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Opposition MPs back Theresa Spence in push for meeting with Harper, Crown

Justin Trudeau tweeted this picture on Dec. 26 of a meeting with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

@JustinTrudeau on Twitter

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is receiving support from opposition MPs this week as she continues her hunger strike near Parliament Hill.

Ms. Spence, who has subsisted on broth, tea and water since Dec. 11, says she will keep fasting until Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a representative of the Crown agree to her demand for a meeting. She wants to speak with them about a treaty signed in the early 20th century that covered a large area of Northern Ontario – including her own reserve just west of James Bay.

That treaty promised money, education and health care in exchange for sharing the land, commitments Ms. Spence says Canada is no longer living up to.

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The native leader has so far refused offers of a meeting with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, saying she insists on speaking directly with Mr. Harper.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who plans to visit Ms. Spence on Friday, said he is reaching out to other chiefs to find out what can be done to resolve growing tensions over the federal government's relationship with natives.

"This is much bigger than Theresa Spence, it's much bigger than any individual community," he said. "This is across the country now; it really needs the Prime Minister to take action."

Liberal leadership candidates Justin Trudeau and Marc Garneau also spoke out in support of Ms. Spence this week, and Mr. Trudeau visited the chief on Wednesday.

"It was deeply moving to meet @ChiefTheresa today. She is willing to sacrifice everything for her people. She shouldn't have to," Mr. Trudeau wrote on Twitter.

He also posted a photo of himself sitting beside Ms. Spence and added the hashtag #IdleNoMore to the message, a reference to a series of native demonstrations aimed at highlighting frustration with federal bills affecting aboriginal people in Canada.

Mr. Garneau posted an open letter to Mr. Harper on his website on Wednesday, calling on the Prime Minister to meet with Ms. Spence and other native leaders.

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Reached by phone on Thursday, Mr. Garneau said the federal government has not followed through on promises to work toward a better relationship with native communities.

"What Idle No More represents, what Chief Spence's acts represent, is an incredible frustration in not feeling that they are being consulted, that they are part of the process," he said. "In Canada, in the 21 century, this can't be allowed to happen."

Mr. Duncan, who has tried repeatedly to reach Ms. Spence by phone in recent weeks, wrote to her late Wednesday night and asked her to reconsider her decision not to deal with him.

"Given your willingness to accept meetings now I am hoping that you will reconsider my offer, as a Minister of the Crown, to meet or speak with you," the Aboriginal Affairs Minister wrote.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister pointed out that Mr. Harper met with Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo just a few weeks ago, in late November.

"We are willing and ready to work with partners who are willing to take concrete action to improve conditions on reserve," Andrew MacDougall said in an e-mail to The Canadian Press.

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With reports from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa and the Canadian Press

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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