Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Thoughts on Idle-No-More and the Hunger Strike of Chief Theresa Spence





I have been alone all night. Or have I? For one there is the racoon I’ve befriended, her name is Edward, she plays in the piles of leaves that I’ve made in the backyard when I am not using them. I am also in a world in which there are very nearly seven billion people, who are all derived from either Africa and Indonesia, or Africa alone, depending upon which anthropologists you’re spending your holidays with. Each one of those nearly seven billion people is living today with me, together on earth, today, whether you call it Christmas or Tuesday, whether they call it Christmas or Tuesday. One of those people is Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation, and she has not eaten in two weeks. I have not eaten for two weeks before, I fasted for twenty-six days, but as a friend reminded me I am young and ought not compare relative bodily abuses, she is older than I am and her hunger grates upon her body more violently; more dangerously. What is her cause? Who is Theresa Spence? And, more importantly, in the words of Michael Harris, “why is Stephen Harper afraid to look this woman in the eye?” (http://www.ipolitics.ca/2012/12/23/why-is-stephen-harper-afraid-to-look-this-woman-in-the-eye/)

This is what I’ve been grappling with today, trying to think about why Stephen Harper would be afraid to look that woman in the eye. Would I be afraid to look this woman in the eye? Whose eye would I be looking at, I’d ask: ‘the local bureaucrat with an appearance of impropriety? Or the middle-aged woman whose community is, as Chuck Strahl once so delicately described, ‘a slow moving trainwreck.’ The catch 22 for Harper is that you can’t look one in the eye without seeing the other. ‘You are implicated, you were there, Chief Spence,’ I imagine him saying to the former, interrogative. ‘I was there,’ I imagine the latter responding, turning the tables, ‘and it is fucking awful.’ If Idle No More is anything it is the institution of Theresa Spence as a sort of measure of character. Can you answer to this ultimately average woman from this community? From any community. Can you look her in the eye?

I’m wary of Spence – I called her a ‘celebutante’ earlier this week, and unfairly – I don’t know if she made good political decisions or bad political decisions in Attawapiskat. I don’t think dating your financial co-manager is a good political decision, however much it might have been above board (http://www.attawapiskat.org/wp-content/uploads/20111205NoticeQuestionsAboutAttawapiskat.pdf) but I don’t know what consequences there were. I wish I did, I read about Attawapiskat, and other First Nations communities and feel tragically, helplessly, fatedly at a remove. All I really wanted to know is if Theresa Spence could look in Theresa Spence’s eye, so to speak, if she’s to be the eye that all others must range to. And if her adoption as icon of the First Nations contingent of Idle No More by First Nations themselves is any indication, she can. Who am I to say otherwise? If the members of her own community haven't snuffed out anything shady. Ultimately, though, whether or not she was a good politician for Attawapiskat is immaterial to her role now, even if Theresa Spence had been every bit the crook Harper and Duncan wanted her to turn out to be, the sheer breadth and complexity of the problem of the condition of First Nations communities in Canada couldn’t possibly have rested on her shoulders. It does now though, not on the shoulders of Chief Theresa Spence, mild-mannered bureaucrat with her presumably saucy affair with the ostensible auditor, Nero playing the lyre while Rome burned, but on the shoulders of Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation, Omushkego James Bay Cree, many thousands of years old.

Six months before the housing and infrastructure crisis of October 2011 Chief Spence wrote to all the Members of Parliament, she wrote of Shannen Koostachin, International Children’s Peace Prize Recipient and advocate for public education. Shannen, having grown up in Attawapiskat, died of a car accident when she was only 15.

“In her all too short travel with us, she had faced many challenges, not only those facing every growing child in Canada, but those unique to her,” Spence wrote. “In her home community of Attawapiskat, her local school was contaminated by a diesel fuel spill, which went uncorrected, ultimately health conditions got so serious that Chief and Council for the protection of the children ordered the school closed for the health and safety of children, and employees of the school.
The school that was once the heart of our community, a place of pride, a place to involve the community and showcase our achievements, a place to grow. It has now become a place of shame, the presence of a large fenced off area, overgrown with weeds is reflective of the spirit that now exists within our community.” (http://www.fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/shannensdream/ShannensDreamLetter-April21-2011.pdf)

And indeed this was before what is understood to be the ‘crisis’ in Attawapiskat! This was simply the brute reality of everyday life. Her voice as witness outstrips her merely ontic function as local functionary, the tantalizing thread of ‘well if she was dating her co-manager then. . .’ is either the ideological rudiments of a plausible scapegoat or a red herring covered in qualification and a particular normativity relative to the community it is normative to. I fell for it, of course, but I’m gullible. One of the downsides of being dew-eyed and bushy-tailed is that its hard to keep track of who is calling whom what and why. I’ve come around in the last few days to Chief Spence as figure for the ‘destinal ontological’ content of Idle No More – and not because I wouldn’t ask her ‘did you do right by your community, really?’ if I ever met her, I would, I’d imagine given the position she is in now she would welcome it. ‘It’s simple’ the figure says, ‘look me in the eyes and we’ll sort out who’s the fucking crook.’

