Governor General David Johnston said on Thursday that he would host a “ceremonial meeting” with First Nations leaders after they met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on January 11.
It remained unclear Thursday evening whether this would meet the requirements of Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, who has refused to attend a meeting between Canadian government officials and aboriginal leaders unless Johnston is there to represent the Crown. Spence has been fasting since December 11 to demand that Canada and the Crown make good on promises to reset the relationship between the country’s aboriginals and its establishment.
Friday marks a month since Spence began subsisting solely on fish broth and tea, a fast begun just as the Idle No More movement flowered into demonstrations and other actions throughout all of Turtle Island. In Canada the movement began in protest of the federal budget bill, known as C-45, which aboriginals say guts environmental protections.
Several chiefs had said they would also boycott the meeting if Johnston didn’t attend.
"We insist that the Governor General be in attendance to help clarify the role of the Crown, which includes legal obligations and commitments that need to be fulfilled in relation to the Treaties and the promises made to our peoples," Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus said in a statement.
"The Governor General role is more than symbolic when dealing with Inherent and Treaty Rights,” Erasmus said. “The Dene entered into Treaty No. 8 and Treaty No. 11 with Great Britain, which clearly supports the international nature of this relationship. The Governor General is the official representative of the Crown and reports to the Queen. We welcome his presence and encourage him to assist and foster the discussion so that the respect of the Treaties occurs. As the only allies to the creation of the state of Canada, the Governor General has a unique duty to First Nations."
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) also voiced their support, calling for Harper to implement the treaties that had been made on a nation-to-nation basis with the Crown and saying it was urgent that the Governor General attend the January 11 meeting as the Queen’s representative.
“We are putting Canada on notice that it can no longer develop legislation that impacts our treaty and aboriginal rights that allows for the destruction of Mother Earth,” said AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak. “We have a duty as First Nation leaders and Indigenous Peoples of Canada to protect our sacred treaties and continue to act as keepers of the land and protect the ecological integrity of the lands and waters, now and for future generations.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo called the meeting a “moment of reckoning” in relations between aboriginals, the Canadian government and the Crown.
“This is a fork in the road,” Atleo said at a press conference on Thursday, according to Postmedia News. “This is the moment of reckoning and the tipping point that for so long we’ve said was coming.”
As of late Thursday Atleo was planning to push forward with the meeting, although he faced intense pressure to boycott it as well. Atleo held an emergency meeting on Thursday night with hundreds of chiefs to try and get them to capitalize on the momentum of Spence and the Idle No More movement. Reporters and cameras were allowed in. He urged the chiefs to pull together and accept the separate meetings with the two officials.
“We’ve arrived at a moment that is an incredible challenge and as we know these are also moments when the biggest opportunities present themselves. This is what transformation takes,” Atleo said, according to Global News. “If it feels difficult, that’s because it has to be.”
But the majority stood by Spence and said they would not move ahead unless Harper and Johnston met their demands and appeared at the meeting together. The chiefs and Atleo also wanted to move the meeting to a larger venue to accommodate the number of leaders present.
“No longer will the prime minister dictate to us. If we have to shut down this economy, then we will,” said Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox, whose community falls under the jurisdiction of Treaty 6 in Saskatchewan, according to APTN News. “We need to stand to united, we heard that all day … no more, Harper no more, idle no more.”