Idle No More protesters blocked the main Toronto-Montreal rail corridor near Belleville Sunday evening, delaying 2,000 VIA Rail passengers on the same day 21 opposition MPs and senators visited hunger-striking Chief Theresa Spence. The politicians’ aim was to amplify her demand that the Prime Minister convene a meeting with first nations leaders to address dire poverty on the country’s reserves.
Demonstrations in support of Chief Spence took place across the country on Sunday. At Toronto’s Eaton Centre, protesters crowded a section of the mall in a loud, but peaceful gathering. A smaller crowd backing her assembled in Calgary outside of Stephen Harper’s constituency office. And in downtown Vancouver, several hundred people, some banging drums or waving signs, rallied to show their support.
The chief acknowledged the backing from members of the Idle No More movement, a first nations grassroots protest campaign that has sparked roadblocks and other demonstrations, some fuelled by social media, over the past few weeks.
Chief Spence, from Attawapiskat Reserve in Northern Ontario, was on the 20th day of a hunger strike on an island in the Ottawa River during which she is consuming only liquids. Her campaign has garnered support from across Canada and internationally, with some 15 New Democrats and six Liberals visiting her on Sunday to express their solidarity.
In a statement read by a supporter, the weary-looking chief said she will end her protest only when Mr. Harper and Governor-General David Johnston convene a meeting with the country’s first nations leadership and recommit to fulfill Canada’s and the Crown’s treaty obligations.
“We need to reignite the nation to nation relationship based on our inherent and constitutionally protected rights as a sovereign nation. We are demanding our rightful place back here in our homeland that we call Canada,” she said in the prepared statement.
She told reporters she was weakening and finding herself tiring easily, but was determined to carry on because the meetings are “long overdue.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus slammed Mr. Harper for refusing to meet with Chief Spence, though she is now not insisting on a personal meeting.
“We wanted to give our commitment to Chief Spence that we will do what it takes to get this government to sit down and start addressing these issues,” Mr. Angus said after he and some colleagues spent several minutes with her in a teepee.
“Our constituents are saying what is going on in this country that a woman is starving herself a yard away from Parliament Hill and the Prime Minister has walked away.”
Mr. Harper did convene a meeting with first nations leadership and his ministers last January, and met with Grand Chief Shawn Atleo in late November to assess progress on commitments made, a PMO spokesman said on Sunday. The government has said Chief Spence should meet with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
“We’ve been clear we are open to meeting with Chief Spence and other first nation leaders,” Mr. Duncan’s director of communications, Jason MacDonald, said Sunday. “But we’re interested in productive discussions and not photo ops.”
Mr. MacDonald said, by the end of 2012-13, Ottawa will have spent $131-million in Chief Spence’s small northern community since the Conservatives took office in 2006.
After the much-publicized housing crisis in her community last year, the federal government has provided 60 new and freshly renovated homes and has began construction on a new school, he said. He added that, a week before Chief Spence began her hunger strike, the government offered to send a senior Member of Parliament to the community to ensure it was prepared for winter.
“We never received a response to our offer,” he said.
In the Vancouver protest on Sunday, Surrey resident Clayton Haskell, a member of northern B.C.’s Tlazten First Nation, said he had come to support Ms. Spence.
Mr. Haskell said his biggest concern at the moment is the chief herself.
“The immediate concern is her health and well-being,” he said.
With files from Wendy Stueck in Vancouver and The Canadian Press