As Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston prepare to sit down with Aboriginal leaders to discuss treaty rights and economic development, here’s a rough guide to how it all came to this. We emphasize rough, because the proposed meetings themselves may or may not occur, as of Friday morning.
Who called this meeting?
There are two proposed meetings, actually, and Harper is behind both of them. On Jan. 4, he accepted an Assembly of First Nations request to meet with Aboriginal leaders to build on last year’s Crown-First Nations gathering. The AFN proposed Jan. 24, and Harper countered with Jan. 11, which the AFN accepted. Separately, Harper asked Johnston if he’d host a ceremonial meeting at Rideau Hall that would follow the working meeting. Johnston accepted.
Whether or not the meetings will actually occur, and how they will be structured, was up in the air late last evening, thanks to disagreement among chiefs from several provinces with the proposed meetings’ terms—namely, the location and the meeting’s participants. Some want the meetings to take place at Ottawa’s Delta Hotel, instead of Langevin Block and Rideau Hall. Some are also demanding the presence of Johnston and Harper at the same meeting.
If Manitoba chiefs’ demands, in particular, are not met, they say they have the power to bring the Canadian economy “to its knees.”
What are they talking about?
Officially, the PM’s proposal calls for a meeting with the government at Langevin Block that will cover Aboriginal and treaty rights, as well as economic development.
How will the meeting unfold?
The Prime Minister’s Office distributed the proposed meeting’s itinerary. According to the PMO, Harper and AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo are to provide introductory remarks. The meeting will then enter a plenary session, chaired by two Aboriginal leaders and two cabinet ministers: Perry Bellegarde of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations; Jody Wilson-Raybould of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations; John Duncan, the minister of Aboriginal affairs; and Tony Clement, the president of the Treasury Board. The session is scheduled to last 2.5 hours, after which Harper and Atleo are to “engage in a dialogue with the chairs” about what was discussed.
Next on the schedule is a meeting with Johnston at Rideau Hall.
What prompted the PM to accept the AFN’s request, anyway?
There’s some debate about this, but most observers agree Theresa Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, had some influence. We broke down the long version of Spence’s story. The short version: She embarked on what she calls a hunger strike—a claim disputed by some of her critics, since she’s consuming fish broth, water and medicinal tea—on Dec. 11, demanding Aboriginal issues be taken seriously. Among her specific wishes: respect for existing treaties, fairer resource-revenue sharing, and repeal of recent federal omnibus budget legislation. Spence would only start eating solid food, she said, once Harper and Johnston agreed to meet with Aboriginal leaders to discuss those issues. From there, her position evolved several times. When Harper agreed to the meeting, Spence said she’d continue her liquids-only diet only when a productive meeting had concluded. She later refused to attend any meeting that didn’t include Johnston, and still later, after Johnston agreed to host a separate meeting, refused to attend any gathering where the GG and PM weren’t sitting at the same table. There’s no word yet on her final plans, or the future of her hunger strike.
Why did Spence launch a hunger strike?
The chief was fed up with what she saw as a poisoned relationship between the federal government and First Nations communities, including her reserve in Attawapiskat. (You might recall the housing crisis that made national headlines in late 2011 and fuelled tense relations between Spence and Duncan). She declared that, if it came to it, she’d die for her people.
What was with her timing?
Spence alerted reporters to her protest on Dec. 10, the same day Aboriginal activists engaged in demonstrations across Canada in what they called a Day of Action. The protesters were united under the banner of Idle No More, a grassroots movement that enjoyed widespread support among native groups.
Who started Idle No More?
Four women in Saskatchewan started organizing teach-ins to raise awareness about Aboriginal issues. Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon and Sheelah McLean’s efforts spawned demonstrations on the prairies and, eventually, all over Canada. Protesters’ primary methods included flash mobs in malls and blockades of roads and railways. The movement launched a Facebook page on Nov. 29. The next day, Edmonton-based activist Tanya Kappo took the movement to Twitter—and #IdleNoMore, the instantly popular hashtag, was born. Protests multiplied in frequency each week in December, including the Dec. 10 Day of Action and plenty of events in its wake—which made for an impressive visual.
What was it concerned about, specifically?
The four creators were concerned primarily with some of the same issues Spence has raised; namely, the dangers embedded in the feds’ latest omnibus budget bill. We’ve already explained the bluster around that bill. The legislation made it easier to lease reserve lands, and it also—as we’ve explained in detail, plenty of times—made it a lot easier to build things like dams and bridges on thousands of Canadian lakes and rivers (many examples of which run through native lands).
I’ve heard the movement’s gone global. Is that true?
Yes, it is. Demonstrations have occurred in at least 19 American states. Protesters in Farmington, New Mexico flash-mobbed a local mall. Demonstrations also reached Montana. And Texas. And Los Angeles. And Chicago. Support has come from New Zealand and Japan.
Where does Idle No More go from here?
We’ll cover that in a different post. Stay tuned.