Representations of Chief Theresa Spence in News Media

by Caity Goerke 

Since Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat began hunger striking on December 11th, Canadian journalists have shared their many opinions on Chief Spence, her actions, and Indigenous activism in Canada. Well insightful and empowering accounts of Chief Spence’s activism certainly exist, dominant Canadian news media has discovered a plethora of ways to discredit, trivialize, and silence her. Taking note of the general way that media has failed to adequately represent Chief Spence and her actions (or the ways that Canadians have failed to demand fairer media), I began to recognize that the representations of Chief Spence reflects a larger picture of inadequate and harmful representations of Indigenous people.

In her essay, “Sacajawea and Her Sisters: Images and Native Women,” Gail Guthrie Valaskakis* discusses contradictory constructions used to represent Indigenous women and explains that

these contradictory images of Indian women continue to objectify and degrade… and neither the romanticized Indian princess nor the primitive squaw allows newcomers to identify Indians as equals, as owners of this land, as Native North Americans with homes, families, jobs, and indigenous governments.” (pg. 149)

While arguments could certainly be made to show how representations of Chief Spence oscillate between “princess” and “squaw” constructions (such as the ways in which she’s represented as a revolutionary leader in contrast with suggestions that she’s selfish, unreasonable, and badly behaved), what stood out in my investigation of news coverage about her strike was the ways in which she has become a part of a larger narrative that refuses to “identify Indians as equals, as owners of this land, as Native North Americans with homes, families, jobs, and indigenous governments.” Instead of recognizing these things, mainstream news coverage regarding Chief Spence ignores her cultural context and the deep history of colonial oppression that informs her actions, it silences her voice, and it makes use of racist, sexist and classist stereotypes.

Before I jump into my analysis, it’s worth while to make two important disclaimers:

1)   Transparency regarding parameters is always helpful: All articles used for this blog were discovered through Google searching and consultations with Canadian Newsstand. As there actually happens to be a fair amount of stuff out there, I went for common themes that seemed to pop up over several articles as opposed to more specific details. Also, for the sake of a manageable scope, I generally focussed on “mainstream” web-based print media.

2)   More importantly, I’m a settler Canadian and I am aware that my presence on this land plays a role in the very systems that Chief Spence is taking a stand against. However, thanks to Canada’s long standing colonial occupation of this land, I nonetheless find myself here. For what it’s worth, writing this is an act of solidarity with Chief Spence and comes from my own acknowledgment of the continued legacy of colonization that threatens Indigenous rights to land, water, and sovereignty. In addition, as I’m not an Indigenous woman, I sincerely hope that my analysis doesn’t contribute to the extensive body of harmful representations of Indigenous women and am open to feedback if it does.

What stood out perhaps most problematically in my investigation of news coverage regarding Chief Spence was the complete lack of acknowledgment for the cultural context in which her actions are located. (And, no, references to her “teepee,” to drum circles and to smudge ceremonies don’t count as cultural context … that’s just lazy journalism’s reliance on stereotyping.) In addition, the ability of journalists to gloss over colonialism never ceases to amaze me and the bull-headed insistence on ignoring the role that settler-Canadians play in the colonial process is, as always, outstanding. What we need more of is analyses like the one given by Devon Meekis in their article “Idle No More: On the meaning of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike.” Meekis explains the importance of acknowledging that Spence’s hunger strike has to be considered different from those that have occurred in other contexts because, without this understanding, there is a failure to recognize the “cultural importance and philosophy behind such practice” in a specifically Indigenous sense. As a result, her actions will be forever lost amongst imposed interpretations of what does and doesn’t constitute “proper” activism.

