Former Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence begins hunger strike over state of community

Former Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence says she is embarking on another hunger strike, this time over the state of her community’s water and infrastructure along with its ongoing social struggles. 

Spence and band councillor demand end to federal government's 'piecemeal' approach to crises

Former Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence during her hunger strike in a teepee on Victoria Island in Ottawa in 2012. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Former Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence says she is embarking on another hunger strike, this time over the state of her community's water and infrastructure, along with its ongoing social struggles. 

Spence became a focal point of the Idle No More movement after she subsisted on fish broth and medicinal tea from December 2012 to January 2013, demanding a meeting between the prime minister, the Governor General and First Nations chiefs. 

Spence held the fast in a teepee on Victoria Island in Ottawa and her actions added fuel to cross-country protests across the country under the Idle No More banner.

Spence began the current hunger strike with Attawapiskat Band Coun. Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin on Sunday at midnight. 

"We will no longer sit by and watch government groups and officials come in and visit our community only to offer a piecemeal approach to longstanding and ongoing crisis within our community," said Spence and Koostachin-Metatawabin, in a statement posted on a Facebook page called Reclaiming our Steps, Past, Present and Future.

Attawapiskat's band council declared a state of emergency last week after water tests showed potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) in the tap water. The chemicals are byproducts produced by the water treatment process when chlorine interacts with the high level of organic materials in the community's water source.

The community has a separate system specifically for its drinking water supply that is filtered through a reverse-osmosis system and distributed through two water stations where community members can fill up jugs. While still safe, the drinking water is starting to register rising levels of THMs and HAAs.

Attawapiskat has long struggled with high levels of THMs and HAAs and the fix needed to deal with the issue is in the millions of dollars.

Wants senior bureaucrats at the negotiation table

The statement from Spence and Koostachin-Metatawabin demands that senior Indigenous Services Canada management with "budgetary and decision making authorities" meet with Attawapiskat on "major capital investment that encompasses not only with our water crisis, but also focusing on infrastructure and housing."

The statement said the community also needs commitments on dealing with child welfare, health, mental health and education, along with "the looming genocidal encroachment" of resource development activities on traditional lands.

Danny Metatawabin, who was Spence's spokesperson during Idle No More, said that Spence and Koostachin-Metatawabin are currently only drinking water. 

"But if there is no solution provided by Indigenous Services Canada or provincial officials, then they are going to stop taking water," said Metatawabin, in a telephone interview from Attawapiskat. 

Metatawabin said Spence and Kooostachin-Metatawabin have taken over a vacant De Beers training facility to hold the hunger strike.

"It's long-standing issues with the Department of Indian Affairs, it's not just about the recent state of emergency on our water crisis," he said.

"It's a multitude of issues."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him