A day of action called to force the federal government to pay heed to native issues was generally peaceful, as first-nations leaders worked behind the scenes to persuade a hero of the protest movement to give up her hunger strike, which is now in its fifth week.
Railway lines were blocked, traffic on major highways was impeded, and round dances were performed at busy city intersections on Wednesday, causing delays and frustration for motorists. But the protesters appeared to have listened to chiefs who urged them to eschew violence as they took to the streets.
Demonstrations like the ones that hit communities across Canada have been erupting since early December under the banner of Idle No More and drive home the potentially disruptive power of first-nations people trying to give voice to their many complaints.
The protesters are driving the government and their leaders to begin moving forward on complex issues including treaty rights, comprehensive claims and legislation they say negatively affects them and their communities.
“This morning was absolutely tremendous,” Gordon Peters, Grand Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, said after taking part in a demonstration that blocked one of two access roads to the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, the major trade crossing from Southern Ontario to the United States.
Wednesday was not the day to show all the cards the first nations hold, Mr. Peters said. “There will be more coming,” he warned. “It will be based on the assessment of the work that we will be able to do with the federal government.”
Mr. Peters called for the day of action after Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted last week on meeting with only a small number of chiefs selected by the Assembly of First Nations to discuss the issues fuelling native discontent.
The chiefs who were not allowed in the room, such as Mr. Peters, were furious. And they were also angry that the AFN’s leadership bowed to Mr. Harper’s insistence that Governor-General David Johnston not be in the room as demanded by Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who is on a hunger strike.
Mike Smith, the AFN regional chief for the Yukon, said the priority of the AFN executive is to persuade Ms. Spence that it is time to eat again. She is being approached by female elders and leaders from Northern Ontario, all urging her to give up her fast.
“The majority of them as mothers and grandmothers are very concerned,” said Stan Beardy, the AFN regional chief for Ontario. “They feel that she has not necessarily reached all of her objectives, but the usefulness of creating awareness has reached its peak. And I think that what they are saying that it would make more sense if she would abandon her hunger strike.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the AFN regional chief for British Columbia, said Ms. Spence has done her job. “We would encourage her to walk from the hunger strike and to leave in the knowledge that she has assisted in raising a tremendous amount of awareness,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould said.
The AFN leaders are meeting with the chiefs in their regions to determine the best way to proceed on treaty implementation and comprehensive claims and to capitalize on Mr. Harper’s promise at the meeting last week to take a more direct hand in first-nations affairs.
“There is a fire lit under all of us right now to ensure that our messages are brought forward and how we see the process unfolding in terms of the commitments made by the Prime Minister,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould said.
Once the chiefs have reached some consensus, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo will call another meeting with the Prime Minister. A treaty meeting that was scheduled for Jan. 24 now seems up in the air as the first-nations leaders take time to sort out their positions on the issues.
But the deep divides among them could complicate future negotiations.
Mr. Peters, for instance, said he has not yet received any word from the AFN about what transpired at the meeting with Mr. Harper, so he and other chiefs in Ontario are moving ahead on their own to find ways to force the government to talk about issues like treaty rights. One of those ways is protest.
“I don’t think Idle No More is going to stop,” Mr. Peters said. “Today, I was amazed by the number of young people who came out, I was amazed by the young people and how they spoke. That is so positive for us.”
Not all chiefs agree that blockades are an appropriate expression of discontent.
“I think economic protests and slowdowns are one thing, but blockades and crippling an economy is another,” said Jody Wilson-Raybould, the AFN regional chief for British Columbia.
But it is uplifting to see first-nations citizens becoming empowered, she said. “The challenge we have now, or the real opportunity, is to harness and translate all of that energy into practical change on the ground in our communities.”