Spence continues hunger strike despite Jan. 11 meeting
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to meet with First Nations leaders next Friday, but Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence says she will continue her hunger strike until then.
Harper has agreed to meet ahead of a previously scheduled Jan. 24 gathering of the Assembly of First Nations, but Spence and her supporters say they are cautiously optimistic about the outcome of their discussions with the prime minister.
“I’m just really overjoyed…to hear that the Crown and the prime minister and the government are going to meet with us on Jan. 11, but I’ll still be here on my hunger strike until the actual meeting takes place,” Spence told reporters outside her tent on Victoria Island in Ottawa, where she has been fasting since Dec. 11.
Her spokesperson, Danny Metatawabin, said the hunger strike may continue, depending on how the meeting with Harper ends.
“Respectfully, now is not the time to celebrate,” he said. “We are a peaceful nation and we need to rebuild that nation relationship with the government of Canada.”
Metatawabin refused to comment on reports that Spence and her partner, Clayton Kennedy, made as much as $250,000 last year as their fellow Attawapiskat residents struggle with poverty and deteriorating housing conditions.
Spence has been on a liquids-only hunger strike, subsisting primarily on fish broth. The fast has helped call attention to the broader Idle No More movement, which has seen First Nations groups across the country and elsewhere hold flash mobs, demonstrations, and road and rail blockades in a bid to forge a new relationship between Ottawa and First Nations communities.
Three other chiefs have joined Spence in her efforts by launching their own hunger strikes.
In a statement Friday, Harper 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.
“The government and First Nations committed at the gathering to maintaining the relationship through an ongoing dialogue that outlines clear goals and measures of progress and success. While some progress has been made, there is more that must be done to improve outcomes for First Nations communities across Canada," Harper stated.
“It is in this spirit of ongoing dialogue that, together with (Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan), I will be participating in a working meeting with a delegation of First Nations leaders co-ordinated by the Assembly of First Nations on January 11, 2013."
At a news conference later Friday at an automobile plant in Oakville, Ont., Harper was asked about the meeting. He repeated the point that the meetings were intended as a follow up to last year's discussions and said the discussions were planned in November with Atleo.
He didn't mention Spence's hunger strike or the Idle No More movement in his answers.
"These are long-term objectives and we want to make progress because there is great potential in our First Nations and we want to see this potential be realized," Harper said.
Meanwhile, AFN Chief Shawn Atleo was set to meet Friday with several key chiefs from the area surrounding Spence's Attawapiskat reserve, as well as New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, who represents a nearby riding.
Atleo had tried Thursday to present an option that would offer a graceful exit strategy for both parties, asking Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to commit to a previously-scheduled meeting with First Nations leaders on Jan. 24.
Spence rejected that option, saying it was too far off, and demanded a meeting within 72 hours, citing her weakened state.
However, she told reporters on Friday that she is “still healthy,” after a nurse examined her.
Asked how she will last without food until next Friday, Spence said she will be OK with fluids and “a lot of prayers and support.”