First Nations were split over the effectiveness of meetings between their leaders, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a later gathering with Governor General David Johnston on Friday January 11.
Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence boycotted the first meeting and went to the second but then left it early, according to the Canadian Press, pronouncing it without substance and vowing to continue her hunger strike. The grassroots Idle No More movement, continued preparing for widespread civil disobedience.
Assembly of First Nations Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and 19 other First Nations leaders kept their appointment with the prime minister over the objections of many of their constituents, according to reports from the Vancouver Sun and other media. Several chiefs, including Gordon Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Nations (AIAI) in Ontario and Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, had urged Atleo to boycott the meeting as Spence had.
Nevertheless Atleo went ahead, meeting for about four hours with Harper, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan, and other cabinet ministers. Afterward he expressed some optimism about the outcome, noting that the prime minister had promised to keep meeting with aboriginal leaders to maintain “ongoing dialogue” and rapid follow-up on matters that they had discussed.
“We have achieved some movement today,” Atleo said in a statement after the meeting. “The Prime Minister listened respectfully to Chiefs and responded to all they brought forward and for the first time, provided a clear mandate for high-level talks on treaty implementation. Prime Minister Harper also committed to high-level discussions on comprehensive claims.”
Afterward, 150 chiefs, including Spence, went to Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s headquarters, for the ceremony with Crown representative Johnston. Johnston expressed concern over Spence’s health and that of two others who have been fasting with her.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to say a special welcome to Chief Theresa Spence and to say how concerned I am about your health and that of Raymond Robinson and Jean Sock,” Johnston said in opening the meeting. “My deepest wish is for the well-being of all Canadians, and for dialogue to always take place in a safe and healthy manner.”
He said he had been “deeply honored” by the presentation of a wampum belt at last year’s historic First Nations–Crown Gathering and that it sits in a “central place beside my study in one of our main meeting rooms here at Rideau Hall.”
However, Johnston acknowledged, the January 24, 2012, meeting was just a beginning.
“Without a doubt, there remains much hard work to be done,” he said. He urged everyone to have an “open mind” and to celebrate and capitalize on the country’s diversity.
“I am confident that by working together in a spirit of respect, we can create the conditions in which aboriginal and non-aboriginal people can thrive equally, according to their hopes and dreams,” he said.
This felt like lip service to Spence, who left before the end of the 90-minute gathering and vowed to continue her strike against solid food, Postmedia News and other outlets reported.
Spence told reporters she felt snubbed and said that certain traditional symbols, such as the wampum belt, had not been treated with respect, The Star reported. She did not feel treated as an equal partner.
“Somehow it felt like a show, a picture opportunity,” said Spence’s spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, speaking to several hundred supporters later at an Ottawa hotel, according to The Star. “What’s happening here is not done yet. It’s not over yet. Sadly, the hunger strike continues. I didn’t feel that honor. I didn’t feel that privilege.”