Chief on hunger strike should give up and meet Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Aglukkaq says

The Canadian Press

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq holds a news conference at the Rideau Valley Health Centre Friday, Dec. 28, 2012. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

One of the two aboriginal MPs in the Conservative cabinet has called on Chief Theresa Spence to abandon her fast aimed at securing a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq joined other federal officials in asking Ms. Spence to accept a meeting with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and end the campaign that has seen the chief go more than two weeks without solid food.

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“I would encourage her to stop and meet with Minister Duncan and that’s the best way to address her issues,” Ms. Aglukkaq said Friday.

Mr. Duncan is the one responsible for the portfolio and that’s why he’s the right person to meet, Ms. Aglukkaq said.

Ms. Spence rejected Ms. Aglukkaq’s recommendation because she believes Mr. Duncan isn’t the one who should be speaking on a nation-to-nation basis.

“When our ancestors made treaties with the British Crown to allow the Queen’s subjects to live in our territories, it was for as long as the sun shines, the waters flow and the grass grows,” Ms. Spence said in a statement.

“The Crown’s only legal access to our lands is contingent upon the fulfillment of the promises make in the negotiations of treaty.”

Ms. Spence, who is the chief of a remote reserve in Northern Ontario, stopped eating solid food on Dec. 11 in an effort to secure a meeting between First Nations leaders, the prime minister and Governor General over the treaty relationship.

Mr. Duncan has offered several times to speak with her and to form a working group, but the minister has been rebuffed at every turn.

The government points to a meeting it held last January with First Nations leaders as proof it is serious about improving the relationship and note they have spent millions on aboriginal health, housing and education.

But aboriginal leaders say they are being left out of the discussion the Harper government is having about how best to develop Canada’s lucrative natural resources.

A series of protests over the last two weeks under the banner of Idle No More were in part spurred by the recent budget bill which removed federal oversight over waterways without consulting aboriginal groups who depend on them for water and food.

Meanwhile, bands are concerned that a lack of training and education will see them shut out of resource development projects that could provide economic stimulus to many struggling communities.

In the statement released Friday, Ms. Spence said she remains hopeful that Mr. Harper or Governor General David Johnston will accept her request.

“Canada is considered a first world country and our peoples are living in extreme poverty and substandard living conditions,” she said.

“As Nations, we held up our end of the treaty, yet Canada continues to only pay lip service to our relationship.”

Ms. Spence has taken up residence on an island in the Ottawa River considered by the Anishinabe as traditional territory.

Since she began her fast, she’s ingested only soup, tea and water while welcoming a steady stream of visitors.

Liberal MP and leadership hopeful Justin Trudeau stopped in earlier this week, as did aboriginal actor Adam Beach. NDP MP Charlie Angus was expected to drop by later Friday.

Mr. Angus helped catapult the situation on Ms. Spence’s reserve of Attawapiskat into the international spotlight last year when he wrote about the dire economic and social conditions it faced.

At least one Conservatives has visited the island in the hopes of seeing Ms. Spence but was turned away. Tory Senator Patrick Brazeau attempted to meet Ms. Spence earlier this week.

Mr. Duncan has expressed disappointment that Ms. Spence will meet with other politicians and not with him, telling her he is concerned about her health.

He is not alone.

A B.C. First Nation’s leader said Friday that Ms. Spence’s point has been made.

“When you look at what she is really standing for there are a number issues that are near and dear to many First Nations across Canada that I don’t think are going to go away in the distant future,” Tk’emlups Chief Shane Gottfriedson told CHNL radio in Kamloops, B.C.

“So I think developing a dialogue with Canada is the next step.”

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May went on a 17-day hunger strike of her own outside Parliament Hill in 2002 demanding families be moved away from the Cape Breton tar ponds.

Her strike ended when the government agreed to act.

In a blog post Friday, Ms. May wrote that Ms. Spence’s cause cries out for leadership.

“Ending her hunger strike is only the first step,” Ms. May said.

“Once that is done, we need a meaningful engagement on the wide range of critical issues being raised from coast to coast to coast. For that we need leadership, and right now, that leadership is coming from flash-mobs of drummers and blockaders, aboriginal women and youth. It is coming from Chief Spence. Can we not hope that leadership might come from 24 Sussex Drive in response?”

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