The Commons: What now for Chief Spence and Idle No More?

Aaron Wherry on the meeting of the PM and the AFN: This was not nothing, but what now?

Shortly after noon, with a group of women standing as human obstacles in front of the Langevin Block’s main doors, a crowd spilling out into the street, a man in a fur hat—Raymond Robinson, I believe, the Manitoba elder who has been on a hunger strike for the past month—stepped forward to shout his demands at the building, an imposing, Gothic Revival bunker across the street from Parliament Hill.

“Come on out, Harper!

“Come on Harper! Come on out!”

“Come on Harper, come outside! Be a man!

“Nation to nation! No more, no less!”

Around him, protesters drummed and sang in the cold and the rain. Two carved eagle heads were held aloft along with a dozen flags. A chant of “Idle! No More!” rose up from the crowd.

“I don’t want to fight, I just want to talk to you!”

The group that had moved forward toward the doors gathered around on the sidewalk to drum and sing together.

A short while later, the chiefs moved up the steps to knock on the two large brown doors at 80 Wellington. There was no answer. “We’re asking the Prime Minister to come out here,” said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, “and explain why he won’t speak to the people.” After a few minutes, the chiefs retreated, explaining themselves to the cameras and reporters who had gathered around the scene as they went. And though the chiefs departed, protesters remained, a few of them pounding on the doors to Langevin, the massive brown doors rattling in their frames. Two women stood in front of the doors and sang. The flags flapped in the breeze. Human chains began to dance along the street around Langevin Block.

At the appointed hour there was no word. Nothing about whether the meeting was taking place inside. Nothing about who was attending if it was. But a few minutes after 1p.m., a delegation of Alberta chiefs came strolling down Sparks Street, the pedestrian mall made slippery from the weather, behind the Langevin Block and up Elgin Street to Langevin’s East entrance. After a check of credentials, they were ushered inside. A few minutes later, came a small delegation of unknown origin.

Confirmation of Shawn Atleo’s presence inside eventually came in the form of an email. By then the crowd had congregated on Parliament Hill, around the steps to Centre Block. A series of speakers took the microphone to tell their stories and state their cases before an audience of a few thousand. “Stay strong. We’re all in this together. We will not fall. We will not end this,” called a young woman with long brown hair. “We’re in this for the long haul with Chief Theresa Spence, with all of our chiefs and all of those involved in the Idle No More movement. We are in unity with the creator, with ceremony. Never forget where you are and who you come from. Never forget your roots and always honour yourself. You are important. We are important!”

After a couple more speakers, the crowd formed a massive a circle dance, one circle forming on the stone path, a larger human chain encircling the lawn.

The crowd on the Hill eventually marched back to Victoria Island. Save for two official photos and a tweet explaining that the Prime Minister had decided to attend the entirety of the day’s meetings, there was silence from Langevin. Inside was National Chief Shawn Atleo, his leadership of the Assembly of First Nations apparently in jeopardy, and representatives from eight provinces, but not Ontario or Manitoba.

The eight demands of the AFN are expansive: a new process for enforcing treaties, the settling of land claims, the reconsideration of two large omnibus budget bills, a new funding framework, a commission of inquiry into murdered and missing women, a First Nations school in every First Nations community and a “fundamental change in the machinery of government” to ensure that all of this is overseen with the proper care and authority. Meanwhile, a woman is still on a hunger strike. And there are threats now of new demonstrations and blockades.

Initially, a protest movement should only be measured by its ability to register some general sentiment of general dissatisfaction. On those grounds, Idle No More has succeeded. And of the past few weeks there was today. Seemingly as the result of a few weeks of protest and fasting, there was a working meeting with the Prime Minister and a ceremonial meeting with the Governor General. This was not nothing. (Indeed, that the Prime Minister moved so quickly to have these meeting was perhaps quite something.) But all of it—the last three weeks and today and whatever comes next—will of course only ultimately be measured by what happens next and what good (or bad) comes.

There would be no word from Mr. Harper at meeting’s end, nor anything from Mr. Atleo. Reporters stood around in the rain outside Langevin, hoping that someone might stop on the way out to say something. John Duncan, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, was due to appear in a room in the basement of Centre Block at 5:45p.m. Some 45 minutes after that, he walked into the room.

He began with a review of the government’s actions and good deeds to date. He recalled last year’s gathering of the Crown and First Nations and the Prime Minister’s commitment to progress. “Today’s meeting marks another important step in that direction,” Mr. Duncan said.

The Prime Minister had a “good, frank” dialogue with all participants and the government was pleased with the “constructive” discussions that took place, but “there is still more work to be done.”

The Prime Minister, Mr. Duncan reported in his low voice, had agreed to a “high-level” dialogue on the treaty relationship and comprehensive claims and the Prime Minister agreed with need for “enhanced oversight” from the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office. And there would be another meeting with Mr. Atleo in the coming weeks to “review next steps.”

“Working together remains the best way,” Mr. Duncan said, attempting to enthuse on the b-word, “to achieve our shared objective of healthier, more prosperous and self-sufficient First Nations communities.”

After Mr. Duncan’s parliamentary secretary had offered the same assurances en francais, there were questions.

Was anything achieved today that will stop the protests?

“I think we achieved quite a bit today,” Mr. Duncan said, listing some of his high points. “I can’t really respond to the rest of your question because that’s something that the meeting was not designed to achieve.”

What about the possibility of blockades? What are you going to do about that?

“Well, we’ve said before that Canadians have every right to protest if they wish to do so,” he said, “as long as they do so in a lawful way. This is a matter that will be up to the authorities at that time.”

Are you prepared to do anything so that Theresa Spence will stop her hunger strike?

“I’ve been very concerned about this. I had a personal friend who went on a hunger strike years ago and it did great detriment to his health,” he said. “I’ve been very much wanting to have a conversation with Theresa Spence. I’ve offered multiple times. And I expressed concern again today. There was many people in the room that expressed concern.”

There were more questions and some discussion about how Mr. Duncan defines “high-level.” The minister indicated there was time for just one more question, but took a few more before finally leaving. The last was the same as the first, the simple question of a complicated moment: Will this stop the protests?

Mr. Duncan’s first words in response seemed perfectly unguarded.

“I have no idea what it’ll do.”