As Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike ground on, and the Idle No More movement gained traction worldwide, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he would meet with First Nations leadership on January 11.
"The Government of Canada and First Nations have an enduring historic relationship based on mutual respect, friendship and support,” Harper said in a statement on January 4. “The Government of Canada is committed to strengthening this relationship."
Spence has been refusing to eat until she sees a meeting actually materialize between the parties, according to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
“She is tired of the broken promises,” said Spence aide Danny Metatawabin to APTN. “She wants to see the actual meeting.”
APTN reported that Spence had met with Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament Charlie Angus on January 4, demanding a response from Harper and Governor General David Johnston within 72 hours.
First Nations leaders had already scheduled a meeting among themselves for January 24, the one-year anniversary of the historic Crown–First Nations Gathering that was held on a nation-to-nation basis between representatives of the federal government and the UK monarchy.
"On January 24, 2012, I was pleased to participate in the historic Crown-First Nations Gathering,” Harper’s statement said. “On that day, the Government of Canada and First Nations committed to making progress in the following areas.”
At that meeting the parties agreed to improve relationships and partnerships between Canada and First Nations that respect “aboriginal and treaty rights as recognized and affirmed in the Constitution Act, 1982,” Harper’s statement said. They agreed to increase transparency in First Nations governance, enhance educational and work opportunities for First Nations, help strengthen communities and promote economic development. The government also promised to respect “the role of First Nations' culture and language in our history and future,” the statement said.
"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,” Harper said. “While some progress has been made, there is more that must be done to improve outcomes for First Nations communities across Canada.”
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal has taken note, with an article in its January 4 issue about Spence, her hunger strike as rallying point, and the Idle No More movement’s potential to disrupt business. In particular, the Journal noted Canadian National Railway’s recent winning of an injunction to stop the two-week-long blockade of one of its lines in northern Ontario, and the border action planned for Saturday January 5.
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) John Duncan told the Journal that he had offered to meet with Spence but that she had refused. He also said that under six years of Harper’s Conservative government—which won a majority last May 2—spending at AAND had increased by a third, to $7.2 billion Canadian.
“Still, as in the U.S., Canada's indigenous communities lag the wider population in economic well-being and health,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “The unemployment rate among Canadian aboriginals hit 14.3 percent in 2010, versus 7.9 percent rate for other Canadians. First Nations members earned an average of $19,000 a year, against a national average of $33,000, according to the country's 2006 census.”
Idle No More leaders have pointed out that although conditions on reserves such as Spence’s are abysmal, the movement addresses the much wider issue of territorial lands, of which reserve lands are only a small part.