Life against States of Emergency: Revitalizing Treaty Relations from Attawapiskat

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May 16, 2023

Dr. Sarah Marie Wiebe is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria. She teaches in the Community Development program and her research focuses on political ecology, environmental sustainability, design justice, and creative community-engaged research. For more about her scholarship see: and

A decade ago, Chief Theresa Spence from Attawapiskat ended her ceremonial fast at the height of the Idle No More movement. Mainstream media coverage framed her action as a “hunger strike”, which largely misunderstood the cultural significance of her embodied action. For six weeks, she refused solid foods while situated at her camp on Victoria Island across the river from the House of Commons in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory. Simultaneously, with her body as a symbol of corporeal sovereignty and refusal of colonial relationships, she sought to raise awareness about the enduring significance of treaty relations in Canada generally, and Treaty 9 in particular. Ten years later, Attawapiskat and neighbouring Indigenous communities in Northern Canada continue to grapple with the legacy of colonialism in Canada in its multifaceted shapeshifting forms. Attawapiskat is one community among many others who are confronted with the pressing realities of Canada’s extraction industry. Whether the now closed De Beers Victor Diamond mine in traditional Attawapiskat territory or the fledgling Ring of Fire, these development initiatives raise significant questions about contemporary manifestations of colonialism, who bears the brunt of the burden for environmental health impacts from extraction initiatives, how to implement the United Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and how to live up to treaty commitments and continuously renegotiate these relational agreements in the present moment, for generations to come. As politicians encourage consumers to purchase electric vehicles made from batteries and other items driving the renewable energy sector in regions like the Ring of Fire, these political issues related to a transition economy and Indigenous self-determination will continue to be hotly contested.

Over six weeks during the winter of 2012-2013, Theresa Spence put her body on the line to highlight the impoverished relationship between the Crown in Canada and Indigenous peoples, sparked by a housing crisis in her community. Year after year, Attawapiskat leadership found themselves declaring a State of Emergency as one last attempt to have their voices heard by Canadian public officials. But there is so much more to this story than living within a context of crisis—as I make clear in Life against States of Emergency, Attawapiskat is a place rich in culture, ecology and meaning. At the time of Spence’s fast, I was just finishing up my PhD research that looked at the toxic policy assemblage of pollution in Canada’s Chemical Valley, and how it was affecting members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. I noticed many band members were protesting Canadian colonialism alongside Spence, whether through a solidarity fast or blockading the railways that cut through the community. The Idle No Move movement ignited a global movement to refuse colonial relationships and instead enact decolonial futures. I found myself glued to the mainstream media—i.e. Globe and Mail, National Post, CBC, CTV, Macleans, Toronto Star, among others – in print, radio and TV broadcast, trying to understand how Spence’s actions catalyzed the movement, how she and her community were represented and what settler Canadians like myself could do to witness these stories, document them through creative forms of research practice, raise awareness about enduring struggles, and work in solidarity with community leaders to revitalize a conversation about what it means to be in a treaty relationship today.

A central question that Theresa Spence asked Canadians to consider during her ceremonial fast was: what does it mean to be in a treaty relationship today? This is the guiding question that Life against States of Emergency addresses through its interpretive analysis of policy documents, transcripts of parliamentary debates, and media coverage.

One story ,“My Attawapiskat is more than a housing crisis”, by a young woman from Attawapiskat caught my attention. I reached out, and she directed me to leaders from her community. We began a conversation over the phone, and then I was invited out to visit the community during a summer pow wow, to observe, listen, learn, then if welcomed, co-design a project from the ground up. During my first visit, I served as a volunteer and slowly began to meet educators including the fiercely kind and dedicated teacher Mandy Alves, health care workers and members of the Chief and Council. Together we discussed the need to reframe how Attawapiskat has been covered by mainstream media and to tell other stories. Taking direction from community leaders, I was asked to partner with youth leaders and students in their senior art class. We began the Reimagining Attawapiskat project with the aims of co-creating youth and community-driven narratives to challenge the outsider representations and portrayals of Attawapiskat, though mixed media art forms, ranging from photography to music videos. Our collaborative research team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous academic-activist-artists generated a mixed media storytelling methodology to intervene back on harmful portrayals of their community, as discussed in the book and in other co-authored publications with members of our research team.

A central question that Theresa Spence asked Canadians to consider during her ceremonial fast was: what does it mean to be in a treaty relationship today? This is the guiding question that Life against States of Emergency addresses through its interpretive analysis of policy documents, transcripts of parliamentary debates and media coverage. This research involved critical discourse analysis methodologies, including a review of mainstream media coverage, interviews with community leaders like Spence and musician Adrian Sutherland, and storytelling with young Attawapiskat artists through the Reimagining Attawapiskat project. As the pages have now gone to press, it is my hope that this book can contribute to an ongoing conversation in Canada about how, following legal scholar Aimée Craft, we can breathe life into treaties. This understanding of treaties as vibrant and alive-- not simply archival documents or secession agreements-- is relevant for treaties historically and today. As I discuss in the book, a revitalized and relational approach to treaties also has significance for environmental assessments and impact benefit agreements. In addition, as governments are challenged to implement Indigenous self-determination, UNDRIP, and treaties in my home province of British Columbia and elsewhere, findings from this collaborative research project will have significance across jurisdictions. Local, municipal, regional, provincial, Indigenous, federal and international jurisdictions may find the discussion, results and methodologies significant as we collectively continue to grapple with how to enact treaty relations today as we address various states of emergency and the climate emergency, which affect humans and more-than-human lives.

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