On February 1st, CBC’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi was in Hamilton doing a live broadcast before a crowd.
At one point, they brought out a media panel to discuss Idle No More, Chief Theresa Spence, and the media. The panel was comprised of Jonathan Kay (National Post columnist), Judy Rebick (activist and rabble.ca founder) and Paul Berton (editor-in-chief of Hamilton Spectator). The discussion was lively, but only really adversarial between Kay and Rebick. They got into something of a debate. It was entertaining to listen to, but little was resolved between them. Upon listening again later (which you can do by clicking here. The discussion begins around the thirty minute mark), I realized it was because there was no central proposition put forth to be supported or refuted by the debaters. This enabled the figurative goalposts to be moved repeatedly, and led to a confusing exchange. So I decided to transcribe a little section of the debate and analyze it.
My analysis is in italics. Dialogue is in plain writing.
J Ghomeshi: Judy Rebick, your assessment of the news coverage you’ve seen of chief Theresa Spence?
J Rebick: I think it was disgraceful. I think… *cheers and applause from audience* I think first of all, by questioning whether it was a hunger strike without looking into what she was doing–it was actually an important ritual using fish soup. It’s something Native people did in the old days to survive the winter, so it was very important to the spiritual part of what she was doing. And then secondly, the audit. I was horrified that the CBC accepted that leak of the audit as a news story. It was a manipulation, I’m sure Harper’s government was behind it… *cheers and applause from audience* And it wasn’t a news story. I mean, that was last year’s story. She was exonerated from any wrongdoing, and all the audit said was there was a problem with paperwork. It wasn’t a big news story. And what did it have to do with the hunger strike anyway? So I think that started a kind of “get Chief Theresa Spence” thing in the media. And we had the horror stories of Sun Media calling her “fatty” and all this kind of stuff. And very little respect to her, I thought. And also misrepresenting what she wanted–She didn’t ask for a personal meeting with the Prime Minister and the Governor General, she asked for them to meet with all the chiefs. And all the premiers, by the way. That was her demand, that was her demand from the beginning, and it remained her demand. So I really think the media treatment of her was disgraceful. And I agree that there wasn’t enough discussion of the fundamental issues too.
Since there’s no central proposition, Rebick brings up two points and the debate begins two-pronged.
She doesn’t finish the thought that began with, “By questioning whether it was a hunger strike.” She ends up explaining the significance of the fish soup and never gets back on track. However, from what she did say, her argument seems to go as follows: The media shouldn’t have questioned whether Theresa Spence was really on a hunger strike because they didn’t know what she was actually doing (which, of course, doesn’t even make a rudimentary amount of sense–how else to find out what Spence was actually doing than by questioning whether her hunger strike really was one?) Perhaps this would have turned into a cogent argument had she finished it.
Her next argument is that the audit should never have been published, and it goes as follows: Spence was exonerated from any wrongdoing with regard to the handling of Attawapiskat’s funds. The audit’s only claim to relevance was that it allegedly discredited Spence and showed that she was part of the swath of problems facing First Nations. Therefore the audit was not relevant and should not have been published. Of course, this whole syllogism hinges on Spence’s having been exonerated (For the record, a Google search of “Theresa Spence exonerated” yielded only two results that corroborated Ms. Rebick’s statement. One was a comment on a Huffington Post article, the other was an article written on a bookstore/publishing company’s website. Neither mentioned their sources. I remain skeptical, but open-minded and curious).
J Ghomeshi: All right, Judy Rebick. Said a lot. Jonathan Kay?
J Kay: Look, Theresa Spence said, “I’m willing to die for this.” She put herself at the center of the narrative, and when she said, “I’m willing to die for this,” it meant to Canadians that she was depriving herself of food. So that became the drama, that became the story. Once that became the story, it’s fair game for people to say, “If you’re willing to die, if you’re presenting yourself as a hunger striker, how much are you eating?” And after six weeks of an alleged hunger strike, I think a lot of people, in good faith, are going to ask, “Where are we now? Have you lost the fifty pounds that a hunger striker is going to lose, if you actually don’t eat?” And I think a lot of people said, “Well, you know, it’s not legitimate if you question actually how many calories she’s eating.” I don’t buy that. If you’re telling people that you’re putting yourself at mortal risk, and you’re not losing weight, maybe Sun News put it in somewhat crass terms by calling her “fatty,” but guess what? They were saying what a lot of people were thinking, because she put herself in the center of the narrative in that context. As for leaking the audit, you know, bad governance on reserves happens to be one of the problems facing First Nations. Not all reserves, some are very well-governed. But bad governance, such as at Attawapiskat–and I visited Attawapiskat, and everybody there tells me the governance is horrible. They tried to get rid of Theresa Spence in September. And yet idle no more–
Here Kay is cut off by Rebick.
His first point isn’t a rebuttal, but rather a whole new argument (with regard to Rebick’s hunger strike comments, there is nothing to rebut). He makes his position quite clear, but I’ll put in syllogism format nonetheless: When Spence said that she was willing to die, people were led to believe that she was depriving herself of all sustenance. She was not. Therefore the media was right to point this out.
Kay’s second point is a perfect example of the moving of goalposts. He argues that releasing the audit brought up an important issue regarding native well-being, namely governance. However, this doesn’t mean that the audit itself was relevant, and it doesn’t contradict Rebick’s assertion that it wasn’t.
