More than a week of negotiations led by interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and native leader Alvin Fiddler have convinced Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence that she can walk away with dignity from the hunger strike she began in December.
Ms. Spence’s spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, announced in a statement released on Wednesday afternoon that the chief and Manitoba elder Raymond Robinson would resume eating solid food because a declaration to be signed on Thursday will commit first-nations leaders and representatives of the opposition to carry on her fight.
The Attawapiskat chief has become a central figure of the native unrest that has been flaring for more than a month in different parts of Canada, much of it expressed by protesters waving the flag of Idle No More, a loosely run grassroots movement that shares many of Ms. Spence’s goals.
By signing the declaration, the opposition parties will help stop a hunger strike that native leaders and others have been trying to persuade Ms. Spence to end since shortly after it began. But they will also be promising to support an agenda that could turn off some Canadians because it would put more power – and ultimately more money – into the hands of first nations.
The negotiations began last week when Mr. Rae telephoned chiefs from Northern Ontario, where Attawapiskat is located, and Manitoba, where chiefs have vocally supported Ms. Spence’s efforts.
Among them was Mr. Fiddler, the deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. He and Mr. Rae talked by telephone and exchanged e-mails, then held a conference call on Sunday with Mr. Metatawabin, Ms. Spence’s partner, Clayton Kennedy, native leaders, and a representative of Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
A result of that meeting was a decision to produce a written commitment, which became a declaration drafted by people working for the AFN and Mr. Metatawabin.
“We are really reaffirming the need for the government to recognize this is a third order of government that needs to be treated with respect and there is an agenda that needs to happen,” Mr. Rae said.
Ms. Spence, he said, has done something quite courageous. “I don’t think she is giving in or giving up anything. I think she can walk out with her head high and with a deep appreciation from the communities around her about what she has tried to do.”
The signing ceremony on Thursday will begin early in the morning, when Ms. Spence will leave for the last time the teepee on the Ottawa River where she and Mr. Robinson have fasted. At a hotel in Ottawa’s downtown, the two hunger strikers will be the focus of tributes.
The final version of the declaration contains 13 commitments. Eight of them formed an eight-point action plan that Mr. Atleo presented to Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a meeting earlier this month. That plan involves assurances that first-nations issues – specifically treaty rights and comprehensive claims that have been mired at low levels of the federal bureaucracy – will receive oversight at the highest political levels.
The five new demands – including an immediate meeting with Mr. Harper, Governor-General David Johnston, and first-nations leaders – were added in the past two days after discussions with Ms. Spence and her team.
Ms. Spence began her hunger strike saying she would subsist on a diet of fish broth and herbal tea until the Prime Minister and the Crown (presumably Mr. Johnston) agreed to meet with first nations leaders to discuss treaty rights. When Mr. Harper met with Mr. Atleo and an AFN delegation on Jan. 11, he refused to allow Mr. Johnston to attend. Governors-General do not ordinarily get involved in the day-to-day business of government.
Ms. Spence refused to attend that meeting or end her hunger strike because Mr. Johnston was not present. But, despite what is in the declaration that will be signed on Thurdsay, she is not insisting on another meeting.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will not attend Thursday’s signing ceremony and was apparently not invited. He will be represented by Romeo Saganash, a Quebec New Democrat MP who has been assisting with the negotiations and who said his party should have no trouble following up on the commitments. “These are items and questions that are a big part of NDP policy,” he said.
Mr. Atleo, who has been recuperating from the flu, is scheduled to attend a special assembly of chiefs in British Columbia.
He expressed his appreciation for Ms. Spence’s efforts in a statement on Wednesday, saying the goal that he and the Attawapiskat chief share is the “guarantee that our children can achieve the brighter future that they deserve. This is what every chief across this country, every member of the Assembly of First Nations, will continue to fight to achieve.”
The declaration will have no government signature. But Mr. Harper has indicated that he is willing to take a more direct hand in first-nations affairs – especially treaty rights and comprehensive land claims – which is among the 13 commitments.