OTTAWA – Theresa Spence, the First Nation chief whose month-long hunger protest helped to fan the flames of the Idle No More protest movement, will attend a ceremonial meeting Friday with Gov. Gen. David Johnston.
Spence, chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, has been on a liquids-only diet for the past month in hopes of securing a meeting with Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Spence joined a group of her fellow chiefs at a downtown Ottawa hotel before heading to Rideau Hall for an evening meeting described by officials as “ceremonial.” Looking frail and tired, she walked gingerly with the help of several handlers.
At one point, she stood briefly in a room full of chiefs, wearing a headdress, to be feted by a group of aboriginal drummers. Her health, however, is seriously diminished, said spokesman Danny Metatawabin, who admitted surprise at her appearance at the hotel.
“She’s tired, she’s weak. She’s weakening. Got cramps in her stomach. We’re all praying for her,” Metatawabin said.
“The body’s stressed right now because of all the commotion of today.”
Several chiefs, meanwhile, were publicly urging Spence to end her protest, saying her health is in danger and she accomplished what she set out to do.
Harvey Yesno, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which also includes Attawapiskat, said it’s up to Spence whether she wants to continue her protest. But her reserve needs a leader, he noted.
“We’re concerned about that, if she carries on,” Yesno said in an interview. “That’s probably the most important thing.”
Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, told CBC he’s urging Spence to call a halt to her protest.
“I … told her, ‘Look, you’ve made your point. You’ve won this victory. You’ve made Canadians aware …. You have done good for your people.’”
But Louttit said Spence is still holding out for a meeting with both Harper and the Governor General. “That’s the bottom line.”
Grand Chief Doug Kelly of B.C.’s First Nation Summit expressed a similar concern for the Attawapiskat people, and urged an end to the protest so that chiefs and First Nations executives can get on with negotiating with the federal government to improve the conditions of their people.
“We didn’t vote for Theresa Spence as national chief,” Kelly said.
Earlier Friday, a sprawling crowd of protesters swirled outside the Prime Minister’s Office in the shadow of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill as Friday’s controversial meeting between Harper and First Nations leaders got underway.
There were similar, smaller demonstrations across the country, including a rail blockade in Nova Scotia.
A crowd of about 3,000 people, according to police estimates, gathered outside the sandstone building known as Langevin Block where the meetings were taking place, chanting, drumming and waving makeshift banners.
Many then crossed Wellington Street and rallied in front of the Centre Block, brandishing flags and chanting along with the rhythmic beat of skin drums.
Raymond Robinson, a Manitoba elder who has spent the last 30 days fasting to back a demand that Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston meet native leaders together, said he’s fed up.
“We were never respected as First Nations people of this land,” Robinson said. “They’re always saying what’s good for us. We know what’s right for us.”
Robinson said he will stick to his liquids-only protest — one of several that have been taking place over the last month alongside that of Spence.
“I’m going to continue until I get my demands met. I will not stand down until Harper meets with my chiefs with the Governor General present.”
A sporadic cold drizzle fell all morning and into the afternoon, failing to dampen the spirits of protesters, even if it did leave some of the feathered headdresses in the crowd looking a little bedraggled.
The demonstrators began their march on Victoria Island, a nearby outcrop in the Ottawa River where Spence has been camped out for more than a month, subsisting on a diet of fish broth and medicinal tea. They returned to the island later in the day.
Earlier in the day, Spence emerged to meet briefly with members of the media outside her makeshift island encampment.
Aboriginal people now have an opportunity to hold the government to account for years of broken promises, Spence said. “This meeting’s been overdue for so many years.”
Supporters of the Idle No More movement were also showing strength in numbers during protests in other parts of the country as well.
In Edmonton, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation joined a gathering of several hundred people, where he warned of imminent economic disruption if steps aren’t taken to rescind the Conservative government’s controversial omnibus legislation.
“Highway 63 to the oilsands will be shut down. That will happen and I guarantee this,” warned Adam, whose reserve is near the oilsands. “I fear for the worst if the prime minister doesn’t retract some of the bills that were passed.”
More than a dozen people blocked a Canadian National rail line between Halifax and Truro by placing wooden pallets and a car on the track in Truro. Via Rail said it took 53 passengers to Truro from Halifax by bus.
A noisy crowd of about 1,000 demonstrators also showed their support for First Nations in front of the convention centre in downtown Montreal.
Young people, union representatives and provincial politicians were in the group. Some waved Mohawk and Quebec flags and danced to the beat of native drums.
In Toronto, a few hundred gathered in Toronto’s Dundas Square, drumming and chanting.
Stephanie Hashie, a member of the Ginoogaming First Nation who lives in Toronto, said she was there to celebrate her culture.
“It means our future,” she said of the Idle No More movement. “It means what’s going to happen. We’re not standing idle no more. We’re not going to stand around and just let things happen.”
Spence, who has come under fire over a leaked audit report that found fault with bookkeeping practices in Attawapiskat, also spoke for the first time about how her Ontario reserve spends government money. She said most of what flows to the isolated James Bay community actually gets spent outside the community.
The money, she said, goes towards supplies and to pay contractors, consultants, lawyers — and to taxes.
“Most of the funding that we have, it goes back to you, to taxpayers,” she said in response to a question about reserve spending that was shouted over the objections of her handlers.
A government-ordered audit, leaked earlier this week, concluded there was little documentation to back up Attawapiskat’s spending.
Spence said she has been the victim of false statements about her reserve’s handling on money.
“It goes out of our reserve,” she said. “For example, if there’s housing, we have to hire contractors, we have to order the materials from out of town and the shipment, we pay tax on that.
“We hire lawyers … consultants — that’s where the money goes.”