Chief on hunger strike demands action within 72 hours

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is helped back to her teepee after greeting and welcoming supporters as they visit her on Victoria Island in Ottawa on Thursday, January 3, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canada’s native leaders have petitioned the Prime Minister and the Governor-General to gather three weeks from now to discuss perceived failings in the treaty relationships – but an Ontario chief on a hunger strike to force such a meeting says she can’t wait that long.

Theresa Spence, the chief of the impoverished community of Attawapiskat, who has been fasting for 24 days to demand the face-to-face discussion, has told her supporters and other native leaders that a meeting must occur within the next 72 hours, and she will not start eating until it has begun. Raymond Robinson, an elder from the Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba, is forgoing food along with her.

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“There are plans in the works for a meeting in the future. That’s fine. That can go ahead and planning can take place,” Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council, which includes Attawapiskat, said after visiting Ms. Spence on Thursday afternoon. “But I think what’s required for the life of these individuals here, for the life of the chief, is that there needs to be a meeting with the Prime Minister soon, within the next two or three days.”

Those who were allowed inside Ms. Spence’s teepee on a tiny island in the Ottawa River just a few kilometres from the Parliament buildings on Thursday said she is growing weaker.

Among her many visitors was Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Two days earlier, Mr. Alteo had sent an invitation to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor-General David Johnston asking that they meet with native leaders on Jan. 24 – the anniversary of last year’s Crown-first-nations gathering where the two sides agreed to work together to build a new and and more trusting relationship.

But any goodwill that resulted from that meeting appears to have dissipated over the past 12 months. And many first nations people are angry at a spate of federal legislation they say will negatively affect them and their communities. They have been staging rallies and blockades across Canada since early December under the banner of Idle No More.

Ms. Spence, who says Canada is no longer living up to the treaty signed by her ancestors, has become the unanticipated hero of the national protest movement.

The demonstrations are being organized at the local level and often without the sanction of first nations leaders. But even if they are not directly behind Idle No More, many chiefs, including Mr. Atleo, have voiced their support for it.

“All first nations across Canada stand united and in solidarity in advancing this urgent call for action and attention,” Mr. Atleo wrote in his letter asking Mr. Harper and Mr. Johnston to come to the meeting “on a matter of increased urgency.”

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Governor-General responded to the invitation Thursday. Both said they would give the AFN their answer in due course.

But if Mr. Atleo thought the acceptance of the invitation alone would end the hunger strikes, he was wrong. Danny Metatawabin, a spokesman for Ms. Spence, said Jan. 24 is simply too far away. “She can’t wait that long,” Mr. Metatawabin said. “If the chiefs want to convene a meeting on the 24th based on the Crown-first-nations gathering, then that’s okay, too. But we would suggest a meeting before that.”

Mr. Atleo refused to answer reporters’ questions after leaving Ms. Spence’s teepee. As he dashed for his car, he said he appreciated the opportunity to talk with her. “She is in good spirits and standing strong and we’re with her,” he said.

Carolyn Bennett, a Liberal MP who is a medical doctor, also paid Ms. Spence a visit on Thursday.

“I think she is feeling weak, weaker when she walks,” Dr. Bennett said. “She’s got a lot of thirst and she is sleeping a lot more. So she is worried that the 24th is too late.” But when asked how long Ms. Spence could survive on her diet of fish broth and herbal tea, Dr. Bennett said it is impossible to tell.

“It depends,” she said, “on how the body reacts.”

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