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SYDNEY, N.S. December 14, 2012 Native Protest--A large crowd of peaceful demonstrators marched to rally in front of a federal building in Sydney, N.S. Friday afternoon.Vaughan Merchant/The Globe and Mail

First nations protests that are sweeping the country are a "call to action" and Canada must pay heed to indigenous peoples in ways it never has before, says the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

The Idle No More movement "is part of what so many of us have been saying is a moment of reckoning," Shawn Atleo, the head of Canada's largest aboriginal group, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "We need to see real movement right now."

Highways have been closed, Christmas music has been drowned out by native drummers at shopping malls, and the hunger strikes by an Ontario chief and others who support her have become a rallying cry for native people from one coast to the other.

"What we're seeing in these rallies and events is that it's not just first nations," Mr. Atleo said, "that Canadians are joining first nations across the country and saying essentially what the tagline says – that we will remain idle no more."

This is not the first time native people have been moved to action, but never in recent years have the protests been so widespread or sustained.

They point to the legislation that directly affects their communities, which native leaders, including Mr. Atleo, say was written without their input. They point to development of natural resources on their traditional lands that offers little sharing of wealth but promises lasting environmental consequences. They point to a federal government that they say has been long on gestures but short on a willingness to listen and negotiate.

This week, the National Chief visited the Cross Lake First Nation in northern Manitoba where Raymond Robinson, 51, is on a hunger strike to protest bills that he says violate his people's treaty rights. Mr. Atleo also spent time with Theresa Spence, chief of the impoverished Attawapiskat First Nation, who has gone more than a week without food to demand that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a representative of the Crown meet with first nations to discuss the treaty relationship. Mr. Atleo has written to both Mr. Harper and Mr. Johnston to ask for an "immediate commitment" that Ms. Spence's demands will be met.

When asked if the AFN supports the hunger strikes, an assembly spokesperson said it supports all actions by first nations and individuals standing up for positive change. The spokesperson also said the AFN encourages safety and respect for the "sacred responsibilities to embrace life," and stands "firmly in pride, identity and rights."

The government points out that Mr. Harper met with Mr. Atleo in late November to discuss a range of issues. In addition, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has offered to meet with Ms. Spence but says he has not yet received a response from her. But there is no sign of a willingness to call the meeting that Ms. Spence insists must take place.

Tanya Kappo of Edmonton is one of the people credited with making the Idle No More movement a cross-Canada phenomenon. "It feels like a fire," she said in a telephone interview with The Globe.

Ms. Kappo, 41, graduated from law school last spring. Earlier this year, she heard another indigenous lawyer, Sylvia McAdam, talk about law from a Cree perspective and the two became Facebook friends. Ms. McAdam and three other women held what they called a "teach-in" in Saskatchewan in November to talk about the effects of the federal bills and to provide information about treaty rights. They called the session Idle No More.

Ms. Kappo was frustrated by the fact that she wasn't hearing about these bills from first nations leadership. So she organized her own "teach-in" at the Louis Bull First Nation in Alberta on Dec. 2, and she tweeted about it using the hashtag #idelnomore. "And it just snowballed from there," Ms. Kappo said.

Mr. Atleo said every resource development project in Canada has a first nation next to it, many with people living in poverty. The government must also take seriously the hundreds and potentially thousands of missing and murdered first-nations girls and women, he said.

"I think we are going to see a continued expression of this frustration in an effort to break a very toxic system that, in fact, in my view, is life or death," Mr. Atleo said. "The cycle of heartbreaking tragedies has to end, and that's what our people are saying."