:

Now, when Kublalsingh sits and lies outside the PM office, in her full view, slowly committing suicide by starvation unless she does what he says - what is it, if not terrorism. If it is not terrorism, then what is it? 

It is like putting a gun to his head and threatening to kill himself, if she does not do what he says, telling the PM she is to blame for him killing himself. The man is obviously a non violent terrorist although some may even consider his self starvation a form of violent action perpetuated against himself. Either way Kublalsingh is a terrorist.”

The Government of T&T's National Security Minister Jack Warner was infamously quoted as saying:

Don’t feel sorry for him, he is a conman. [....]

They say of course how the Prime Minister is killing Kublalsingh, he killing himself, but he better do it quickly.”

And on a separate occasion during Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike, he was further quoted as saying:

"My advice is that when he (Kublalsingh) goes to his secret homes in Maraval and Vistabella he has a hearty meal. I am even advised that last week he was lying on the back seat of his vehicle eating a doubles. And it was not even a Debe doubles. What does Kublalsingh want? And therefore I ask you, what is the government to do?"

And in Canada's National Post:

It is tempting to see the action as one of intimidation, if not terrorism: She is, after all, holding the state hostage to vaguely articulated demands. But if she were to die on Mr. Harper’s watch, it would be not only tragic, but also disastrous.”

A different opinion piece appearing in the National Post carried:

But Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence seems to have a different understanding of what a hunger strike is. She is living on water and “fish broth.” Although liquid, fish broth is food. More specifically, it’s protein and fat. And, as any devotee of those trendy low-carb regimes will know, that’s all you need to live on … indefinitely.”

Well known vile columnist Christie Blatchford spewed forth similar charges in her article above, and the second charge about the fake nature of the fast comes from Barbara Kay. After this gem Kay goes for the home run of irrelevant and offensive, saying in effect, that Spence looks too heavy to really be starving. Canadas white establishment and their scribes have a habit of calling indigenous resistance in any form as terrorism; Blatchford has produced books on other indigenous nations doing this for some time. Re-creating the “savage” and then recasting this “savage” as modern “terrorist” is Blatchford's contribution to thought in Canadian newspapers.

Both governments, when unable to out wait the hunger strikers, announces a deliberately ambiguous and confusing resolution.

The terms of reference for the agreement that allowed Dr Kublalsingh to end his hunger strike are here.

And given a freeze and multiple other demands accepted by this government panel, it was declared a victory for the Highway Re-route Movement. There is concern however, as a result of the commission being set up not only being agreed to be the government, but still involving direction from a governing body. Secondly, certainly small but significant portions of construction have continued.

From the Guardian (TT):

Contacted for an explanation [as to continuing construction of an interchange relating to the segment of highway being protested] yesterday afternoon, corporate communications manager at the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure Tiffany Richards said the document signed by civil society group leaders and government officials stated: “Works will continue on sites of the highway released to the contractor.”

HRM and Kublalsingh were satisfied to end the hunger strike without a direct meeting from the PM. The PM needed to authorize the setting up of the body that conducts the new, expanded and binding review, as well as approve the halt in most construction of the highway segment being protested (Mon Desir to Debe). Meaning she addressed the issue by default.

For Theresa Spence, Stephen Harper (but not the Crown's representative in the governor general) will meet with “First Nations leaders”, including Assembly of First Nations head Shawn Atleo and First Nations elected chiefs, among whom will now be Chief Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation. There are no binding terms nor nation-to-nation level talks scheduled, but instead the Canadian PMO stated: "This working meeting will focus on two areas flowing from the [2012 Crown-First Nations] Gathering: the treaty relationship and aboriginal rights and economic development," allowing, it appears, both sides to claim victory. Harper has not, however, agreed to any negotiation.

It seems fair for the supporters of Theresa Spence and those in the Idle No More movement who feel connected to her hunger strike feel concessions granted by the PM are a victory. Certainly the same can be said of the Highway Re-route Movement and Dr Wayne Kublalsingh as well. However, both cases illustrate that the power really lies in those who support the movement in general, for one-- and do so in more than social media means. The continued involvement of people in keeping a close watch on the actual details of the agreements are crucial and immediate. The moment that the actions of the many stop, nothing on the part of actions by individuals can continue.

These victories are, it seems of battles in longer struggles-- ones where people can feel their power. But if celebrations belie a belief that the developers, government officials and commission talking heads will act honourably because they put pen to paper on an agreement, then all will be lost.

The states in both cases are desperately hoping that, given the drama of the strike itself, that the attention and participation coming from larger segments of the population will dissipate enough to allow the loopholes and ambiguity to be seized upon, and agreements not honored. Those who have been a part of the struggles that helped raise these issues to prominence in the first place will determine what happens next, ultimately. Celebrate, yes but organize in the morning after. Celebrate for tonight the small victories, in order to gather the strength to fight further for the large ones tomorrow.


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