Chief Theresa Spence: A Hero or A Sham?

The mass media plays a largely manipulative role in the depiction of news stories. The coverage of these alleged popular stories is often uneven and biased (Boykoff, 2007). Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike was one of many First Nations issues addressed by the news and subsequently questioned by the public and politicians. The dissent of the Aboriginal people went through a series of struggles in Canada; one key example of a notorious protest was the Oka Crisis. The media’s portrayal of protesters incites the fuel of fear and lack of knowledge of the public. This portrayal is continually influenced by corporate power thus through a one-sided representation, protesters are shown negatively.

Media uses framing as a major instrument “in the exertion of political power, and the frame in the news text is really the imprint of power – it registers the identity of actors or interests that competed in the text” (Boykoff, 2007: 217). In this reading, Boykoff (2007) discusses the use of five frames by the media on protests specifically regarding anti-globalization and anti-war protests. Of the five frames, when regarding Chief Spence’s hunger strike, the frame of amalgam of grievances may be used to explain the media’s choice of perspective. The disruption frame is deployed when regarding the blockades along the Toronto-Montreal corridor near Belleville in support of Chief Spence. The newspaper articles used in this analysis were either from the Toronto Star or The Globe and Mail to explore how each newspaper company interpreted Chief Spence’s hunger strike. While the Toronto Star undermined the hunger strike through the exploration of underlying assumptions in regards to the subsequent reaction by politicians, The Globe and Mail presented the news on the hunger strike in a less sensationalist perspective, however, not neutral.

The Toronto Star’s article, “Spence butt of jokes at Tory’s dinner” was critical of the event hosted by the Conservative party. MacCharles and Nevil (2013) analyze how two Conservative Party members would mock Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike through the following statements. Senator Patrick Brazeau stated, “I had the flu and lost five pounds” (MacCharles and Nevil, 2013), in comparison to Chief Spence’s potential weight gain rather than the anticipated weight loss claiming, she had gotten “fatter” since the start of the hunger strike. Brazeau then later at the event, addressed himself as a fellow Aboriginal person was ashamed of how the Idle No More movement was executed, thereby stating “I, as an Algonquin person, am living proof that no one will colonize me” (MacCharles and Nevil, 2003). There was also a comment made by MP Royal Galipeu regarding Chief Spence’s manicure during the hunger strike while addressing his own wife could not afford it. These several comments attack and challenge Chief Spence’s legitimacy. As an individual of First Nations background and someone who should be naturally losing weight during the course of her hunger strike is perceived to be a façade by the two members, rather than applauding her for raising awareness, they have mocked and ridiculed her and through the media and implied her credibility as questionable. The second comment by MP Galipeu regarding the manicure comment, is in relation to her recently announced, tax-free salary she accumulated, while her town of Attawapiskat was still reeling from the housing conditions. This comment greatly challenges Chief Spence’s credibility and legitimacy as the Canadian public question where her high grossing salary comes from and at the expense of whom.

Another Toronto Star article, Anti-Indian racism gushes out online investigated the widespread racism after Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the attempt to get the Aboriginal leaders to meet with the Prime Minister. These comments found under CBC’s stories regarding the Idle No More movement addressed the evidently clear racist assumptions many Canadians held and dismissively argued as a right of freedom of speech however, clearly indicative of hate speech. The author discusses an email she had received from a white nurse who had visited the reserves and recalled the family owned a television that must cost a few thousand dollars yet, had broken windows and an inoperative sink. Mallick (2013) analyzed this e-mail, as she was highly critical of the nurse’s accusations about the First Nations reserve she visited. This nurse also went on to claim that the First Nations people she had met, most “could not seem to harness that positive energy to do something constructive” (Mallick, 2013). This comment completely invalidates the successful strides taken through protests and social movements. The nurse has generalized a whole community on the basis of a few. It also places class and racial conditions on her beliefs when she asserts, “you have to learn and move on. I have a great deal of admiration for other minority groups that have done just that” (Mallick, 2013). While her beliefs may be one of many Canadians, the nurse claims that many Aboriginal people have done nothing to change their position and more so, deserve the conditions they live in because they are considered to be incompetent of any major life altering decisions. Mallick (2009) illustrates how the nurse overgeneralizes a whole community based on a few, this gravely stereotypes the whole community and also undermines their strides to eliminate the stereotypes. Adese (2009) discusses how media coverage can be manipulated to preserve the hegemonic way of thinking. The climate of fear is rooted in Canadians when they perceive Aboriginal peoples still seen as a threat to national security. The assumption that this minority group deserves the struggles they have had to face is indicative of the media’s portrayal and the possible intention to preserve this image of an Aboriginal person to sustain the image of a ‘homegrown terrorist’ (Adese, 2009).

