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Chief Spence negotiating to end hunger strike: sources

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, wearing a headdress, takes part in a drum ceremony before departing a Ottawa hotel to attend a ceremonial meeting at Rideau Hall with Gov. Gen. David Johnston in Ottawa, Friday January 11, 2013.


Theresa Spence, the chief of a remote Ontario first nation who has been on a hunger strike since early December, is in talks to end her protest on Thursday in exchange for continued political pressure from federal and native leaders, sources have told The Globe and Mail.

Ms. Spence has indicated she will resume eating solid foods after the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, and opposition leaders Thomas Mulcair of the New Democrats and Bob Rae of the Liberals agree to press the Harper government to move on an eight-point action plan crafted by the AFN, the sources said.

She also wants a commitment from the opposition leaders to continue fighting omnibus budget legislation that has prompted country-wide protests under the Idle No More movement and which many native people say will negatively affect their communities because it reduces federal environmental oversight.

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The AFN said it does not have confirmation that the hunger strike will end, but is hoping for a positive result. Negotiations on Tuesday were said to be in a fragile state, according to sources familiar with the talks.

Mr. Atleo, who has been at home recuperating from a severe bout of stomach flu and exhaustion since Jan. 14, sent out a release on Monday saying he is keen to return to work later this week.

Chiefs from across Canada were sent invitations on Tuesday calling them to Ottawa on Thursday – the anniversary of last year's Crown-first nation gathering – for a special meeting.

As of Tuesday, Ms. Spence has been living on a diet of water, fish broth and herbal tea for 42 days. She has reportedly lost more than 30 pounds and spends much of her days sleeping because of her weakened condition.

She began her fast demanding a meeting about treaty rights with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor-General David Johnston. Mr. Harper met with a delegation of AFN chiefs and representatives on Jan. 11, but refused to allow Mr. Johnston to participate. Governors-general do not normally get involved in the day-to-day business of running the country, and even the Queen has told Ms. Spence to direct her concerns to federal ministers.

Because Mr. Johnston was not at the Jan. 11 discussions, Ms. Spence said she would continue her hunger strike.

But native leaders from across the country have been urging her to give it up, saying she has done what she set out to do: Get the government's attention and force a discussion about treaty rights and other issues facing first-nations communities. Last week, a group of female native leaders visited her on the island in the Ottawa River where she is camped and attempted to talk her into eating again.

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The chiefs of Manitoba asked last week for a meeting that same day with Mr. Harper and Mr. Johnston. But their demand was framed around the deteriorating health of Ms. Spence – a problem that would be resolved if her hunger strike is ended.

And the Prime Minister's Office has made it clear that the next time Mr. Harper talks with the first nations, it will be a one-on-one with Mr. Atleo – a meeting that is expected to take place later this week or early next week.

The AFN action plan, which chiefs across Canada are assessing, asks Ottawa to begin addressing the difficult issues of treaty grievances and comprehensive claims immediately. It also asks for new funding arrangements – including the sharing of resource revenues from development on traditional territory, and for first nations to be involved in equalization discussions. In addition, it focuses on education, a demand for an inquiry into violence against aboriginal women, and consultation with first nations on legislation that affects them, such as the contentious budget bills.

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