(Letter taped by AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak to gates of 24 Sussex Dr. APTN/Photo)
By Jorge Barrera and Kenneth Jackson
APTN National News
A group of First Nations leaders and supporters of hunger-striking Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence taped a letter to the gates of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s home Monday demanding he agree to a meeting with First Nations leaders.
The chances of the meeting happening, however, appear remote.
The Prime Minister’s Office responded saying Harper already met with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo about three weeks ago. The PMO also said the prime minister agreed to last January’s Crown-First Nations gathering that included Gov-Gen. David Johnston and First Nations leaders from across the country.
“The prime minister hosted an historic gathering of Crown and First Nations this past January. Since then, the government has been working with First Nations leadership to make progress in several areas, most notably education and infrastructure on reserve,” said the PMO in an emailed statement to APTN National News. “In fact the prime minister met with National Chief Atleo to review the progress to date and to discuss a range of issues.”
The PMO said Atleo and Harper met on Nov. 28. The meeting hasn’t been made public until now.
The AFN confirmed the meeting happened. The source said Atleo told Harper he was “concerned” about the lack of progress on the government’s side since the Crown-First Nations gathering. Atleo has not met with Harper since Spence began her hunger strike, according to an AFN spokesperson.
APTN National News reported late last week that the AFN had been pushing the PMO for a meeting, but the PMO denied there were any negotiations.
The PMO has also consistently responded to questions on Spence’s hunger-strike demands by referring to Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s offer to meet with Spence.
Spence says she doesn’t want to meet with Duncan.
The PMO issued the statement shortly after Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, Serpent River First Nation Chief Isadore Day and about a dozen people gathered outside the decorated gates of Harper’s official residence to tape the letter from Atleo. Atleo’s letter was released publicly on Sunday.
With Harper’s RCMP security detail watching, Nepinak sprinkled tobacco on the ground before pulling out a roll of packing tape and affixing the letter, which was inside a folder bearing the AFN’s insignia, to the bars at the gate to 24 Sussex Dr.
“I believe it to be a symbolic gesture, but nonetheless our people need to see that we are taking deliberate steps to do our part as today’s leaders to engage the prime minister on this very critical matter,” said Nepinak.
Nepinak, Indigenous rights activist and Ryerson professor Pam Palmater and Spence’s supporters gathered on Parliament Hill earlier in the day for a press conference in the rain in support of Spence.
Nepinak met with Spence Sunday night on Victoria Island and Atleo met with the Attawapiskat chief on Friday.
Spence is now into her seventh day of a hunger strike and she spends her days and evenings in a teepee on Victoria Island, which sits in the Ottawa River in the shadow of the Supreme Court and Parliament Hill.
She says she won’t eat another morsel of food until the prime minister and Johnston agree to a meeting to discuss the treaties with First Nations leaders.
Treaties were signed between the reigning Monarchs over Canada, including Queen Victoria, Edward VII and King George V, and First Nations people allowing for the settlement of Canadian territory. The last of the treaties, Treaty 11, was signed in 1921 after oil was discovered in near Fort Norman, in the Northwest Territories.
First Nations which signed treaties still hold the documents to be the founding relationship between them and Canada through the Crown.
Spence’s hunger strike has drawn nation-wide support and triggered several solidarity actions from as far away as Cairo, Egypt and London, England. It has also dovetailed with the Idle No More rallies that have been sweeping the country since last week in the form of rallies and highway blockades.
Spence and her community burst onto the national consciousness last fall after Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency over a housing crisis. Images of families in shacks and tents living in the northern Ontario community flashed across televisions and across social media from coast to coast.
The Attawapiskat housing crisis triggered an outpouring of sympathy and created a political crisis for the Conservative government which responded by accusing Spence’s band council of financial incompetence.
In a move later labelled as “unreasonable” by the Federal Court, Duncan removed Spence’s council’s authority over band finances and imposed a third-party manager to run Attawapiskat’s affairs.
As the political fallout was nearing its peak, Harper, with Atleo sitting next to him in the prime minister’s Parliament Hill office, announced the Crown-First Nations gathering.
The gathering was heralded as “historic” at the time, but many First Nations leaders, including Atleo, now say that it produced no results. While Harper claimed a “new day” had dawned in the relationship between Canada and First Nations, many chiefs say the Conservative government continued to push ahead with legislation impacting Aboriginal and treaty rights without consultation.
The Harper government’s recently passed omnibus Bill C-45 included sections that changed the Indian Act and weakened regulations on waterways which First Nations leaders say impacts their rights.
The Idle No More grassroots movement began as a response to Bill C-45, but it has since taken on the broader issue of Indigenous rights. The movement continues to pick up steam and people from across the country are planning to converge in Ottawa this week for a large rally Friday.