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Media Bites: Chief Spence, Your 15 Minutes Are Up

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As the Globe's Jeffrey Simpson noted in a recent column, one of the sadder symptoms of the pervasive ignorance plaguing much of this country's aboriginal leadership is a bizarre belief that Canada still operates under some manner of robustly royalist government. A system where our monarchs and viceroys are not simply -- to paraphrase my old poli-sci teacher -- folks who "cut the ribbon at the new Wal-Mart," but rather functional co-rulers of the state, à la, say, Saudi Arabia.

I mention this because yesterday's revelation that hunger-striking Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence will be boycotting the Prime Minister's Friday summit so long as Governor General Johnston remains a no-show only makes sense once you've unlearned eighth grade civics in this peculiar fashion. Like many of her contemporaries, Spence evidently clings to the childishly literal notion that "the Crown," to quote Simpson, is "somehow an independent agency" within Canada's government, as opposed to merely a synonym for it. (Chief Spence has also written a number of bossy letters to Queen Elizabeth demanding Her Maj's "intervention." Will and Kate no doubt eagerly await their instructions.)

What makes this sideshow all the more embarrassing is that amid all the proper care and feeding Spence's been giving her peoples' non-existent partnership with Buckingham Palace, there's been a complete breakdown in the Chief's relationship with the one independent agency whose power actually does matter -- the press.

Despite some gripes from the usual places about a "Media Party" conspiracy to whitewash the antics of Starvin' Spence, it's fast becoming clear that whatever journalistic goodwill the woman initially possessed is vanishing faster than her latest serving of fish broth. The indifferent contempt in which she has so consistently held the press is beginning to return in kind. You can almost hear her 15 minutes ticking away.

Monday's big reveal that the Attawapiskat political class have apparently been running their reservation with all the fiduciary responsibility of a five-year-old Monopoly banker wasn't really news unto itself. The reserve, after all, has been in various states of federally-mandated receivership for well over a decade, with the much contested appointment of a third-party mediator back in 2011 representing an attempted increase in severity, but not overall status.

This reality became muddled last August following a strange court-ordered veto of the receivership upgrade, though in the wake of the CBC's recently-obtained six-year federal audit, it's now clear the summer ruling was simply a bad decision by a bad judge (he should really go "back to school for remedial training" quipped business prof Ian Lee) rather than indisputable evidence of Spence's purity, as her apologists still insist.

No, the real story was that Chief Theresa somehow never felt the need to spend any of her post-trial months crafting a PR strategy to eventually explain the fiscal negligence she very obviously knew she was getting away with -- and just as obviously knew would someday be revealed. Asked for comment after the audit leak, her only response was a rambling, badly formatted, and typo-laden press release blasting this "distraction of the true issue," (sic) followed by hiding from reporters.

Still, the silent treatment is at least better than outright arrest and exile -- the fate a Global TV crew faced on Tuesday, apparently on Spence's orders, following an attempt to see what's going on in Attawapiskat itself these days. We didn't get our story, writes reporter Jennifer Tryon in her post-mortem, but "boy, there's a much bigger message here being heard loud and clear."

To put it bluntly, you can't just do this.

The press can be ignorant, naive, and clueless, but it's rarely passive, especially when their subjects aggressively, purposely, and unapologetically impair journalists' abilities to do their jobs. Browse any Canadian newspaper these days and you'll be hard-pressed to find anything beyond tired and jaded skepticism of Ms. Spence. Her supporters have increasingly dwindled to the most dogmatic members of the Aboriginal Studies set and a few mushy progressive-types who, like Spence herself, fret without irony that the larger cause of Native rights is in danger of being "overshadowed" by the incidental incompetence of those trusted to defend it.

And why not? If you've been a reporter attempting to cover Spencemania over the last couple of weeks, the exercise has mostly been an agonizing slog through a mire of hostility, paranoia, and stonewalling (if not, in the case of our Global pals, outright harassment and intimidation); if you're an editorial writer, you've faced an equally unsatisfying wrestle with the vapid grandiosities and empty threats that the Chief and her various hangers-on have attempted to pass as a coherent philosophy of protest. Even for those otherwise inclined to be sympathetic, there's really not much to work with here.

PR isn't everything, of course, but in a democratic culture, accessibility and openness are the currency through which public legitimacy is bought. Thus, however keen she may be to frame herself a populist cipher of "the people," Chief Spence's tone-deaf approach to media relations can't help but rank her far closer to some haughty monarch ruling by divine right. A leader whose justness of purpose is taken as so supremely self-evident that any attempt to explain one's actions merely serves to cheapen one's aura.

Unfortunately for Spence, alas, even the real monarchs of this world don't believe that anymore.

Perhaps the Queen can bring that up the next time the two meet for tea.

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