01/04/2013 09:16 EST | Updated 03/05/2013 05:12 EST

Theresa Spence Is More the Problem Than Solution


First thing's first: I don't think Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is going to starve to death. That will not be how this story ends -- the end will be a meeting between Stephen Harper and Spence, just as she has requested.

The Prime Minister is certainly stubborn -- that can be the only reason he hasn't responded to her yet -- but he surely knows a dead First Nations chief would not make for good PR. He will accede to her demands. He has no other choice.

Personally, though, I have my doubts Chief Spence would actually see this through to the end. I think the media attention, not the martyrdom, is what she's after. This is, after all, not the first year she and Attawapiskat have been in the news -- there's a trend here, people. And as for concerns about the chief's diminishing health, well, isn't that kind of the point?

No, I have no sympathy for Chief Spence. She and other native leaders are the biggest reason why native reserves are mostly hellholes, filled with poverty, addiction, lack of education and general misery.

How is it possible that native leaders have managed to squander/mismanage/ in some cases maybe steal the tens of millions of dollars federal and provincial governments keep handing over, year after year?

Granted, it's not as much money when you factor in the ridiculous cost of living in some of the more remote reserves, but there's no question that money should be helping those poor people much more than it evidently has.

And further, Spence's hunger strike narrative -- essentially, that the Conservatives are responsible for First Nation problems (though the Liberals and NDP, whose MPs she has welcomed to her Ottawa-area island, performed no better on the aboriginal file when they have been in power) -- has politicized, and therefore rendered much less important to many Canadians, what is, at its core, a very sensitive conversation about the past and future of our country.

But I do like what Idle No More is bringing to the table. Part of it is that the movement appears to be as fed up with inept native elders -- like Spence -- as the rest of us are. But another part is more abstract: Idle No More just feels young and energetic and exciting, a new generation rising up that won't stand any longer for its garbage life and is begging to fight its enemies within and without -- and I think a lot of non-native, younger people kind of feel the same way. This is some compelling stuff.

Still, it's hard to see how Idle could elicit real change on its own strength, given how entrenched the current native leadership is. Idle's role will more likely be to raise awareness of the issues, and this is why its Twitter presence is so crucial.

"Awareness" might not sound like much when action is desperately needed, but it's the necessary first step in improving the quality of life for First Nations living on reserve. Idle has done a remarkable job -- in a very short time and over a holiday season -- of getting people to pay attention to, and, more importantly, sympathize with the plight of aboriginals.

Real change, though, can only happen if Idle allows native leaders to join its ranks. That's going to be the tricky part, since Idle's young leaders inherently mistrust the older generation -- and because said elders haven't shown they can reform.

Spence's plea Wednesday that Idle work together with the chiefs to fight the government was a cynical attempt to co-opt the best card natives have to play right now (and cement Spence's street cred among young activists), but it is also the practical next step for Idle No More.

The rest of Canada can't be relied on to carry this cause for any prolonged period of time. Young people, especially, will move on to the next hashtag du jour, likely sooner rather than later.

As for the question as to whether the reserve system and First Nations leadership can in fact be improved, I don't know if anyone can say "yes" for certain -- and if it is indeed possible, it will take a generation or longer to achieve.

In the interim, Attawapiskat and other places like it will continue to be social and economic backwaters. Many more native lives are going to be ruined, and that is a tragedy. And if you want to know why it has to be that way, Exhibit A is the hungry chief mugging for the cameras on an island in the Ottawa River.

Photo galleryIdle No More: In Photos See Gallery