Harper, Atleo to hold ‘high-level’ talks on aboriginal issues
Published Friday, January 11, 2013 9:30AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 11, 2013 10:51PM EST
Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down with aboriginal leaders Friday and agreed to work on improving conditions in First Nations communities, but the chief who demanded the meeting says she will continue her liquids-only diet.
Northern Ontario’s Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence will still forgo solid food, her spokesperson said late Friday after the leader had a last-minute change of heart and attended a ceremonial meeting with Gov.-Gen. David Johnston at Rideau Hall.
Earlier Friday, Spence said she would boycott both Johnston’s meeting and Harper’s summit with other First Nations chiefs because she wanted them to address aboriginal leaders together in the same room.
Many had hoped that Spence would end her month-long fast after meeting with Johnston, who told her Friday night that he was concerned about her health. Some chiefs publicly urged Spence to end her protest, saying she had accomplished her goal by bringing Harper to the table.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Harper’s meeting with First Nations chiefs had produced “good, frank dialogue,” but there is still more work to be done to address land claims and treaty issues.
Harper has agreed to “high-level dialogue” with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo in the coming weeks, Duncan told reporters.
That will involve discussions about First Nations treaty rights, as well as education and employment opportunities for Canada’s aboriginals, Duncan said.
“We have movement, as of today,” Atleo told CTV’s News Channel after the meeting.
“It’s going to require a tremendous amount of work, but we have people calling for fundamental change and the prime minister took the time and spent the entire time with the leaders, listening respectfully and responding to the voices of our people in all of the eight areas that we put before him.”
The eight “items of consensus” outlined by the AFN before the meeting with Harper were:
- Implementing fair treaties between First Nations and the Crown
- Resolving land claims
- Giving First Nations a “fair share” of resource development revenues
- Government action on issues such as missing aboriginal women, safe communities and education
- Reconsidering legislation in the omnibus budget bill that contravenes aboriginal rights under the Canadian Constitution
- All new federal bills and policies must comply with Section 35 of the Constitution, which protects aboriginal and treaty rights of Canada’s native people. The policies must also adhere to international human rights standards
- Changing the fiscal relationship between First Nations and the federal government to ensure fairness and remove “arbitrary and unfair caps”
- Direct political oversight over the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, including a dedicated cabinet committee with a secretariat within the Privy Council
While Harper and aboriginal leaders did not agree on everything discussed Friday, the prime minister has made a commitment to deal with priority issues, Atleo said.
“It feels like when the doors was perhaps closed yesterday, that door is open today and it’s not for me to negotiate for First Nations for treaty people for treaty leaders for treaty nations – that is their work. But the prime minister did commit to get on with this work in an urgent and quick fashion,” he said.
Duncan said Harper has agreed to greater oversight by his office and the Privy Council and he will fill in members of his cabinet on Friday’s discussions.
“I think we achieved quite a bit today,” Duncan said, but admitted that he doesn’t know whether the talks, which lasted for more than four hours, will stop Idle No More protests across the country.
Harper agreed to the meeting weeks after Spence embarked on her fast, demanding that the prime minister sit down with her and other First Nations leaders.
Spence had also insisted that as a representative of the Crown, Johnston’s presence is vital during talks on treaty rights that were first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1793.
Johnston had ignored those calls, committing to hosting only a “ceremonial meeting” Friday evening.
Over the last few days, First Nations’ chiefs have become increasingly divided over the terms of their negotiations with the federal government.
Some chiefs stood in solidarity with Spence and refused to meet with Harper after it was announced that Johnston would hold a separate meeting.
Others, like Quebec Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, seemed to side with Atleo, urging First Nations leaders to show a united front and not squander the opportunity of talks with Harper.
As the prime minister and other government representatives sat down with several First Nation chiefs and other AFN representatives behind closed doors, an estimated crowd of about 3,000 protesters gathered outside the Prime Minister’s Office Friday afternoon.
The protest was peaceful, with demonstrators chanting, drumming and dancing in the area.
Earlier Friday, Spence spoke to reporters on Ottawa’s Victoria Island, where she has spent the last month, subsisting mainly on fish broth and tea.
It was her first appearance since the release of a federal audit on Monday showed a significant lack of documentation for $104 million in federal transfers made to the northern Ontario reserve from 2005 to 2011.
Shortly into the address, hecklers interrupted Spence, asking what was made of the federal funding. However, Spence refused to take questions.
“We shared our lands all these years and we never got anything from it. All the benefits are going to Canadian citizens,” said Spence.
“For the government, he makes false statements about funding,” she continued. “He doesn’t give details on where (the money) goes. Most of the funding that we have, it goes back to your to taxpayers, it goes out of the reserve.”
Following the brief media address, a spokesperson said Spence will continue the liquids-only diet for the time being.
The highly-publicized hunger strike has drawn further attention to the broader Idle No More movement, which protests the federal government’s omnibus budget legislation. Protesters say the Conservative budget bill threatens First Nations treaty rights as set out in the Constitution, and is reducing environmental protection of fisheries and waterways that aboriginals depend on.
Duncan said the federal government is confident that it has met “our constitutional obligations with those bills.”
Meanwhile, Idle No More protests continued across Canada, with demonstrations in Halifax, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto on Friday.
In some parts of the country, protesters threatened to shut down major highways and railways in the coming days.
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