Every morning, Mark Gowland wakes up and asks himself how he ended up in the middle of one of the biggest media firestorms in Canada.
Gowland, 26, has been helping out at Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's camp since Dec. 11, when she started her much-publicized hunger strike at an aboriginal education centre on Victoria Island on the Ottawa River. With the exception of a few days off for Christmas, he's been there each day though the ups and downs of her protest.
Spence has been demanding a meeting with both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to discuss what she characterizes as "treaty issues" between First Nations and the Crown.
“It's been unreal,” Gowland told CBC Hamilton by phone from Ottawa. “In the beginning, I didn't even know she was doing this. I had no idea.”
He's not kidding. Even before news had broken about Spence's protest, Gowland made up his mind to travel to Ottawa and camp out in front of Parliament in protest of Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, which make substantial changes to Canada's stance on many environmental issues.
The next day, Gowland left his job at the Green Smoothie Bar on James Street North, packed his bags and headed for Ottawa.
Then he found out about Spence's protest. He showed up for a “sunrise ceremony” on Dec. 11 and met the Attawapiskat chief. He told her he'd been planning a protest of his own, and she laughed.
“From then on out, I just thought — I'm just going to help this lady with whatever,” Gowland said.
“I just showed up, and I never left.”
Gowland helps out wherever he can, taking care of the camp's fire and doing crowd control. During his time in Ottawa, he has been privy to some big political moments that an ordinary guy from Hamilton might not normally see.On Jan. 11, Gowland ended up at Rideau Hall for a ceremony between the Governor General and a group of Native Chiefs. (Supplied)
On Jan. 11, he ended up at Rideau Hall for a ceremony between the Governor General and a group of Native chiefs. Along the way he met Bob Rae and host of Aboriginal community leaders.
“People have been coming from all over Canada,” Gowland said.
But there have been bumps in the road, too. Spence faced many questions and accusations over the last month about the purpose and validity of her campaign.
An audit of the federal funding spent by the Attawapiskat First Nation released earlier this month found significant documentation was lacking for the $104 million transferred to the band between 2005 and 2011.
The audit was requested by the federal government to ensure the funds it provided to Attawapiskat between April 2005 and November 2011 were spent as they should have been.
The accounting firm Deloitte was engaged to perform the audit in December 2011. The firm has said that of the 505 transactions it reviewed, more than 400 lacked proper documentation.
'The people I've met have just taken me in as family.'—Mark Gowland
Spence dismissed the timing of the leaked audit as a distraction from the “true issues” and claimed it was designed to discredit her.
Gowland, for his part, agrees. “It looks like someone trying to shut her up and discredit her," he said. “Everyone's trying to throw this mud at her, but she wasn't even there for the first five years of that audit.” However, Spence was the deputy chief of Attawapiskat from 2007 until 2010, when she became the incumbent chief of the northern Ontario First Nation.
Many have also called Spence's hunger strike itself into question. She has been subsisting on a diet of vitamins, fish broth and tea — which some say is not an actual hunger strike.
But Gowland disagrees. “I see her — she is getting weaker. I see it with my own eyes,” he said.
“You try living on fish broth for a month. She is so tired, and yet all these people want to see her — so she still goes out to meet them.”
Then there's the connection to the Idle No More protests that have blocked roadways and railways across the country. Many have linked Idle No More's blockades and rallies with Spence's protest, but Gowland says the two are not related.
“She is not associated with Idle No More at all,” he said. “They're completely separate. They're just both doing it for the same reasons.”
Gowland isn't sure how long he'll remain in Ottawa, but he is trying to prolong his stay as long as possible. If nothing else, this experience has taught him a wealth of things about Aboriginal culture, he says.
It's also made him want to educate people about what he's seen. Gowland says the average Canadian's perception of Aboriginal culture doesn't come close to the truth.
“I hear people say they're bottom feeders,” Gowland said. “But there are bottom feeders in white culture, there are bottom feeders in black culture, there are bottom feeders everywhere. Just like there are crooks in every culture and saints in every culture.”
“From my experience, it's a very beautiful, gracious way of life. The people I've met have just taken me in as family.”