First nations leaders hopeful after Harper agrees to meet

The Globe and Mail

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is helped back to her teepee after greeting and welcoming supporters as they visit her on Victoria Island in Ottawa on Thursday, January 3, 2013. Spence is in her fourth week of a hunger strike calling on Harper to meet and discuss First Nations issues. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

As grassroots demonstrations and blockades continued, and a Northern Ontario chief’s hunger strike stretched into its 24th day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed on Friday to a working meeting with key first nations leaders on Jan. 11 to discuss treaty rights.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began her hunger strike with a demand for a meeting among herself, native leaders, Mr. Harper and the Governor-General as a condition of ending her fast. She now says she will continue until she is satisfied with the outcome of next week’s meeting and ongoing discussions. The announcement also failed to quell the anger fuelling the Idle No More movement, with protesters vowing on Friday to rally on a bridge leading to the U.S. border in southwestern Ontario on Saturday afternoon.

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Mr. Harper said in a statement that did not mention Ms. Spence that he was prepared to meet with a delegation of leaders co-ordinated by the Assembly of First Nations.

At a gathering of the Crown and first nations last year, the government and chiefs agreed to an ongoing dialogue with clear goals to measure progress, he said.

“While some progress has been made, there is more that must be done to improve outcomes for first nations communities across Canada.” It is in that spirit, Mr. Harper said, that he has agreed to another meeting.

Ms. Spence, who will attend the meeting, said it must produce concrete action and a promise of additional talks before she will give up her fast.

“We will see what the results are, whether there really are positive results,” she said when asked on Friday to explain what it would take now to end the hunger strike. “There are a lot of issues that we need to express and really work together [on] as partners.”

Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN, said the face-to-face discussion would be an opportunity for the government to honour its responsibilities.

But the gathering is expected to do little to reduce the swell of protests being conducted under the banner of Idle No More.

“Hell, no,” Tanya Kappo of Edmonton, one of the early organizers of Idle No More, replied when asked if the meeting would be enough to stop the demonstrations. “We are newly inspired.”

In addition, she said, Idle No More is a grassroots movement that is independent of first nations leaders and their actions.

Idle No More demonstrators are protesting against several federal bills, including omnibus budget legislation that has already been passed, that they say will have negative consequences for native people and their communities.

Those bills will not vanish as a result of a one-day gathering, Ms. Kappo said. “It really fixes nothing.”

About 40 people briefly blocked a major road outside the Ford Motor Co. plant in Oakville, Ont., where Mr. Harper made an announcement on Friday.

“The fact that he responded to Shawn Atleo and not to Chief Theresa Spence, I think, is a blatant kind of action of trying to divide the community, which is unfortunate,” said Wanda Nanibush, a Toronto organizer for Idle No More, who was protesting in Oakville.

Some organizers for Idle No More received the news of Mr. Harper’s meeting offer with a mix of triumph and trepidation.

Khelsilem Rivers of Vancouver, who has helped stage events gathering hundreds of people almost daily, said Mr. Harper’s apparent willingness to meet is “a positive step,” but that it will be met with suspicion.

“A lot of grassroots people are going to be kind of hesitant, waiting to see what kind of meaningful action comes from [the meeting]. We’ve done this before,” he said. “There were lots of promises from this government, but a lot of them were either not followed through with, or the complete opposite took place.”

Although he sees the meeting as progress, Mr. Rivers described it as “a calculated tactic by Stephen Harper and the government in terms of meeting with a very mainstream organization like the AFN, which a lot of grassroots people do have issues with.”

Mr. Rivers said plans are in the works for a national grassroots mobilization on Jan. 11 to coincide with the meeting of leaders, and education campaigns will continue after that. Meanwhile, local branches planned demonstrations at Canada-U.S. border crossings for Saturday. A Sarnia Police spokesperson confirmed that the force expects protesters to try to block the Blue Water Bridge from noon to 1 p.m.

Many first nations chiefs expressed skepticism that concrete results would arise from the one-day meeting with Mr. Harper. There were also questions about who would be allowed to participate.

Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council, which includes Attawapiskat, said last year’s Crown/first-nations gathering with Mr. Harper offered little direct time with the Prime Minister and only a limited number of chiefs could attend.

Then, a month later,“the budget came out and just ripped us apart,” Mr. Louttit said of funding cuts to aboriginal organizations. “So we are looking for better results this time around.”

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