Harper highlights relationship with First Nations in year-end statement
Published Monday, December 31, 2012 2:20PM EST
Last Updated Monday, December 31, 2012 2:38PM EST
As Idle No More protests continue, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pointed to Ottawa’s relationship with First Nations in a year-end statement highlighting the government’s achievements in 2012.
In an annual round-up of accomplishments published on Monday, Harper said the federal government “continued to strengthen our relationship with First Nations” over the last year.
His remarks come as First Nations across Canada hold various shows of support for the Idle No More movement, which encourages Canadian lawmakers to guarantee treaty rights.
Among the movement’s most visible spokespeople is Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who launched a hunger strike on Dec. 11 in a bid to secure an audience with the Prime Minister.
Thus far, Harper has not acquiesced to the request.
Spence, meanwhile, has rejected an invitation to meet with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, despite being encouraged to take him up on the offer by Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq – one of two aboriginal MPs in the Tory caucus.
Harper’s statement Monday did not make any reference to Spence, but highlighted events such as the Crown-First Nations Gathering last January and efforts to improve education and drinking water on reserves.
Over the last year, aboriginal leaders such as AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo have accused the federal government of inertia on matters related to First Nations treaty rights. Also making headlines was the removal of a third-party manager who had been handling the finances of Attawapiskat First Nation, which declared a state of emergency in 2011 due to a severe housing crisis.
Demonstrations related to the Idle No More movement came to the public’s attention in late 2012. Protests have included flash mobs, major shows of support on Parliament Hill and, on Sunday, the blockade of a major rail line between Toronto and Montreal.
Meanwhile, many are keeping a close eye on Chief Spence as her hunger strike enters a third week.
Some have undergone their own hunger strikes in solidarity. An elder from Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba underwent a hunger strike hours after Spence announced that she would be fasting.
The Winnipeg Free Press reported Monday that Elder Raymond Robinson is travelling to Ottawa to fast alongside Chief Spence on Victoria Island. Robinson’s diet is restricted to herbal tea, the report said.
Spence’s Victoria Island teepee has received a steady stream of visitors since she began her hunger strike earlier this month. On Sunday, 17 MPs representing the Liberals, New Democrats and Parti Quebecois accepted an open invitation to visit the fasting aboriginal leader.
Among her visitors was NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose Timmins-James Bay riding includes Attawapiskat.
“How could it be in a country like Canada that somebody has to have a hunger strike in order to get the Prime Minister to meet nationally elected leaders?” Angus asked reporters on Victoria Island.
Others visitors such as federal Liberal leadership hopeful Marc Garneau have urged Harper to meet with Chief Spence, but chose their words carefully on Sunday.
“I will only say to you that it is a very dramatic way of expressing your frustration,” Garneau said.
Some argue that Spence’s hunger strike is a high-stakes game of political blackmail that could send the wrong message to others if the prime minister agrees to her request.
But Spence -- who has restricted her diet to lemon water, fish broth and “medicinal teas” – has said she is determined and willing to die for her cause.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Spence said the fast is taking a toll.
“I’m feeling a little bit weak and I get tired easily,” she said.
A statement issued Monday by Chief Spence’s spokespeople said that Idle No More’s “momentum is building” and aboriginal groups remained resolute in their efforts to open a fresh dialogue with the federal government. Among one of the movement’s concerns is a portion of the Conservative budget bill that omits federal oversight of waterways.
“We are reigniting a Nation to Nation relationship based on our Inherent and constitutionally protected rights,” the statement read. “We are demanding our rightful place back here in our homelands that we all call Canada.”
With a report from CTV National News’ Roger Smith