Hope that Friday’s face-to-face discussions between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and first nations leaders will end protests and disruptions across across Canada is fast disintegrating.
Idle No More organizers will hold their own Friday meeting for chiefs that were not invited to the talks on that day with Mr. Harper.
And Governor-General David Johnston announced on Tuesday that he would not be at Mr. Harper’s working meeting with key Assembly of First Nations leaders. As a result, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who called for the meeting in first place, said she might not go either.
Although some chiefs say the leaders of the country’s more than 630 first nations are united in their determination to exert their treaty rights, it is clear that there are divides about how that should be achieved.
Mr. Harper told reporters on Tuesday that he is aware of the great challenges in some aboriginal communities, and that he will continue, through legislation and meetings with first nations leaders, to identify ways to move forward.
That means “the creation of growth, of jobs and long-term prosperity for all communities,” Mr. Harper said. “We do have, for the first time in our history, economic development on a large scale occurring near where many aboriginal people live. We have a shortage of labour and lots of opportunity.”
Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, met with other chiefs on Tuesday to talk about what they hope to get out of Friday’s meeting. Their agenda said they would look at “priority outcomes,” the time frames for achieving them, and the “lack of federal mandate.” But even as the first nations leaders were planning strategy, the woman who initiated the discussion indicated that she may not show up.
Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat has consumed only fish broth and herbal tea for four weeks, a hunger strike she started in a bid to force a meeting with Mr. Harper and the Governor-General.
Mr. Johnson had not indicated whether he would be at the meeting. However, the Governor-General’s office said on Tuesday that he would not be there because it is a working session with government on public policy issues. Governors-general do not get involved in day-to-day government matters.
Danny Metatawabin, a spokesman for Ms. Spence, said Mr. Johnston’s absence will be a problem. “We remain steadfast that we wanted the Governor-General to be there to assist with building the nation-to-nation treaty relationship,” he said. “If that is the case [that Mr. Johnston will not be present], she may not be there.”
Other first nations leaders were less concerned. Stan Louttit, the Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which includes Attawapiskat, said the meeting will proceed.
Earlier this month, Mr. Alteo invited Mr. Harper and Mr. Johnston to meet with native leaders on Jan. 24 – the anniversary of last year’s Crown-first-nations gathering. That meeting is expected to go ahead.
“The G-G should and is going to be available for the second Crown-first nations gathering later this month,” Mr. Louttit said in an e-mail.
Mr. Harper will not attend. Mr. Johnston did not respond to questions about whether he would go.
But the government could be faced with a chief on a hunger strike who is garnering international attention.
Meanwhile, some of the women behind the protest group Idle No More, which has spawned more than a month of rallies, blockades and demonstrations across Canada, are holding their own one-day “national dialogue” with chiefs on Friday in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., to discuss water, land, sovereignty and treaty relationships.
“We planned to give voice to grassroots people and chiefs who were not invited to the meeting in Ottawa,” said Sheela McLean, one of the organizers.
In Toronto, Premier Dalton McGuinty said he is pleased that Mr. Harper will meet with the first nations leaders on Friday.
“I think it’s high time for us to find a way to set before the Canadian people and our aboriginal communities a plan to achieve measurable progress,” Mr. McGuinty told reporters on Tuesday. “I hope this sparks the beginning of that kind of conversation.”
The Ontario government has offered to help aboriginal leaders provide better education on reserves, an area where it has far greater expertise than Ottawa does, Mr. McGuinty said. However, he added, such an initiative cannot proceed without federal funds.
With a report from Karen Howlett in Toronto