In addition to the absence of cultural context, there is also, by and large, an absence of Chief Spence’s voice. Where many articles are void of any statements made by her or her support team all together, those that do directly quote Chief Spence often push her statements to the end of the article or fail to use them as a focal points. I hesitate to impose too many of my own conclusions on this matter because I recognize that it actually could be Chief Spence’s intention to reduce the amount her voice is heard in order to emphasize the collectivity of her struggle and avoid the hyper-individualization that mainstream North American celebrity culture is so apt to perpetrate. However, that doesn’t excuse anyone from ignoring her voice entirely – if Chief Spence has refused to comment this refusal could certainly be thoughtfully acknowledged and engaged with. In addition, I felt that this point had to be mentioned because it’s hard to imagine that Canadian media’s tendency to silence Indigenous women isn’t at least partly to blame. With the help of Valaskakis, we can locate the lack of Chief Spence’s voice within a continuum of Indigenous people being silenced. Valaskakis explains that the “construction and appropriation of images of Indians” helps to construct histories of the “ageless Western frontier.” (pg. 150) What is key in Valaskakis’ statement is that it is images, not stories, of Indigenous people that play a role in Canadian and American “history” and what’s particularly troubling about images is that they tend to be seen without being heard.

The last point I want to make about the news coverage regarding Chief Spence is the (unfortunately unsurprising) amount of racism, classism and sexism being used to represent her and her actions. The preoccupation with how much she gets paid along with discussions regarding the supposed “mismanagement” of funds on Attiwapiskat is no doubt connected to deeply entrenched ideas of Indigenous people as “free-riders” and “well-fare cheats” that the rest of Canadians “have to pay for.” In considering how this stereotype informs representations of Chief Spence, the reality of her (and Atawapiskat’s) finances don’t actually matter. What matters is that her finances are a constant point of media fixation and that this preoccupation is, of course, part of a larger racist narrative. (For more on this and other negative stereotypes used to represent Indigenous folks, check out what Wab Kinew has to say.) In addition, journalists like Barbara Kay apparently couldn’t help but subject Chief Spence to the kinds of scrutiny so often projected on women in the spot light – specifically those pertaining to appearance and body size. To spare you to experience of actually having to read Kay’s article, I’ll sum it up for you. Essentially, Kay notes that the silver-lining to Chief Spence’s hunger strike is that she’ll lose weight. Now… at this point I could subject you to paragraphs upon paragraphs about why this makes me want to throw my computer at the wall, but as you’re all smart people I’ll assume you’ll manage to be horrified enough without my assistance.

With any luck, I’ve managed to shed a little light on the ways that mainstream Canadian news media manages to represent Indigenous activism in problematic, offensive and entirely inadequate ways. Critical engagement with news media is imperative. Without critical engagement, it’s too easy to lose sight of the ways that Canadian media is steeped in colonial, white-supremacist, patriarchal and classist assumptions that provide Canadians with a distorted perception of Canadian-Indigenous relations. So the next time you read about Chief Spence in the news, consider what’s going on behind the scenes. And, whatever you do, avoid the Sun News Network…  (that is, unless you enjoy flagrant displays of unapologetically obtuse racism).


*Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie. “Sacajawea and Her Sisters: Images and Native Women.” Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture. pg 125-150. 2005

One Comment on “Representations of Chief Theresa Spence in News Media”

  • leslie Song

    I think we need to demand from the Canadian government and from Canadian people, who like to portray themselves as broad-minded and human-rights friendly, (I’m Canadian too,) that a reeducation session hereby begin. Harper is benefiting actively from the racism that is being puked up by Canadians all over Idle No More, which is based in flagrant falsehoods about treaties and our obligations to first nations. The fact that Canadians do not GIVE ANYTHING to First Nations that is not a TREATY RIGHT is the first thought that needs to be highlighted and caused to penetrate our self-righteous consciousness. The second is that though the finger is being pointed at Spence most aggressively, especially because she is a woman, in my opinion, and an Indigenous woman – no SELF-reflection is taking place in gov’t or mainstream media, and this needs to change now – and we are all responsible for making it change. Let us say out loud, that our government policy, backed by Canadian citizens, either actively or through IDLE ignorance, has swung back and forth for generations between absolutely malevolent and violent, and horrifically incompetent. And we have the nerve to talk about Spence’s salary??? It is time for we self-satisfied Canadians, who have supported genocide and AGGRESSIVE racism against first nations, to take a good long, hard, and critical look at ourselves. The behavior I see in response to Idle No More is beyond appalling. Let us also be Idle No More.

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