Elder Raymond Robinson – Hero to some, well-intentioned grandstander to others

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | April 26, 2013 | Circulation: 145,000


Hunger striking Indigenous people have gained international headline-grabbing prominence since the birth of the Idle No More movement, thanks to a six-week fast by Attawapaskat’s Chief Theresa Spence and Cross Lake Elder Raymond Robinson that coincided with the movement’s explosion this winter.

The age-old starvation tactic has since been employed by a Downtown Eastside Vancouver activist, a jailed Inuit elder protesting a Labrador dam, and a Cree woman in Quebec.

Many observers, however, raised their eyebrows when Robinson launched a second fast on April 3–this one without food or water–vowing to starve if Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t meet again with First Nation leaders and repeal controversial changes to bands’ funding agreements. Robinson, however, called off the hunger strike five days later.

“I decided at that point to thank Creator for answering my prayer; now I want to stand down,” Robinson explained in an interview with Windspeaker the day after ending his strike. “I have done my part … never again.”

The Manitoba Cree Elder said his hunger strikes were both deeply emotional experiences, and the spark is lit for healing the Canadian-Aboriginal relationship. Despite appealing for legislative changes, he insisted his actions were spiritual not political and inspired many.

“Vigils were held in major cities all over world … countries I didn’t even know existed,” Robinson said. “We’ve reached the whole world.

“It was overwhelming. It made me cry that our prayers were being answered, that Creator was answering our prayers. He was creating a new change throughout the world; he’s planting seeds.”

The former soldier–from a family of veterans–said he learned the value of sacrifice and service in the military, and believes actions motivated by those values, and by the First Nations sacred teachings, lead to real social change.

“The people of Canada, the U.S., and all over the world are waking up, too,” he said. “I was praying that the First Nations leadership and the government of Canada will finally, in this crucial moment of time, come together and start having an open and fair dialogue with each other, based on mutual respect, trust, honour, humility, honesty, and the courage to forge new relations.
“Here we are in 2013 still living in Third World conditions. Many reserves still don’t have running water, economic development, social stability, proper medicare or medical technology to take care of our sick, or proper education. We are overcrowded, our houses are run down, and we don’t have the dollars to repair them.”

Though some critics questioned the effectiveness of Robinson’s second hunger strike, it did achieve a face-to-face meeting with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

“The meeting was frank but positive and focused on the need to work together to make progress on the treaty relationship and living conditions on reserve, particularly in the areas of education, housing and economic development,” Aboriginal Affairs stated afterwards. “The minister acknowledged Grand Elder Robinson’s commitment to raising awareness of First Nation issues and encouraged him to consume food and water, stressing that real progress will only happen when the parties work together.”

Robinson gave Valcourt “credit” for what he said was “a lot of hope” for positive change in reserve conditions. But the Grand Elder also took offence with the minister for, as he recalled, “laughing at” his suggestion of talks based on a nation-to-nation understanding, as recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

“He said, ‘Raymond, I’ll make a deal with you: If you end your hunger strike now, I’ll visit you on your reserve. How’s that?’”
Robinson recalled. “What good was this visit to my reserve going to be, to see me? Is he going to bring his magic wand and ‘Poof! Here’s a hospital; Poof! Here’s business infrastructure; Poof! My reserve’s got running water and hydro.’

“Many ministers have come to reserves across Canada. They go visit, and put it all over the paper. That’s a good story, ain’t it? But nothing changes. It’s just a photo op. Kind words, full of optimism and hope, but an empty box.”

One critic who was decidedly unimpressed with Robinson’s hunger striking is Ernie Crey, senior policy advisor for Sto:lo Tribal Council in B.C. Crey has been outspoken in his desire to see the Idle No More movement become more organized, strategic, and engaged in Canadian politics.

“These dramatic, grand gestures – ‘I’m going to starve myself to death unless the Prime Minister agrees to talk to us’ – are not going anywhere,” said Crey. “They won’t bring about the change people want.

“Where Raymond is concerned … it was an effort to prompt a meeting that’s already taken place, and the Prime Minister has agreed to hold yet another meeting with First Nations leaders. I’m not trying to disparage him, but let’s get serious here. If you want to do something to improve the lives of Aboriginal people, these dramatic gestures ring hollow to me.”

While there were conflicting reports about why Robinson ended his recent fast–failing health or successful pressure from Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo–Crey believes that the real reason was that the Elder had simply lost credibility with an ill-planned action.

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