Skip to main content

The Spirit of Kitlope dancers perform in an intersection in Kitimat, B.C., as other members of the Haisla First Nation block traffic as part of a rally in support of the Idle No More movement on Dec. 30.ROBIN ROWLAND/The Canadian Press

On Idle No More's website, a message has been posted for people looking to join marches, blockades or flash mobs to support the grassroots aboriginal movement: The site's two administrators note they can no longer keep up with all the events being organized in Canada and other parts of the world.

From a round dance in Toronto's busy Yorkdale Mall on Monday to the blockade of a major downtown intersection in Winnipeg to a rally planned outside a New Year's Eve concert in El Paso, Texas, the Canadian movement that began about a month ago to advocate for native treaty rights and protest against federal budget legislation continues to grow on social media and through on-the-ground demonstrations.

And now a second hunger striker – this one subsisting on herbal tea for the past 20 days – is shifting his protest from Manitoba to Ottawa to join Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence in her three-week-old fast a stone's throw from Parliament Hill.

"This is about respect for our treaty rights," Raymond Robinson, 51, an elder with the Cross Lake First Nation, said Monday in a phone interview from the Winnipeg airport. "And, at the same time, about respect for Mother Earth and the land and resources that [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper is taking it upon himself to own and control."

During the interview, Mr. Robinson had to pause at one moment to catch his breath. He has been consuming only herbal tea and medication provided by aboriginal elders, he said, and he's been feeling weak recently, experiencing headaches, dizziness and trouble breathing.

"It's really starting to take a toll on me," he said, but added that he will not end his hunger strike until Mr. Harper agrees to meet with native leaders. He also wants the Prime Minister to back away from the budget legislation, Bill C-45.

Idle No More has found a strong foothold on the Internet. Last week, the movement was mentioned 12,258 times on Facebook, 1,165 times on news websites and 144,215 times on Twitter, a number that would likely have been higher if it weren't for the Twitterwide slowdown on Christmas Day, according to analysis by Mark Blevis, who specializes in digital communication. Meanwhile, more than a dozen protests are planned across the country this week – at Dundas Square in downtown Toronto on New Year's Day, at a community gathering in Port Alberni, B.C., on Thursday, and potentially at all border crossings on Saturday.

On Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, Chief Spence of the Attawapiskat reserve in Northern Ontario prepared to enter Day 22 of her hunger strike as the new year began. On Monday, she reiterated her call for Mr. Harper to participate in "meaningful dialogue" about enhancing the political and economic relationship with aboriginals.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has offered to meet with Chief Spence, but he has not received a response from her yet, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office noted in an e-mail. Mr. Harper has not extended the same offer. In a statement issued on Monday to highlight the government's accomplishments in 2012, the Prime Minister touched on Ottawa's "strengthening" relationship with natives, pointing to last January's meeting between native leaders and his ministers, legislation to protect drinking water on reserves, and government support to improve education for aboriginals.

He did not mention the Idle No More movement or Chief Spence's hunger strike, but press secretary Carl Vallée said: "The government remains willing to work with Chief Spence, and all chiefs, to deliver better outcomes for first nations communities."

At her tent on Victoria Island, Chief Spence has met with a steady stream of visitors over the past few days, including several opposition politicians and former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark. Danny Metatawabin, a spokesman for Chief Spence, said he hopes the arrival of Mr. Robinson from Manitoba will turn up the pressure on the Prime Minister.

"We're hoping that it will make a big difference in order for the Prime Minister to open his heart to the seriousness of the situation," said Mr. Metatawabin, a member of Attawapiskat. "A dialogue needs to be committed on from the Prime Minister."

Chief Spence also continues to call for Governor-General David Johnston to get involved. He has publicly declined to do so, saying earlier in December that the issues being raised were primarily a matter for elected officials. His position has not changed, a spokeswoman for the Governor-General said Monday.

But University of Alberta history professor Ken Munro, whose expertise includes the Canadian Crown, noted that under our government system, it would be improper for the Governor-General to meet with Chief Spence without the Prime Minister's approval. However, he could advise Mr. Harper that such a meeting is warranted.

"His hands are really tied at the moment," Dr. Munro said in an e-mail regarding the Governor-General. "Under our system of 'responsible government,' the Governor-General must accept the advice of his Prime Minister."

On its website Monday, founders of Idle No More expressed frustration that aboriginal leadership is urging action in the name of the movement, noting their supporters have given them a clear mandate to work outside of governments.

"The Chiefs have called for action and anyone who chooses can join with them, however this is not part of the Idle No More movement as the vision of this grassroots movement does not coincide with the visions of the leadership," the founders said in a statement.

The founders expressed appreciation for Chief Spence's efforts, but then stressed "the face of Idle No More is also the grassroots people."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe