OTTAWA — Two members of Stephen Harper’s Conservative caucus — an elected MP and a senator — publicly disparaged the Idle No More movement and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence at a fundraising dinner for a provincial candidate Tuesday.
Sen. Patrick Brazeau referred to Spence’s “so-called hunger strike” in addressing about 80 people at a Legion hall in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans, and mocked her physical shape. “I was sick two weeks ago,” Brazeau said. “I had the flu and I lost five pounds.
“I look at Miss Spence, when she started her hunger strike, and now?” Brazeau added as a voice in the hall called out, “She’s fatter,” which drew laughter from much of the audience.
Brazeau said though Idle No More has put aboriginal issues in the news, he does not support their methods. “They don’t stand for anything,” he said. “I, as an Algonquin person, am living proof that no one will colonize me.”
After Brazeau spoke about being turned away Dec. 24 when he tried to visit Victoria Island where Spence was conducting her hunger protest, Ottawa-Orleans MP Royal Galipeau told the crowd he too had gone to see Spence.
Galipeau said he was allowed into Spence’s tent on Boxing Day because he wasn’t recognized. At that point, Spence, who consumed only liquids during her protest, was 15 days into her 44-day fast, which she ended last Thursday.
“I stood in the circle around Chief Spence,” Galipeau said. “I noticed that manicure of hers. I tell you Anne can’t afford it,” he said, referring to his wife.
Galipeau said: “Most people in Idle No More are my skin colour and about my age. It reminded me of the 1960s and 1970s flower people who are now organizers for the NDP in Ottawa Centre. They are the same people I saw in the Occupy movement the previous summer.”
“Whether it’s Idle No More or Occupy or the pots and pans in Quebec, the labour movement can’t finance those things anymore because we’ve passed legislation to shine the light of day on that,” said the MP.
(The Conservatives passed a bill in December to force labour unions to make full details of their finances and spending public.)
In attendance at the dinner for Ontario PC candidate Andrew Lister were provincial and federal conservatives, including Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod, Orleans Coun. Rainer Bloess and former Ontario PC cabinet minister Brian Coburn.
In an interview Wednesday with Torstar News Service, Galipeau acknowledged his remarks, but explained they were based on what he observed that day. Describing himself as having a “social conscience” and caring about First Nations, he said he went to check the condition of Spence’s health, not to meet with her, after his grown children had asked what as a sitting MP he was going to do.
Galipeau did not identify himself as a Conservative MP upon entering Spence’s tent.
“I didn’t think I should disturb her,” he said.
He identified himself as an MP to Spence’s right-hand man Danny Metatawabin, but not as a Conservative. He said it would have been “clear from the kinds of questions I asked” that he was a member of the government caucus.
Told she was against Bill C-45 (a budget implementation bill that First Nations say guts environmental protections), Galipeau says he advised Metatawabin it was already passed into law, and they would do better to prepare a brief and recommendations for the next budget in order to have an impact. Their conversation, he said, was nearly derailed by an overbearing white woman who raged against the Harper government.
Galipeau was told Spence was seeing a nurse practitioner every two or three days and was OK. He says he asked if there was “anything we should do” such as bring food for their volunteers, and Metatawabin told him to bring submarine sandwiches. He said he went back two days later on Jan. 28, brought a few sandwiches, and never went back.
The MP says he wrote up a one-page report which he sent to the prime minister’s office, but declined to release it to Torstar News Service. Galipeau said he made no public mention of his visit because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
Asked why he raised it at the Tuesday dinner for provincial PC candidate Andrew Lister, Galipeau said he “probably shouldn’t have, because that’s attracting attention on me, and I’m not very good at that.”
He did not withdraw his comments. He said it was clear from media reports that Spence had made up her mind about the Conservative government and decided “a whole bunch of us are not worthy of anything.” He referred to her changing demands through her protest, and said while he wouldn’t tell her how to do her job, “I’m sorry, she has a job to do, and her job is in Attawapiskat, she’s the chief of about 1,500 people.”
Spence could not be reached for comment.
Liberal critic Carolyn Bennett called the comments “appalling.”
“It’s just trying to slander what is a genuine act of desperation on behalf of Chief Spence and also a huge movement in terms of Idle No More,” she said. “This is a very exciting and impressive grassroots movement and I think it’s at their peril that they try to minimize it or ridicule it.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not mention First Nations concerns or Idle No More protests as a priority for the government in his speech to the Conservative caucus Wednesday.
The opposition raised those issues in the Commons, with Liberal interim leader Bob Rae demanding why Harper failed to prioritize aboriginal concerns.
Harper defended his emphasis on the economy, saying it is an issue for all Canadians, including aboriginal Canadians. He cited his government’s efforts to improve aboriginal education through legislative changes.
At the Orleans fundraiser, Brazeau — a Conservative appointee to the Senate —said Spence met with members of many other parties, but not Conservatives.
“She refused to meet with any Conservatives — the Conservative government, whether you like it or not, who are in power, who can make changes, who can make decisions on behalf of her situation and other people in Canada. And she refused to meet any of them.”
“The Liberals always paid lip service and blank cheques to aboriginal communities without asking for accountability,” said Brazeau.