Some chiefs threaten boycott of First Nations’ meeting with Harper
Published Thursday, January 10, 2013 11:03AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, January 10, 2013 10:47PM EST
As the Assembly of First Nations prepared to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper after weeks of protests by supporters of the Idle No More movement, some chiefs cast doubt over Friday’s summit, saying they would not attend.
Confusion over who was set to boycott the meeting grew Thursday night, as some leaders said they would stand with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence in her refusal to meet with Harper unless he’s joined by Gov.-Gen David Johnston.
Earlier Thursday,the Assembly of First Nations confirmed that separate meetings with Harper and Johnston would take place Friday.
Johnston accepted a request from the prime minister to host a ceremonial meeting for native leaders at Rideau Hall. That event is scheduled to follow the highly-publicized working meeting already planned between the federal government and aboriginal leaders.
But by late Thursday, some groups insisted that both Harper and Johnston be present at the same meeting, or there would be no discussions.
AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo pleaded for unity Thursday night, admitting that his membership was divided.
"This is not a perfect organization and I am not a perfect person. I accept a share of responsibility and I have responded to criticisms from last January," Atleo told a room of chiefs and delegates in Ottawa.
"We need to continue to stand united -- chiefs, delegates....If we are to be divided at a moment like this, the governments will see that."
A dispute over Friday’s meetings has been brewing all week after a stand-off of sorts emerged between Johnston and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.
Spence called on the Assembly of First Nations to cancel Friday’s hard-fought meeting after Johnston declined the invitation, saying his presence was imperative since the talks will centre on treaty rights that were first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1793.
The northern Ontario chief has been instrumental in securing a face-to-face sit down with Harper after the launch of her liquids-only diet in December was thrust into the media spotlight.
The highly-publicized hunger strike drew 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.
First Nations leaders said they were eager to renew treaties and forge a new fiscal relationship with the crown and stressed that Friday’s meeting is only the beginning of the “transformative change,” needed.
“The treaties were about peaceful co-existence and sharing the land and resources. Not exploitation,” Saskatchewan Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde said. “Our treaties were not meant to make us poor in our own homelands, but that’s what we see.
“Our people are tired of the overcrowded housing conditions. They’re tired of high unemployment. They’re tired of lands and resources being exploited with no involvement from indigenous people.”
British Columbia Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould added that Canada’s First Nations must have conversation with Harper in order to access the resources on their lands.
“The Prime Minister has stated he’s seeking to unlock the economic potential in this country -- $650 billion dollars of investment into our territories,” Wilson-Raybould said. “Our nations stand in the way of that.”
“We’ve been waiting for a moment like this, where all of us would be seized,” Atleo said at a news conference earlier Thursday. “And the people are ready; they’re really ready and they’re pushing for real change.”
The meeting between the First Nations leaders and federal officials is scheduled to take place Friday between 12:45-3:45 p.m. ET, however, Harper is only expected to attend a small portion of the session. The meeting with Johnston will take place later in the day, at 6:30 p.m.
An AFN document circulated to First Nations chiefs and obtained by CTV News on Thursday said Harper is expected to attend the first half-hour of the highly-publicized meeting. The Prime Minister will also return at the end of the day for a summary.
“It is disappointing that the Prime Minister has not committed to attending the full three hours of this meeting,” said the AFN in the document.
The group said it was attempting to secure a meeting with a smaller delegation, including Harper, for a more focused discussion later in the day.
Also expected to participate in the working session are Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Minister Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board of Canada.
With files from The Canadian Press and Christina Commisso