On the other hand, a fellow Attawapiskat community member claims that it would be a grave injustice if Chief Spence were to die due to the hunger strike in another Toronto Star article. The author mentions how the individual wore a “Native pride” hat and was outspoken. The author portrays the supporters of Chief Spence’s hunger strike as people of her background and demonstrating their admiration to First Nations pride. The author also duly noted the occupations of the individuals where one individual worked in the community’s only store and the other worked in the café; both can be assumed to be minimum-wage jobs (Aulakh, 2012). The possible racial connotation that underlies this reference may be that Aboriginal people come from the working class and are often poor especially in the community of Attawapiskat. Chief Spence’s supporters largely being First Nations may impact her legitimacy and credibility, since it evidently indicates that the only support comes from her own people. Thereby it reduces her legitimacy and credibility, as the Canadian public may perceive her hunger strike as another attempt to gain more money. Especially with the several controversies she was involved such as her salary, the public may question her legitimacy and credibility.

The Globe and Mail article, addresses how a news crew was kicked out of Attawapiskat, written in a somewhat sensationalist fashion (Galloway, 2013). The article claims that the Global News crew was not permitted inside to see Chief Spence and would be arrested for trespassing if they intended to go inside. The author continues stating that a day earlier an audit was leaked about the Attawapiskat’s financial records and fuelled the controversies behind Chief Spence’s huge salary and lack of financial transparency and accountability. The news article states the audit by Deloitte did not find any evidence of funds being misused and believe, the leaked financial records was used to discredit her hunger strike (Galloway, 2013). However, as discussed with the Toronto Star articles, the damage was done to Chief Spence’s image. The deceptive nature of media portrayal as discussed by Boykoff (2007) illustrates the notion that despite, there was no clear evidence to prove misappropriation of funds by Chief Spence. This factor intertwined with the news of the Global News crew being kicked out from Attawapiskat perpetuates the implicit message that Chief Spence is hiding something. Not allowing media coverage will only raise suspicion especially with her connection to her partner Clayton Kennedy who was recently charged with fraud and had previously filed for bankruptcy.

The following two articles address the frame of disruption and the frame of amalgam of grievances. The first article from The Globe and Mail discusses the blockades set up by supporters of Chief Spence’s hunger strike. The blockades delayed 2,000 VIA Rail passengers, created a small gathering in the Eaton Centre, another by Harper’s constituency office and also in downtown Vancouver (McCarthy and Bradshaw, 2012). The crowd size of the VIA Rail passengers is technique deployed by the media to emphasize the notion of disruption created by these protests, this technique then simultaneously fails to indicate the crowd size of the protesters in comparison (Boykoff, 2007). These blockades have evidently caused disruption in the lives of citizens but, the intent of the protest was to show support for Chief Spence and her goal to meet and discuss the issues and concerns of the First Nations community with the Prime Minister. The editorial’s title claims the hunger strike to be “regrettable” in regards to Chief Spence being overjoyed that the Prime Minister is willing to meet with her however, also stating that she will not return to solid food, if the meeting is not up to par with her demands (Globe and Mail, 2013). The amalgam of grievances frame can be applied in this article because the author expresses their opinion that the Chief but be able to address the immediate concerns such as the state of Attawapiskat and welcome the introduction of Bill C-45 by the government in support. The article further addresses that Chief Spence may be trying to address too many issues rather than the particular concerns that impact her community, which is a remote and small population (Globe and Mail, 2013).

To conclude, despite the use of two different mainstream newspaper companies, the media coverage is depicted in an uneven and biased manner. The media will continue to cover issues that are perceived to be sensational by the public and maintain a manipulative lens on these issues. Chief Spence’s hunger strike garnered attention within the Idle No More movement; however, the media coverage depicts her actions in light of a political perspective rather than a humane perspective.


Adese, Jennifer. 2009. “Constructing the Aboriginal Terrorist: Depictions of Aboriginal Protests, the Caledonia Reclamation, and Canadian Neoliberalization.” Pp. 275-285 in Engaging Terror. A Critical and Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by M. Vardalos, G.K. Letts, H.M. Teixeira, A. Karzai and J. Haig. Boca Raton: Brown Walker Press.

Aulakh, Raveena. 2012. “Attawapiskat rallies behind chief on hunger strike”. In Toronto Star, 26 December. Retrieved December 9, 2014 from

Boykoff, Jules. 2007. “Mass Media Deprecation.” Pp. 216-47 in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

Galloway, Gloria. 2013. “Global TV crew kicked out of Attawapiskat”. In The Globe and Mail, 9 January. Retrieved December 9, 2014 from

Globe and Mail. 2013. “A regrettable hunger strike brings about a desirable meeting of the minds”. In The Globe and Mail, 4 January. Retrieved December 9, 2014 from

MacCharles, Tonda and Nevil Hunt. 2013. “Spence butt of jokes at Tory dinner: Senator, MP belittle Chief’s hunger strike and Idle No More protest”. In Toronto Star, 31 January. Retrieved December 9, 2014 from

Mallick, Heather. 2013. “Anti-Indian racism gushes out online”. In Toronto Star, 14 January.Retrieved December 8, 2014 from

McCarthy, Shawn & James Bradshaw. 2012. “Idle No More protesters block main Toronto-Montreal rail line in support of Chief Spence”. In The Globe and Mail, 31 December. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from


One comment

  1. Jonathan King · · Reply

    Very useful article, nicely articulated to provide a case study of how FN are treated more broadly in the media. Thanks.



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