He goes on to make a third argument. He says that Spence did a poor job at governing Attawapiskat, as evidenced by the fact that that’s what the residents have told him and that they tried to get rid of her in September. He doesn’t mention whether this poor governance has to do with the mismanaging of funds, and thus again doesn’t quite contradict Rebick (who, remember, said only that Spence was exonerated from any wrongdoing as far as finances are concerned. Rebick didn’t exclude the possibility that Spence screwed up some other way. But now I’m just splitting hairs).
J Rebick: Yeah, but that’s not the issue. The issue–
It isn’t clear what Rebick meant by “that.” She may have meant Spence’s governance or First Nations governance at large. Kay interprets it as the latter. It also isn’t clear what she meant by “the issue.” She may have meant that it isn’t the largest issue affecting natives or that it isn’t the issue brought up by Idle No More. Again, Kay interprets it as the latter:
J Kay: No, no. The issue isn’t what you decide it is. The issue, if it’s First Nations and how to improve their lives, the issue includes First Nations governance. And Idle No More didn’t like it when that was raised. They wanted–
J Rebick: That’s not true–
Just for clarification, Rebick here is responding to Kay’s statement that Idle No More didn’t like it when the issue of governance was raised, not his statement that governance is one of the issues relevant to the improvement of the lives of natives.
J Kay: They wanted a raise on their t–
Kay drops his voice at the end of whatever word he says at the end of that sentence, making it inaudible.
J Rebick: Excuse me, that is not true.
J Kay: They wanted a raise on their t–
If you listen to the recording, it sounds kind of like “tips.”
J Rebick: Idle No More organized because they’re not happy with the existing leadership of First Nations. That’s why there’s a grassroots movement to develop a different way of doing things. *applause*
J Kay: But Spence is one of those leaders.
J Rebick: So first of all, that’s not true that they don’t want to talk about that. Not true.
J Kay (speaking concurrently): Spence is one of those leaders. She’s one of those leaders.
Here, Kay and Rebick talk past one another. Rebick argues that Idle No More is not opposed to discussions of governance, but she doesn’t make this unequivocal when she uses the term “existing leadership.” So when Kay says that Spence is one of those leaders, that serves both to move the goalposts (again) by arguing that Spence is a bad chief, but also to make it clear that “existing leadership” includes chiefs. This is confusing, since Rebick did seem to express discontent over the discussion of governance in her opening statement (If you read closely, she didn’t actually, but I can understand Kay thinking that she did), and Kay said that Idle No More was opposed to discussions of governance. So both seem to be changing positions made minutes ago.
J Rebick: Number two, she said “I’m willing to die” because she successfully–and that’s the reason we’re all talking about it. And you said, yourself, to me, it’s the reason you went up to the north–It’s because she inspired all the young people who moved out with Idle No More and she put the issue on the table.
Now this is really confusing. Rebick doesn’t explain the causal relationship between Spence’s inspiring young people and her being willing to die. Does she mean that Spence just said that to inspire people? Bizarre. Even more bizarre is the fact that Kay agrees.
J Kay: That’s true.
J Rebick: She put the issue on the table as the urgent issue that it is. And that’s why we’re all talking about it now. That’s why the Prime Minister had to blink for the first time that I can remember, and actually did something that he didn’t want to do. *audience cheers and applauds*
Not an argument. Also, Rebick mentions “the issue” without clarifying what she means. Kay interprets it as meaning the poor conditions that Natives live in.
J Kay: I agree with you that it was necessary and it was great to put that issue out there. What I’m saying is that once that issue’s out there, once you’ve got journalists talking about it–like us–you’ve got to accept every level of discussion on it, in terms of governance, in terms of corruption, in terms of private property rights. It can’t just be the basket of issues that Idle No More activists want, such as treaty rights. It’s got to be everything. *audience cheers and applauds*
Here Kay hedges his bet. His argument changes to a much more broadly applicable one, and he argues simply that “…you’ve got to accept every level of discussion[.]” He doesn’t mention whether Idle No More disagrees with him (he already admitted they don’t with regard to governance).
So, perhaps a quick recap of the arguments made, boiled down to their essentials:
J Rebick: The audit wasn’t relevant should never have been released, because Theresa Spence did no wrong.
J Kay: Spence misled the public and the media was right to expose her hunger strike. The audit raised the important issue of governance. The governance of Attawapiskat is poor.
J Rebick: That’s not the issue.
J Kay: Yes it is. Part of what plagues Natives is poor governance. Idle No More didn’t want to discuss this.
J Rebick: Yes they did.
J Kay: But Theresa Spence is one of the people perpetuating the poor governance.
J Rebick: Theresa Spence said she was willing to die because she inspired young people. She put the issue on the table.
J Kay: Agreed. But Idle No More can’t choose the issues up for discussion.
So one sees the sort of chaos a debate can become when there’s no central proposition to be supported or refuted. The goalposts are moved constantly, and very little is really resolved.
The discussion continued afterward, but I won’t keep commenting. Transcribing this stuff is difficult, and this post has already ballooned into something much larger than I’d originally planned. I’d only expected it to be about 1000 words.