Grand Elder Raymond Robinson of Cross Lake, Manitoba began a no-liquid hunger strike on Wednesday April 3rd at 9:00 AM. Mr. Robinson says he is ready to die to ensure a meaningful Nation to Nation dialogue between First Nations and Canada, and he will not stop unless Prime Minister Steven Harper removes a series of amendments that were covertly and unilaterally added to the First Nations Comprehensive Funding Agreements which threaten Aboriginal rights, title and environmental protections.
Indigenous Peoples have a long history of fasting for positive change in our communities. Among the practitioners was Crazy Horse hoping to achieve clarity and guidance on important issues affecting our communities. The tradition of fasting can take on deep political and revolutionary meaning, as happened when Mahatma Gandhi entered 10 hunger strikes fighting for India’s independence from British rule, most achieving at least some measure of success after just a few days.
According to journalist Angela Mulholland, one of the most tragic hunger strikes occurred in 1981 in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison where former IRA commanding officer and prisoner, Bobby Sands and 10 imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) stopped eating to protest the removal of their Special Category Status in the prison.
When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to concede to the prisoners’ demands, the strike dragged on and on the 66th day of his hunger strike, Sands died from starvation. The other nine prisoners died one by one as well, after hunger strikes lasting from 46 to 73 days.
The day that Sands died, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously showed little regret, telling the British House of Commons: “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to many of its victims.” But his death captured headlines around the world and sparked protests in several cities throughout Europe.
The British government eventually granted the prisoners partial concessions. But the affair led to a surge of new IRA membership and extremism and eventually, an intensification of the fighting in Northern Ireland that went on for years until 1998’s Good Friday Agreement. (Mulholland 2013)
It is ironic and almost hopeless to consider that Thatcher watched these 10 individuals die from starvation and to consider that Harper reveres this leader as a beacon of conservatism. I fear he too will continue sit and do nothing but watch Elder Raymond die, an approach he is doing now. That silence seems to be carrying over to the office of our National Chief; after six days of statements from Mr. Robinson http://raymondrobinson.org/ there is still no mention of this call or action on the AFN’s website or facebook page.
In the recent CTV article that covered Chief Theresa Spence’s 45 daylong hunger strike from solid foods, it was noted that most individuals die within 10 days without fluids and solid foods. While I understand engaging in extreme tactics for change (such as a hunger strike) raise complex concerns, our national leadership should not ignore these calls for action.
Unlike Bobby Sands and Elder Raymond Robinson, Gandhi built a popular movement based on unity and shared opposition towards British unilateral rule. With First Nations comprising only 4% of the total population in Canada, the work of building a mass movement is staggering. Especially in the context of the dominant population knowing little about Indigenous history or worldview because it will require them to be educated and care about First Nations and environmental issues. Idle No More is calling for such a movement.
I would like the National Chief to respond to the call of Elder Raymond Robinson on his 6th day of hunger strike demanding a re-setting of a Nation-to-Nation relationship with Canada. If there is to be an end to the unilateral impositions by the Harper government that dismantle Aboriginal title, human, and environmental rights, our leaders must support one another and a diversity of tactics for change. Mr. Atleo must have the courage to stand up to Harper and the heart to listen to his people. If he remains silent leadership will be found elsewhere.
Wasauksing First Nation, Editor of MUSKRAT Magazine