OTTAWA – Chief Theresa Spence, the leader of northern Ontario’s remote Attawapiskat First Nation, has agreed to end her hunger protest after six weeks of forgoing solid food, her spokesman said Wednesday.
Spence has been subsisting only on fish broth and medicinal tea since Dec. 11 to push for a meeting between First Nations leaders, the prime minister and the Governor General.
Both she and Elder Raymond Robinson, who has been engaged in a similar protest, have agreed to stop, spokesman Danny Metatawabin said in a statement.
The breakthrough comes after a coalition of Liberal and NDP politicians and First Nations chiefs agreed to a declaration spelling out 13 specific demands for continuing negotiations between First Nations and the federal government.
The declaration calls for improvements to housing and schools on reserves, as well as an immediate meeting between the Governor General, the federal and provincial governments and all First Nations.
It also says historic treaties that originally defined the relationship between many First Nations and Ottawa should be modernized and fully implemented within five years.
“We fully commit to carry forward the urgent and co-ordinated action required until concrete and tangible results are achieved in order to allow First Nations to forge their own destiny,” the preamble to the draft declaration reads.
Numerous other chiefs and band councillors from the northern Ontario region around Attawapiskat are travelling to the capital to be part of the Thursday procession.
The resolution will likely serve to maintain pressure on the Conservatives as MPs return to the House of Commons next week after their Christmas break.
Not only will Harper face criticism for allowing First Nations unrest to boil over, but he will also face fresh demands to revisit environmental oversight that was dramatically changed in the government’s two controversial omnibus budget bills.
“We have political and legal and constitutional issues to deal with. That’s the road that Mr. Harper has chosen,” said NDP critic Romeo Saganash.
Harper is focused instead on his plans for forthcoming talks with Atleo based on an agenda they agreed to earlier this month — some of which overlaps with the Spence declaration.
“The important thing is that we continue to make progress so that the living standards of our aboriginal people improve and that their opportunities for participating in the economy continue to improve,” Harper said Wednesday at an event in Cambridge, Ont.
“Those opportunities exist with resource development in remote areas, with the shortage of labour the Canadian economy is going to be experiencing. And I want to see aboriginal people, particularly young aboriginal people, take advantage of those opportunities.”
An informal delegation that includes interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, Saganash and northern Ontario deputy grand chief Alvin Fiddler has been working closely with Spence to hash out a dignified solution.
Rae brings a reputation as a firm but respectful mediator in tricky situations such as the Burnt Church aboriginal fishing dispute in 2000. Fiddler is from the same region as Spence and is known as a practical, sharp thinker.
Together with Spence’s team of close confidants and with moral support from some aboriginal women leaders, they settled on a declaration that clarifies Spence’s concerns and commits signatories to carry on her fight.
The declaration also demands a thorough review of the two Conservative government omnibus bills, which dramatically changed environmental oversight.
“Far too long we have been denied an equitable stature within the Canadian society,” the draft declaration states. “The time is ours and no longer will we be silenced and idle.”
Thursday is significant. It’s the day Spence and the AFN originally wanted Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to hold a broad meeting with the country’s chiefs, in part to commemorate the first anniversary of last year’s Crown-First Nation Gathering, which was supposed to have reset relations between the two sides.
Those encouraging Spence to end her protest have been describing how they count her victories: greater national awareness of First Nations issues; a meeting between the AFN, Harper and several cabinet ministers; and a commitment to modernize treaties and aboriginal rights, with negotiations between chiefs and the top levels of government.
They also note that Spence’s resolve helped galvanize thousands of protesters across the country under the Idle No More banner.
Spence’s protest also attracted unwanted attention: much publicity surrounded a government-ordered audit of her band’s finances that showed a lack of proper documentation for about $100 million in funding.
Her protest has also left the AFN badly injured.
Atleo attended the meeting with Harper on Jan. 11 even though the Governor General was not included in the meeting, as Spence had demanded. She boycotted the meeting, as did many chiefs from Manitoba, Ontario and other parts of the country.