Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who is in the third week of a hunger strike, should be content, for the time being, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet with a delegation of native leaders, including herself – 13 days before the anniversary of the Crown-First Nations Gathering on Jan. 24, 2012. The prospect of such gatherings becoming a regular annual event is desirable in itself, even though Chief Spence’s regrettable moral-pressure tactic may have been a factor in Mr. Harper’s decision.
Chief Spence’s current intention of waiting for Jan. 11, the day of the “working meeting” to follow up on last year’s Crown Gathering, before she returns to a normal diet, is not praiseworthy. It is not consistent with her previous demand for a meeting with the Prime Minister, which has in effect been granted. On the one hand, she was gracious enough to express herself to be “overjoyed” at the announcement of the meeting. On the other, some of her statements have invited inferences that she will not return to solid food unless the outcome of the meeting is to her satisfaction. That would be to up the ante unreasonably.
Mr. Harper said on Friday – while announcing an automotive innovation fund at Oakville, Ont. – that the government had already been planning such discussions with Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in November. But the timing of the gathering next week unmistakably shows that Chief Spence’s actions have had an effect. It would make sense for her to remain in Ottawa for the event, but not to continue to live on fish broth and little else, on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River.
Of course, one day’s meeting will not solve the problems of the First Nations communities, and Mr. Harper will not and should not accede to all the AFN’s proposals or demands. But there is a great degree of common interest.
The plight of Attawapiskat has particular significance, both practical and symbolic. Its remoteness and small population make it difficult to thrive there, but the resources of Northern Ontario ought to make success there possible.
The fulfilment of aboriginal treaty rights should eventually lead to economically viable Indian communities. Good management practices and accountability would lead to solid, warm houses and drinkable running water.
For their part, members of first nations communities should welcome the federal government’s Bill C-45, which would facilitate new revenues from leaseholds on what are, ultimately, their own lands. There is no need to take antagonism for granted – and Chief Spence should start eating soon.