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Hunger-striking chief softens stand on meeting with Harper

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence speaks with journalists about her hunger strike in a teepee on Victoria Island in Ottawa Dec. 27, 2012.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Native leader Theresa Spence is showing signs of compromise, dropping her bottom-line demand for a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister before she ends her hunger strike.

The chief of Attawapiskat continues to draw support from across Canada for her action launched Dec. 11 to shake up relations between Ottawa and first nations. But faced with an unwavering response from the federal government, Ms. Spence is no longer insisting on meeting with both Stephen Harper and Governor-General David Johnston before putting an end to her diet of broth and tea.

Ms. Spence has said she is not holding out for a private audience with Mr. Harper, and is not insisting on being present when he eventually meets with senior aboriginal leaders on the issues she has raised.

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One Saskatchewan native leader said Ms. Spence has achieved her goal of "reawakening" first nations and should start marching alongside other native leaders in the Idle No More movement.

"She has awakened first nations people across Canada, so we say, 'You can break your fast in a good way,' and we'll be holding her up high with honour and dignity," said Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.

In a statement Friday, Ms. Spence watered down one of her key demands, stating she is "hopeful that Prime Minister Stephen Harper or the Governor-General of Canada will accept her request to meet."

By saying she is open to meeting one or the other, Ms. Spence confirmed she does not insist on having a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister if the government agrees to talks with aboriginal leadership.

"I don't have to be there, as long as the leaders are there," Ms. Spence told CTV News Thursday.

Federal officials urged Ms. Spence to meet with Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan instead of trying to force Mr. Harper to bow to her demands.

"I would encourage her to stop and meet with Minister Duncan and that's the best way to address her issues," said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, one of two native MPs in the Conservative cabinet.

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Ms. Spence had sought a meeting with both the Prime Minister and Governor-General to speak about a treaty signed in the early 20th century that covered a large area of Northern Ontario – including her own reserve west of James Bay. The treaty promised money, education and health care in exchange for sharing the land, commitments Ms. Spence says Canada no longer meets.

She continues to garner support for her actions among first nations, despite concerns over her health.

"She has taken a very courageous and principled stand with respect to the failure of the Harper government to follow through on the commitments it made almost a year ago at the Crown-first nations gathering," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said in reference to a meeting held last January in Ottawa.

Asked whether he would support Ms. Spence even if her health began to fail, Mr. Phillip said he will respect her choice. "It's her decision," he said. "She's lived in the midst of the elephant in the room and that is the national disgrace of poverty in aboriginal communities."

A group of 16 people arrived by car from Manitoba on Friday to offer their support at a makeshift camp on an island on the Ottawa River, where Ms. Spence is waging her hunger strike. She was sleeping when they arrived, but they promised to return later in the day.

"She is putting her life on the line for her people," said Wilfred Buck, a 58-year-old educator from Winnipeg.

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He added that through her actions, Ms. Spence is "giving life back to our young people, the pride to stand up for who they are." Mr. Buck said that the Prime Minister's refusal to meet with Ms. Spence is "insulting."

About 200 First Nations members in Nova Scotia, including many in their teens and twenties, are planning a four-day hunger strike beginning this weekend to support Ms. Spence, said Morley Googoo, regional chief for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland with the Assembly of First Nations.

"As much as I am concerned for her health, like most people are, I have to admire and respect her goals and her wishes," said Mr. Googoo.

Mr. Googoo dismissed the notion that Ms. Spence should stand down from her request for a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister and meet with a government delegate instead.

"A compromise to the minister is a lose-lose [proposition] for us – because that's basically what everyone's been dealing with," Mr. Googoo said, adding that the legislative changes to which Ms. Spence is objecting appear to be coming from the Prime Minister's Office. "If there's going to be direction on first nations, then the Prime Minister has to step up and take the lead."

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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