Former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin is calling Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence “an inspiration” after meeting with her on Saturday.

Martin, the highest-ranking dignitary to visit with the hunger-striking First Nations Chief at her tent in Ottawa, told CTV’s Question Period in an exclusive interview that he had a “very good” discussion with Spence.

“I just told her that she really was a, she’d become really an inspiration for all Canadians and that we were obviously concerned about her health and that she’s got to talk care of herself,” Martin said.

Spence has lived off a liquid-only diet since Dec. 11 in an effort to help call attention to the broader Idle No More Movement, which has seen groups throughout Canada hold demonstrations in a bid to forge a new relationship between Ottawa and First Nations communities.

Protesters have said many of their concerns stem from Bill C-45 — the Conservative government's omnibus budget bill -- which First Nations leaders have said hinders their treaty rights.

Martin is no stranger to federal government relations with Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.

In 2005, serving as the prime minister at the time, Martin brokered the Kelowna Accord --an intergovernmental agreement between Frist Nation leaders and both the federal and provincials governments.

Among the main priorities, which were largely set by aboriginal leaders, were education, employment and living conditions.

Three days after the Premiers agreed to the treaty, Martin’s minority government fell and was replaced by the Conservatives.

On Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that he would meet with Spence and other First Nations Chiefs on Jan. 11, ahead of the previously scheduled Jan. 24 gathering of the Assembly of First Nations.

In a statement, he said the Jan. 11 meeting will serve as a follow-up to the Crown-First Nations gathering a year ago, when the two sides discussed strengthening relations, governance, economic development and respecting treaties.

Spence has indicated that she will continue her hunger strike until the meeting with Harper takes place.

Martin’s meeting with Spence occurred on a day when Idle No More protests and demonstrations once again swept across the country and beyond.

Idle No More demonstrators forced police to shut down the Seaway International Bridge in Cornwall on Saturday as they marched on the border crossing.

The same day, a seven-hour blockade of the Toronto-Montreal Via Rail line by aboriginal protesters disrupted service for more than 1,000 passengers, a Via Rail spokesperson said. The blockade ended just after midnight.

While the highly-publicized hunger strike has drawn further attention to the ongoing protests, the Attawapiskat Chief’s own finances have also been called into question.

Spence and her partner’s income is reported to be in the six-figure range while the northern Ontario community continues to struggle with a housing crisis.

When asked about the reports of Spence’s household income, the chief’s spokesperson Danny Metatawabin responded: “Those are, if I may say, incorrect reports.”

“On behalf of all First Nations people, and especially in the remote isolated communities, we still live in deplorable conditions,” Metatawabin said Sunday. “It stems from the way we’re treated as First Nations people across Canada. We’re not treated with the same respect. We’re not treated with the same dignity. Although we get funding from the federal government …honestly, it’s still not enough to cover the housing crisis or the health care programs.”

Metatawabin said the money raised from various fundraisers that have recently taken place for Spence will be used to help the team that has supported her through the nearly month-long hunger strike.

“We need the food, we need tents, we need accommodations for family members who have arrived,” Metatawabin said, adding that any excess fundraising dollars will go to a charity or an organization.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the northern Ontario riding that includes Attawapiskat, told News Channel he is optimistic that important issues such as treaty rights will be addressed at the Jan. 11 meeting with Harper.

He said there is a broad understanding among First Nations that things won’t change overnight.

“I think what’s important is that the prime minister sends a signal that he’s committed to a process, to figuring out some of these fundamental things like the lack of support for education, like the fact that so many people are sitting on the margins of the economic development of their territories,” Angus said.

Economic development central to upcoming meetings

During last year’s historic Crown-First Nations gathering, six policy objectives were established: a review of financial structures of First Nations, removing the barriers to self-governance, advancing claims resolutions, reviewing treaty implementation, education reform and the formation of an economic development task force.

However, very little progress has been made on any front.

Federal officials have said the main policy objectives to be discussed at the upcoming meetings remain economic development and treaty implementation.

“We need to take the pre-emptive step of talking about and clarifying treaty (reform),” Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary to Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, said on Question Period.

Rickford said Bill C-45 gives First Nations communities better opportunities to derive economic benefits from their land.

“I remain somewhat confounded as to why there’s so much negative feedback about that,” he said. “With respect to the ability to lease land, these were complaints put forward by Frist Nation communities and we’ve responded to them and they will, and already have, brought significant economic benefits and in fact don’t interfere with treaty process.”