Spence puts meeting with PM, First Nations leaders in doubt
Published Wednesday, January 9, 2013 11:01AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 9, 2013 10:19PM EST
The planned meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders was thrown into turmoil Wednesday, after Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence called on the Assembly of First Nations to cancel Friday’s summit unless the Governor General attends.
A spokesperson for Rideau Hall confirmed on Wednesday that Governor General David Johnston would not attend Friday’s meeting, as it will primarily be a working meeting that focuses on policy issues.
“As previously stated, the Governor General will not attend Friday’s meeting. This has not changed,” said a spokesperson for Johnston.
Following the news, Spence urged the AFN to cancel Friday’s summit with the federal government. The Attawapiskat Chief said she will not participate in the upcoming meeting unless Johnston attends.
Spence, who has been on a hunger strike for nearly a month, insists that Johnston’s presence is required because the talks will centre on treaty rights that were first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1793.
“I will not be attending Friday's meeting with the prime minister, as the Governor General's attendance is integral when discussing inherent and treaty rights,” Spence said. She said she’s sent a letter to the Queen asking her to force Johnston to attend.
Following Spence’s demands, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo abruptly cancelled a press conference where he was expected to outline his goals for Friday’s meeting.
Atleo said First Nations leaders, who have been working to form concrete proposals to present to the government on Friday, needed more time.
“First Nation planning discussions and dialogue continue today. It is essential that this important dialogue continues,” Atleo said in a statement. The news conference has been rescheduled for Thursday.
Atleo even drafted his own letter to the Queen, urging her to intervene and have Johnston attend the meeting.
Other First Nations leaders heeded Spence’s call on Wednesday.
“So the prime minister, the Governor General and the Ontario representative have to be at the table or there will be no meeting,” Spence’s spokesperson Danny Metatawabin warned.
Chief Keeter Corston of the Chapleau Cree First Nation said he supports Spence because of her instrumental role in the Idle No More protest movement.
“We have to respect how this started. It started with Teresa Spence and Idle No More,” Corston said.
Friday’s highly-publicized and hard-fought meeting comes after weeks of Idle No More protests. Spence, who launched a liquids-only diet in protest in December, has become the de facto face of the growing aboriginal rights’ protest movement.
Spence’s hunger strike was an effort to secure a face-to-face meeting with both Harper and Johnston.
Harper announced last week that he would meet with First Nations leaders on Jan. 11 as part of a working meeting co-ordinated by the AFN. However, a spokesperson for the Governor General said Tuesday Johnston wouldn’t attend the meeting, calling into question Spence’s attendance.
It is not clear if Spence will continue her hunger strike, even if the meeting goes ahead as planned Friday.
Spence has kept a low-profile this week after a critical federal audit of finances of her northern Ontario reserve was released Monday. The independent audit -- ordered last year by the federal government -- highlighted a lack of documentation for tens of millions of dollars in spending.
Spence's spokespeople said the release of the Attawapiskat audit was an attempt to distract the public from the bigger issues at hand.
Meanwhile, opposition MPs said it’s important for the Governor General to be at Friday’s meeting because it symbolizes the significance of the relationship between First Nations and the Crown.
“It’s to remind people that the treaties originally were signed with the Crown, even before Canada existed. Even before Canada had a Prime Minister,” Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said during an interview on CTV’s Power Play Wednesday.
Bennett said the Governor General was at the January 2012 Crown-First Nations Gathering and “that went nowhere.”
“If we’re going to reset the relationship, let’s push reset and have the Governor General and the prime minister actually set out a course that will really work.”
NDP MP Paul Dewar said it is only because of Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More protests that the government agreed to attend Friday’s meeting.
“Make no mistake, the government would not have been having this meeting this Friday if there hadn’t been people going to the streets literally to say ‘It’s not acceptable to have this kind of relationship continue,’” he said.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Conservative MP Greg Rickford said the government understands the importance of the Crown relationship with First Nations, but the process has moved to policy discussions including economic development and treaty rights.
Rickford said the government would like to continue to work with First Nations communities on housing strategies. He also said he has great hope for Friday’s meeting.
The public, meanwhile, appears to be skeptical that Friday’s meeting will be productive.
A newly-released Angus Reid public opinion poll shows the majority of Canadians don’t believe the upcoming gathering will be successful in improving the relationship between the country’s First Nations peoples and the federal government.
The poll, released Wednesday, showed that 55 per cent of more than 1,000 respondents say the meeting will be ineffective, while 43 per cent found that the relationship between the federal government and Aboriginal Peoples has worsened since 2006.
With a report from CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife and files from The Canadian Press