“SOAPHEAD CHURCH. Darlene put her hands over her face as Cholly began to simulate what had before been beautiful and was now something ugly and confusing. He could do no more than make believe. And he hated her for it. Hated her so much he almost wished he could do it.
CHOLLY. He almost wished he could hurt her to make up for the hurt and shame he felt.”[1]

“Interdiction is to be sure not equivalent to pure and simple impossibility, and even presupposes the possibility which precisely it forbids – but in fact the interdiction already dwells in this very possibility rather than presupposing it,” as Levinas writes in Totality and Infinity, “it is not added to it after the event, but looks at me from the very depths of the eyes I want to extinguish, looks at me as the eye that in the tomb shall look at Cain.”[2] Theresa Spence has volunteered to be the eyes of great time. Like Antigone she answers to no ruler, she answers, like Antigone, to the incomprehensible congress of the dead, she answers to Shannen. Her eyes terrify in the same instant they invite. ‘Look at me,’ says the figure of a vast humanity, ‘look me in the eye.’

I am not First Nations, though if anyone knows the process by which one might emigrate to the First Nations please do inform me, I happily studied on Coast Salish land while I lived and grew up in what is called ‘British Columbia’ as I happily study upon Mississaugas land now in what is called ‘Ontario,’ – either derived from a Huron word meaning ‘great lake’ or an Iroquois word meaning ‘beautiful water’ – and I would happily study for their citizenship test, should they devise one. It’s not an empty gesture to acknowledge this, I am genuinely thankful, my entire existence here is ultimately premised upon a colonialism that, while not of my own making, implicates me as, at very least, a sort of Canadian refugee in Canada, or ‘Kanata,’ ‘village’ or ‘settlement’ as it was to the Saint-Laurentian Iroquoian, who are now no longer. If I could turn all of Canada over to the First Nations tomorrow I would, it is not mine to turn but indeed the First Nations understand this better than anyone, their oral tradition literally predates the idea of land as private property. Isn’t that fucking amazing? This isn’t Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ it’s Marx’s history of real man. The political edifice of First Nations today ostensibly represents the entirety of many civilizations, many vast armada of families of differing and occasionally warring occupants here, conflictual, as we all are, but never before beset amongst themselves by the curse of the Capital form. Territoriality and a vast human history of territorial conflict does not equal land annexation, in other words, certainly not of a kind manifest by the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private.’ While I love and value works of the Western canon, one nonetheless has to wonder how the First Nations managed to supress bourgeois pretention for so very, very, long, and if their multifarious oral traditions aren’t therefore vastly superior in a sense hard to extricate from the conditions of First Nations communities today, as downtrodden, alienated, and oppressed. It is not so much that they were unaccustomed to Capital and hence became haplessly the victims of it, it is they’ve been historically and geographically annexed, quarantined, and punished by Capital for having steadfastly and resolutely never developed Capital, as such, themselves.

I hope they’d let me stay and be a part of the community, in this ‘having handed Canada over,’ it being neither mine to hand nor anyone’s. I’m not a great man but I can lift things sometimes, and I like to think about things and talk about things and learn and teach, I have a feeling they would indeed do a much better job of fostering these virtues and finding a place for them than even the NDP, let alone the Harper Conservatives.

Edward is outside in the leaves pile again, her babies are with her.

2011 was the year I lost the most intelligent and beautiful woman I had ever met in my entire life. 2012 was the year I made myself look a lunatic, egotistical, self-absorbed nightmare in her eyes, and I have indeed not heard from her since. What a shambles I am. ‘I could carve a better man out of a banana’ I said of her beaux – thinking I was clever – echoing Vonnegut, echoing Roosevelt, echoing Echo, tortured and wretched, wanting only to be loved. What an asshole I was. Who is the banana now?

‘I am sorry,’ I say it often now, ‘I am sorry,’ just like that, and let it hang and mangle itself and come out all wrong in the pause, each time a new experiment in the expression of a wound. ‘I am sorry,’ for all the good it does me, I have no one to say it to now. She’s stopped caring whether I’m sorry and good on her too. ‘Tiresias Shrugged,’ perhaps.

“Now think, my son. No man is free from fault. The man of judgement sees his mistake and changes course before it is too late. Why stab a dead man twice? Why torment him now? Where is the courage in murdering the dead? Yield to the dead. Unyielding pride is folly.”[3]

But who are the dead? To whom do I yield? To whom do I confess? What do I confess? Materialists don’t have confessionals, this is all very foreign.

*buzz* *crackle* Are you there, Chief Spence? It’s me, Dock. *fuzz* *static* Am I looking you in the eyes? *dither* *oscilation* I hope you can eat something soon, Chief Spence *drone* *beep* I hope you really did do whatever you could for your people in Attawapiskat. . . *noise* I hope you are as much the set of eyes they say you are. . . *ring* *sputter* I hope you eat before you expire waiting for Harper to look you in the eye, given his ostensible ‘priorities’ I cannot fathom how he could.

I’m going to go have a puff and confer with Edward, maybe she knows what to do with all this.

Update: Edward said that it is right and good to be wary of heroes or heroines, but that if there have ever been heroes or heroines then they have have always been simply real beings who lead real finite, necessarily imperfect being lives who are nonetheless called upon to function as something greater than themselves.



[1] Toni Morrison feat. Lydia Diamond, The Blueest Eye (New York: Dramatic Publishing Company, 2007), 55.
[2] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (NE: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 233.
[3] Sophocles, Antigone Adapted by David Feldshuh (New York: Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, 2004), 43.

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