Plans will likely proceed for more first nations protests this week, with possible blockades of railways and highways. Politicians can also expect to be greeted by more protesters when they return to their official House of Commons duties at the end of the month. But as word grows of more protests, two of Ottawa’s most prominent aboriginal critics took steps this weekend to soften their tone.
A spokesperson for the Idle No More movement, which first galvanized the grassroots last summer, said that the organization was not “for now” supporting blockades or any illegal protests.
And Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, clarified in a statement Sunday that none of his previous comments should be interpreted as “threats” or “calls to violence.” Mr. Nepinak has been fiercely outspoken in his criticism of Friday’s meeting between a group of chiefs and the Prime Minister.
The statement, a spokesperson said, was a response to how some of his comments about a “warrior spirit” had been translated in social media.
Aboriginal protesters held rallies and blocked roads in cities across the country this weekend. On Saturday, a crowd in Calgary blocked a main inner-city bridge across the Bow River for a number of hours. In Ottawa, Ontario chief Theresa Spence continued her hunger fast, approaching the sixth week of a diet that she says has been limited to fish broth and tea.
Last week’s meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which was attended by Shawn Alteo, head of the Assembly of First Nations, and 21 other chiefs, has been greeted with decidedly mixed reviews – with some saying it demonstrated a new movement toward resolving treaty issues, and others, including Mr. Nepinak, declaring it a “sideshow” that achieved nothing.
Those talks seem unlikely to quell demonstrations planned by first nations members across the country. But behind this resolve is an aboriginal community that remains divided. Here are where some of the key First Nations players stand:
Now in the 38th day of a hunger strike, the Attawapiskat chief has vowed to continue her liquid-only diet at her camp on Ottawa’s Victoria Island. Some chiefs have urged her to stop, saying she has already done enough to raise awareness about aboriginal treaty rights: it was her demand that led to a meeting on Friday between first nations leaders and the Prime Minister.
The AFN chief said the meeting had achieved “some movement” and that Mr. Harper, “for the first time, provided a clear mandate for high-level talks on treaty implementation.” But as criticism of his leadership grows – and there are rumblings of a no-confidence vote – Mr. Atleo has the difficult task of managing a highly divided constituency, even among those first nations leaders who recognize the AFN.
The AFN has called for another meeting to take place on Jan 24, with the agenda to be determined after chiefs consider the results of last week’s meeting. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan will attend but Mr. Harper has yet to say whether he will be there.
A prominent critic of Friday’s meeting, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail on Sunday that it “will not yield yield anything substantial and [was] certainly not anything that will quell the power of the drums and the strong spirit of the people.” In an interview on the weekend with the CBC, Mr. Nepinak seemed to go further, referencing a growing “warrior spirit,” and saying, “At some point the energy and power of our young people will start to spill over the political boundaries we’ve tried to create.”
But his Sunday statement, however, said Mr. Nepinak “has never condoned violence of any kind, but rather is promoting peaceful protests.” (A spokesperson later clarified that he would consider a blockade of transportation routes a peaceful protest.)
A professor at the First Nations University and a co-founder of the Idle No More movement told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday that while the organization was backing Ms. Spence and planning a day of protest this week, it did not “at this moment” support blocking railroad and highways to gain attention.
“The vision of Idle No More is that we’re peaceful and we’re working within the means of legal boundaries,” she said.
She went on to say the AFN meeting failed to address the legislation that is the subject of the Idle No More protects, specifically environmental and land provisions in the government’s budget bill C-45. The movement is also protesting parts of legislation that alter environmental assessments and the protection of waterways.
The chief of Alberta’s Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said in an interview that local resentment will fuel a movement to block the main artery linking Fort McMurray to the south. “The protest will last through the summer and the blockade of Highway 63 is going to happen if things don’t change,” Mr. Adam said. “If he’s going to stonewall the first nations people, we can stonewall the highways too.”
The chief would not divulge who exactly is organizing the blockade but said he’s not personally involved, as he fears a major disruption will end in violence. “I don’t think the Canadian government will stand for it.”
Mr. Adam, 46, said many in the oil-sands region are tired of what he calls the Harper government’s unending push to weaken the country’s environmental laws. The prominent first nations leader has long raised concerns about how bitumen projects affect health in the Athabasca River region – his band has claimed higher cancer rates among its members, and more catches of deformed fish. “We’ve been Idling No More since 2007,” he said on Sunday.
The Grand Chief of Mushkegowuk Council, which includes Attawapiskat, boycotted Friday’s meeting in support of Ms. Spence. But speaking of Mr. Atleo’s decision to go ahead with the meeting, he said that the AFN leader is “in a really, really difficult position. He is trying to manage a wide array of positions and thoughts across the country and he’s got to do what he thinks is best.” Mr. Louttit pointed out that a meeting with the Prime Minister was a significant step. “It hasn’t happened in recent times when a Prime Minister has said. ‘Ok, I want to deal with these issues myself,’ ” the chief said. “Hopefully the yardsticks will move.”
With a report from The Canadian Press