As I predicted, the Harper government has seized upon the olive branch extended by the Assembly of First Nations earlier this week to hold a summit later this month as a way to extricate itself from the Theresa Spence hunger strike.
Also as I predicted, Harper claims that the new meeting is based on the precedent of last year’s Crown-First Nations meeting, rather than in response to the hunger strike. Indeed, in his official announcement, he makes no reference to Spence at all: “On January 24, 2012, I was pleased to participate in the historic Crown-First Nations Gathering . . . . It is in this spirit of ongoing dialogue that, together with Minister Duncan, I will be participating in a working meeting with a delegation of First Nations leaders coordinated by the Assembly of First Nations on January 11, 2013.
Of course we would be extraordinarily stupid to believe that the Spence hunger strike was not the real motivation behind Harper’s sudden decision, but I doubt the media will press him too hard on it. I’m relieved that Spence will live, but that relief is bittersweet. A conference held in just one week, with no plans for serious follow-up, will be no more than a meaningless gabfest. Spence’s demand that Harper speak to her on a nation-to-nation basis must be set aside.
And so we will enter 2013 with aboriginal affairs basically the same as they were before the hunger strike. At least she didn’t die, but in every other respect the Harper regime will consider this a strategic victory. It garnered widespread support from racist non-aboriginal Canadians, avoided having to publicly concede to Spence, and has earned the support of virtually all major newspapers for pursuing a hard line with respect to aboriginal affairs.
Still, for those who oppose the government, they have now been able to identify the breaking point of the Harper regime, for what it’s worth: railway blockades, widespread media coverage, international condemnations, and weeks-long hunger strikes by aboriginal leaders, on an issue as trivial as a meeting between a Native chief and the Prime Minister. Those sorts of circumstances aren’t easy to duplicate.