APTN National News
OTTAWA–If Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets a delegation of First Nations chiefs in Ottawa Friday, he could face demands to scrap the Indian Act and to repeal his government’s omnibus budget bills, which have already passed into law.
The location of the planned meeting was still unknown Wednesday evening and it was even unclear whether the meeting would take place after Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who is in the midst of a nearly month-long hunger strike, urged chiefs not to attend unless Gov. Gen. David Johnston, whose office said would not show up, also appeared.
The Prime Minister’s Office announced the Jan. 11 meeting last Friday, days after Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo requested via letter that Harper and Johnston meet with chiefs on Jan. 24.
The meeting comes against the backdrop of ongoing flash mob round dances, rail and highway blockades along with rallies occurring at historical proportions.
Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee said it was imperative for Johnston to be there.
“If there is any honour in this Crown the governor general better get his ass there,” said Madahbee, whose organization represents 49 Ontario First Nations.
Madahbee, however, said late Wednesday afternoon chiefs had still not decided whether they would accept to attend the meeting if Johnston refuses to change his mind.
“There is an ebb and flow to these discussions (and) we are not there to make a determination one way or another, we are listening to people,” said Madahbee.
Chiefs met in regional caucuses late into the evening Wednesday discussing and teasing out their plans and positioning for the coming days.
According to a draft position from Manitoba’s Southern Chiefs Organization obtained by APTN National News, it appears First Nations leaders are planning to put repealing the Bill C-45 and Bill C-38, the government’s omnibus budget bills on the table.
The draft outline, which APTN National News was told broadly reflected the direction of discussions, also called for Canada to set a timeline and process to scrap the Indian Act and replace it with a “Treaty Recognition and Implementation Act.”
The draft outline also set Feb. 11 as a deadline for the government’s response.
The Manitoba delegation is expected to officially lay out its position during a press conference Thursday.
While the meeting with the prime minister is seen by some as a pivotal moment, it’s doubtful the outcome will have any major impact on the still expanding Idle No More movement. Idle No More, which was sparked by opposition to the omnibus bill, is also hosting a gathering the same day in Fort Qu’Appelle Saskatchewan that will also be live streamed.
“It’s about the people, the people are the key, the people are the ones that no one listens to and that has to change,” said Idle No More founder Nina Wilson.
Wilson said she doubted the outcome of Friday’s meeting with a select delegation of chiefs would have any impact on Idle No More.
“This is long-term,” said Wilson. “We have to keep going whatever happens.”
Mass Idle No More-linked rallies are also in the works for Friday and another day of action is also in the planning stages for Jan. 16.
Canada has witnessed a tireless campaign of flashmob round dances, rallies, highway and rail blockades for over a month which shows no signs of abating.
And while the action continues on the streets and in the political backrooms, a traditional spiritual element was also unfolding in the lead-up to Friday’s meeting. In Ottawa and across the country, elders, spiritual leaders and grassroots people have also engaged in traditional prayer and ceremony. People gathered in ceremony in a room at the Delta Hotel next to the hall where chiefs gathered discussing their plans and strategies.
But even as chiefs discussed their planned approach for Friday’s encounter with Harper, they were also trying to find a way to end Spence’s nearly month-long hunger strike.
Spence, who met with chiefs at Ottawa’s Delta Hotel Wednesday afternoon, has said she won’t attend the meeting unless Johnston also shows up. The governor general’s involvement in the meeting has been one of the core prerequisites for Spence to end her hunger strike, which began on Dec. 11. Spence has said she wouldn’t end her hunger strike unless she was satisfied with the outcome of a treaty meeting between Harper, Johnston and First Nations leaders.
Johnston’s office has said he was not planning to attend the meeting.
Spence’s spokesman Danny Metatawabin told the chiefs earlier in the day Spence would like them to consider cancelling or walking out of the meeting if the governor general failed to appear.
Six Nations Chief Bill Montour said Spence should end her hunger strike on Friday and the chief should go to meet with Harper.
“For her own health, Jan. 11 should be the end of the hunger strike…she has the attention of the world and let the world judge Harper,” said Montour, whose community is in Ontario. “You never walk out of a meeting, if you walk out you are defeated.”
Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said there is some concern about the extent of control chiefs feel the prime minister is trying to exert over the meeting, but she called on the leadership and the grassroots to remain unified.
“We need to remain unified as First Nations people across this country, we support Chief Theresa Spence and we continue to support her,” said Cook-Searson, whose community is in Saskatchewan. “There are questions about who will be present at the prime minister’s meeting and it is controlled by the prime minister…We need to have a strong position and present it to the prime minister and if the prime minister doesn’t accept that position on Jan. 11 then we continue with our movement.”
The chiefs have been told the prime minister would only be appearing briefly, for 30 minutes at the beginning and 30 minutes at the end of the meeting. The Prime Minister’s Office, however, said the details were still being worked out.
Friday’s meeting is also putting the Assembly of First Nations to the test and National Chief Shawn Atleo’s still young second term may be defined by what transpires over the next two days.
Atleo was scheduled to hold a press conference along with members of the AFN’s executive committee, including Saskatchewan regional Chief Perry Bellegarde and British Columbia regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould on Wednesday to set lay out their expectations for the meeting with Harper.
The press conference, however, was cancelled on short notice and rescheduled for Thursday after it became apparent the chiefs could not find common ground by Wednesday afternoon.