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Behind the Headlines: Why Chief Theresa Spence Is Hunger Striking

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Behind The Headlines: The social causes in current events.

In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about. You'll never read the news in the same way again.

The headline that caught our attention: Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence begins hunger strike: "I am willing to die for my people."

As we write, Chief Theresa Spence begins her sixth day without food. In the middle of a chilly December she's making her stand in a tepee on Ottawa's Victoria Island to secure a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In the scale of protest, a hunger strike is about a Defcon Two. Anyone willing to put her own health -- and life -- at risk to make a point isn't fooling around.

In October 2011, Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency. With temperatures plummeting, families lived in tents and uninsulated shacks without electricity, heat, clean water or sanitation.

More than a year later, 22 modular houses have been built, but according to Attawapiskat elder Danny Metatawabin there has been little other progress. He told us many families still live in overcrowded houses or unheated shacks, and the water from the taps is still undrinkable.

However, the story behind the headline is that Chief Spence's hunger strike is not simply about the appalling conditions her people continue to face. Spence is one of many aboriginal leaders looking for a way to express her frustration with the Government of Canada passing laws that affect their lives and land, as well as violating treaty rights without involving them in any of the decision making.

Last January, 170 aboriginal chiefs and leaders sat down in Ottawa with Governor General David Johnston, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and 12 cabinet ministers to reset the relationship between First Nations and the federal government.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), tells us this Crown-First Nations Gathering was an historic event that gave Canadian aboriginal community leaders hope they might be entering a new era of cooperation and respect with the government.

Their hopes were bolstered after the conference when Prime Minster Harper said that "fundamental change requires that we redouble our collaboration with First Nations to develop the elements upon which our renewed relationship will be based."

However in the months that have followed, Atleo says the government-aboriginal collaboration has not redoubled, it has retreated.

The AFN national chief points to a long list of legislation introduced by the government on issues like the financial management of aboriginal bands. While aboriginal groups support many of the principles behind these laws, such as accountability and transparency, Atleo says the laws were drafted without any prior consultation or consent from the aboriginal communities whose are directly impacted.

"These patterns of 'government knows best' harken back to the Indian Act 100 years ago, and to residential schools," Atleo argues.

The latest legislative irritant is Bill C-45 -- the government's omnibus bill that lumps together a menagerie of legislation into one big package. C-45 includes changes to the Indian Act and the laws governing aboriginal fisheries. The Bill was introduced in October and just passed Third Reading this past week.

"Our government has been hard at work modernizing legislation in order to allow First Nations and aboriginal organizations to operate at the speed of business," Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said in a recent speech.

According to Atleo, the government's actions actually violate constitutionally-entrenched aboriginal treaty rights, not to mention the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which repeatedly states that governments must obtain the "free, prior and informed consent" of aboriginal peoples before passing laws that affect their lives."And consent doesn't just mean a drive-by consultation," says Atleo.

Aboriginal groups are also unhappy with the changes C-45 makes to the Navigable Waters Act. The Act provided protection against harmful development for all of Canada's more than two million lakes and rivers by requiring environmental assessments. C-45 limits that protection to just 159 specific lakes and rivers. First Nations like Attawapiskat, which sits downriver of the Ring of Fire mining projects, worry the changes will bring even more development and environmental devastation to the waterways that are integral to their communities.

Atleo says more than 80,000 aboriginal people in Canada still need homes, 200 communities need schools, and more than 120 communities can't drink the water from their taps. The only way to solve these problems, he argues, is for aboriginal leaders and government to collaborate as partners.

Speaking with Atleo and Metatawabin it's impossible to miss the frustration as they look back on a year that started with so much promise. "It's getting demoralizing," says Metatawabin.

The AFN has launched a campaign called "Idle No More" that calls the federal government to"honour and fulfill Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water." Demonstrations by aboriginals and supporters are springing up across Canada.

Spence, meanwhile, is avoiding interviews and rallies, conserving her energy while she waits for the Prime Minister to answer her call to come to the table.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity andeducational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event,We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com

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