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native protests

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs pauses as he speaks during a press conference following a meeting with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in Ottawa on Jan. 10, 2013.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Talks between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and first-nations leaders Friday will go on without the participation of many of the invited chiefs after a day of chaotic negotiations that has further eroded an already fragile relationship.

The meeting, which Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo and a handful of chiefs plan to attend, caps a tumultuous week in Ottawa's relationship with aboriginal peoples, who have been demanding to discuss issues including treaty rights, resource revenue and conditions on reserves.

Over the past several days, Idle No More protests have swelled, two communities have challenged federal legislation, controversy has mounted over a hunger-striking chief and a federal court has changed the definition of what it means to be Indian.

Theresa Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat, who has been on a hunger strike for more than four weeks to demand the meeting, decided she would not take part in the discussions because Governor-General David Johnston would not attend. His presence, as the representative of the Crown, was one of her key demands.

Governors-General do not get involved in day-to-day government matters, but Mr. Johnston offered to hold a second "ceremonial" meeting with the chiefs after they meet Mr. Harper, but that did not mollify Ms. Spence. And other chiefs quickly said they would join her in refusing to take part.

Perry Bellegarde, the chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, who was originally named as one of the chairs of the first-nations delegation, told the chiefs on Thursday night that he will not participate.

"We want to see the Governor-General and the Prime Minister and have it opened up to all of the chiefs," Mr. Bellegarde said. "That's what we are saying, that's what Chief Spence is saying, and we support that and stand in solidarity."

Chiefs from Manitoba and the Northwest Territories have also refused to take part, and it is unclear just how many people will be across the table from Mr. Harper when the talks begin early Friday afternoon.

The chiefs are angry that Mr. Harper insisted the talks be in his offices in the Langevin Block of Parliament and not at the Ottawa hotel where they have been meeting this week. They expressed frustration that the Prime Minister has said he will attend for just a half-hour at the beginning and a short time at the end and leave the real negotiations to ministers.

And they are angry that the Prime Minister's Office limited the first-nations delegation to the members of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) executive committee, a representative of the AFN women's council, a representative of the AFN elders' council, a representative from the AFN youth and Ms. Spence.

A delegation led by former AFN national chief Ovide Mercredi visited the Prime Minister's office late Thursday afternoon to try to persuade him to meet with the chiefs on their terms, but were rebuffed.

That has put Mr. Atleo, who organized the meeting with Mr. Harper, in a difficult position, and it is unclear what can be accomplished amid so much dissent.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Atleo told reporters that the aim of the four-hour event is to begin a long-term process that will make progress on real issues affecting first nations with established time frames and milestones.

At issue is respect for treaty rights and title to aboriginal land. But Mr. Atleo also wants to talk about the Indian Act, resource revenue sharing, establishing a national commission of inquiry on violence against women and girls and the federal legislation that has been crafted without first-nations consultation. That includes two omnibus budget implementation bills, C-38 and C-45, which contain sweeping changes to environmental oversight.

"There is no going back to the way it was before," Mr. Atleo told the chiefs on Thursday night. "This country will be forever changed because of what is happening. And there are decisions that have to be made at this crucial juncture by the Prime Minister and by extension all Parliamentarians, but make no mistake, every single Canadian now."

Mr. Atleo paid tribute to the Idle No More grassroots movement, which has been staging protests across Canada and around the world to exert native rights. "We would not be standing here if not for Idle No More," he told the chiefs. "We will not silently suffer without protest."

Idle No More demonstrations have been planned for across Canada the United States and other countries Friday to coincide with the meeting. It is unclear how the events of Thursday will change their tenor.

Wallace Fox, the Chief of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, said the chiefs who attend the meeting with the Prime Minister will not be speaking for his people.

"If we have to shut down the economy, then we will," said Mr. Fox. "Nobody can stop this Idle No More movement and nobody is going to stop the people."

Mr. Fox said Mr. Harper has a big problem on his hands.

"The rallies are going to continue, the blockades are going to escalate – roads, highways, whatever, it's going to happen," said Mr. Fox. "And if they don't want to deal with us, they are obviously going to have to deal with the economic impacts that are going to appear as a result of these blockades."