Native women's leader pleads with PM to meet Spence, end her protest
A protester holds up a sign in support of hunger striker Chief Theresa Spence during an Idle No More demonstration in downtown Montreal on Jan. 11, 2013. (Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Heather Scoffield, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, January 16, 2013 11:28AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 16, 2013 11:15PM EST
OTTAWA - As aboriginal protesters gear up for a day of action, the president of the Native Women's Association has written an emotional letter to the prime minister, pleading with him to do what it takes to end Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's five-week-long hunger protest.
Michele Audette says she has grown close to Spence and has spent a lot of time with the Cree leader in her teepee on Victoria Island, just upstream from the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.
Audette says the only way Spence will heed the many calls for her to resume eating solid food is for the prime minister to revisit her original demand and attend a large gathering with First Nations chiefs and the Governor General on Jan. 24.
"I beg you to do what it takes to hold this meeting in the hopes that it will show good faith towards her and towards First Nations, but especially so that she is able to return to her people," Audette wrote in her open letter.
"No one wants to have on his conscience the fact that Canada let a mother starve to death just because she wanted a meeting about the welfare of her people."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper met First Nations leaders last Friday, but since he didn't invite the Governor General as requested by Spence and others, many chiefs boycotted the session — leaving the Assembly of First Nations badly divided and Spence still on her liquid diet.
Since then, numerous chiefs and political leaders have begged Spence to declare victory, give up her strike and regain her health so that she can go back to lead her northern community.
At the same time, Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has taken a medical leave that would make organizing any kind of meeting on Jan. 24 very difficult. Harper has committed to meeting Atleo one-on-one in the coming weeks in order to define next steps to agreements reached at their meeting last week.
Harper's spokesman reiterated the prime minister's intentions again this morning.
When asked if Harper would be willing to hold a broad meeting with chiefs, Andrew McDougall replied: "As we said Friday, the prime minister will meet one-on-one with national Chief Atleo in the coming weeks."
That's not enough for many of the Idle-No-More protesters. They say they are holding peaceful demonstrations across the country today to demand better conditions for aboriginal people.
Some bands have discussed blocking border crossings or setting up blockades, but they are under mounting pressure to keep their demonstrations peaceful.
"I encourage all those planning events to please exercise the utmost care and caution," Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy wrote in a letter to First Nations in his province on Tuesday.
"If you have not already contacted the local police service in your area I urge you to do so and inform them of your plans. This will ensure that appropriate parties are informed of what will take place and will enable your communities and citizens to go out and exercise their right to make their voices heard in a safe environment."
Other chiefs said they will be peaceful today, but if nothing changes to improve First Nations conditions, blockades will follow.
“At this time we have no plans to organize or facilitate the organization of roadblock on Highway 63 for Jan. 16th or any set date," said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabaska Chipewyan First Nation, referring to the northern Alberta highway to the oilsands region. "However, the people are upset with the current state of affairs in this country and things are escalating towards more direct action.
"As a leader I have been talking to the people, talking with governments and industry to try and defuse the situation that is coming to the surface. However, neither government nor industry seems willing to move on the issues and the people have said that enough is enough."
First Nations activists are also planning a demonstration in front of the Canadian High Commission in London on Thursday.
A key demand of the protesters and chiefs alike is for the government to back down on changes to environmental oversight in two recent omnibus bills.
“The complete gutting of all environmental approval, regulatory and enforcement mechanisms in Canada ... mean that the reassertion of aboriginal and treaty rights are the last best hope to protect both First Nations’ and Canadians’ water, air and soil from being poisoned forever by big oil and mining corporations," said Clayton Thomas-Muller from the Canadian Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign.
But the government opposes any changes.
Said McDougall, the prime minister's spokesman: "The government has no plans to reconsider its legislation."