OTTAWA – Theresa Spence, the controversial First Nation chief whose month-long hunger protest has helped to fan the flames of the Idle No More movement, will continue to forgo solid food, a spokesman declared Friday.
Spence, who surprised many when she emerged from her island encampment to attend a ceremonial meeting with Gov. Gen. David Johnston, left Rideau Hall early with the sense that the gathering had accomplished little.
“It didn’t feel too good inside that house … but we stood up for your rights,” Danny Metatawabin, who speaks for Spence, told gathered First Nations chiefs as he described the meeting as “a show, a picture opportunity.”
During Friday’s ceremony, a wampum belt — a traditional aboriginal symbol of diplomacy and partnership — was mishandled, Metatawabin added.
“Sadly,” he said, “the hunger strike continues.”
Spence, chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, has been on a liquids-only diet for the past month, camped out on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, in hopes of securing a meeting with Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
A group of First Nations leaders did indeed meet with Harper on Friday for several hours prior to the chiefs descending on Rideau Hall to meet with Johnston. But Spence wants to meet both men at the same time.
When she joined her fellow chiefs at a downtown Ottawa hotel, Spence looked frail and tired, and walked gingerly with the help of several handlers.
At one point, she stood briefly in a room full of chiefs, wearing a headdress, to be feted by a group of aboriginal drummers. Her health is diminished, Metatawabin said.
“She’s tired, she’s weak. She’s weakening. Got cramps in her stomach. We’re all praying for her,” he said.
“The body’s stressed right now because of all the commotion of today.”
Johnston offered Spence a “special welcome” and said he wanted “to say how concerned I am about your health and that of Raymond Robinson and Jean Sock.” Robinson and Sock are two aboriginals who are also staging hunger protests.
“My deepest wish is for the well-being of all Canadians, and for dialogue to always take place in a safe and healthy manner,” said Johnston, in prepared remarks released Friday night by Rideau Hall. The meeting wrapped up shortly after 9 p.m. ET, a spokesperson said.
Robinson said he approached Johnston “man to man” and urged him to have an open dialogue with Harper in order to forge a relationship with First Nations that’s truly “nation to nation.”
“I am not going to quit,” he said. “The hunger strike continues.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and several of Spence’s fellow chiefs were among those publicly urging her to end her protest, saying her health is in danger and she accomplished what she set out to do.
“I had a personal friend who went on a hunger strike years ago, and it did great detriment to his health,” Duncan said.
“I have been very much wanting to have a conversation with Theresa Spence, I’ve offered multiple times, and I expressed concern again today; there were many people in the room who expressed major concern.”
Harvey Yesno, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which also includes Attawapiskat, said it’s up to Spence whether she wants to continue her protest. But her reserve needs a leader, he noted.
“We’re concerned about that, if she carries on,” Yesno said in an interview. “That’s probably the most important thing.”
Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, told CBC he’s urging Spence to call a halt to her protest.
“I … told her, ‘Look, you’ve made your point. You’ve won this victory. You’ve made Canadians aware …. You have done good for your people.’”
But Louttit said Spence is still holding out for a meeting with both Harper and the Governor General at the same time. “That’s the bottom line.”
Earlier Friday, a sprawling crowd of protesters swirled outside the Prime Minister’s Office in the shadow of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill as Friday’s controversial meeting between Harper and First Nations leaders got underway.
There were similar, smaller demonstrations across the country, including a rail blockade in Nova Scotia.
A crowd of about 3,000 people, according to police estimates, gathered outside the sandstone building known as Langevin Block where the meetings were taking place, chanting, drumming and waving makeshift banners.
Many then crossed Wellington Street and rallied in front of the Centre Block, brandishing flags and chanting along with the rhythmic beat of skin drums.
A sporadic cold drizzle fell all morning and into the afternoon, failing to dampen the spirits of protesters, even if it did leave some of the feathered headdresses in the crowd looking a little bedraggled.
The demonstrators began their march on Victoria Island, a nearby outcrop in the Ottawa River where Spence has been camped out. They returned to the island later in the day.
Aboriginal people now have an opportunity to hold the government to account for years of broken promises, Spence said before the rally began. “This meeting’s been overdue for so many years.”
Supporters of the Idle No More movement were also showing strength in numbers during protests in other parts of the country as well.
In Edmonton, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation joined a gathering of several hundred people, where he warned of imminent economic disruption if steps aren’t taken to rescind the Conservative government’s controversial omnibus legislation.
“Highway 63 to the oilsands will be shut down. That will happen and I guarantee this,” warned Adam, whose reserve is near the oilsands. “I fear for the worst if the prime minister doesn’t retract some of the bills that were passed.”
More than a dozen people blocked a Canadian National rail line between Halifax and Truro by placing wooden pallets and a car on the track in Truro. Via Rail said it took 53 passengers to Truro from Halifax by bus.
A noisy crowd of about 1,000 demonstrators also showed their support for First Nations in front of the convention centre in downtown Montreal.
Young people, union representatives and provincial politicians were in the group. Some waved Mohawk and Quebec flags and danced to the beat of native drums.
In Toronto, a few hundred gathered in Toronto’s Dundas Square, drumming and chanting.
Stephanie Hashie, a member of the Ginoogaming First Nation who lives in Toronto, said she was there to celebrate her culture.
“It means our future,” she said of the Idle No More movement. “It means what’s going to happen. We’re not standing idle no more. We’re not going to stand around and just let things happen.”
Spence, who has come under fire over a leaked audit report that found fault with bookkeeping practices in Attawapiskat, also spoke for the first time about how her Ontario reserve spends government money. She said most of what flows to the isolated James Bay community actually gets spent outside the community.
The money, she said, goes towards supplies and to pay contractors, consultants, lawyers — and to taxes.
“Most of the funding that we have, it goes back to you, to taxpayers,” she said.
A government-ordered audit, leaked earlier this week, concluded there was little documentation to back up Attawapiskat’s spending.
— With files from Canadian Press reporters in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton