First Nations leaders meet to clarify demands, want Jan. 24 meeting with Harper

OTTAWA – First Nations leaders are meeting today to clarify the demands of hunger-striker Chief Theresa Spence, in the hopes of getting closer to a resolution of recent unrest.

National Chief Shawn Atleo is meeting several key regional chiefs from the area surrounding Spence’s Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario.

At the same time, Atleo has issued what he calls an urgent invitation to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to meet chiefs on Jan. 24 — the one-year anniversary of Harper’s summit with First Nations.

“First Nations across this country have been voicing concern and frustration with a broken system that does not address long-standing disparities between First Nations and the rest of Canada,” Atleo said in a news release.

“There is no excuse for inaction either by First Nations leadership or by Canada.”

Spence is now on the 24th day of her liquids-only hunger strike, and her spokesman says she is fragile.

“Time is of the essence now, the state of her health is weakening,” Danny Metatawabin said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Spence is demanding discussions with Harper and Johnston about revisiting the treaty rights of First Nations, although the scope of her demands has left government officials puzzled.

Harper has not agreed to meet Spence, but Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has tried repeatedly to speak with her, to no avail.

In recent letters to Spence and a letter to Atleo in November, Duncan has proposed a First Nations-federal government working group on treaty implementation and a separate discussion on comprehensive claim negotiations.

“Our government remains committed to creating the conditions for healthier, more self-sufficient First Nation communities,” Duncan’s spokesman said in an email statement Thursday. “We continue to believe that the best way to make progress on our shared priorities — education, housing, clean drinking water and economic opportunity — is by working together.”

But since the exchange of letters and promise for treaty talks in November, tension has escalated. Grassroots protests under the Idle-No-More banner have broken out across the country and there have been several blockades of transportation corridors.

Spence says there will be more of this and threatens “countrywide economic disturbances,” unless Harper meets her.

Atleo, however, stresses the need for peaceful protest and concrete solutions.

“It’s time for the Crown to honour its relationship and responsibilities to First Nations starting with the recognition and affirmation of our inherent and treaty rights,”he said. “It’s time for all First Nations citizens and their leaders to drive solutions.”