The chief of the First Nations community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario is on a hunger strike and says she is willing to risk her own health to push the Canadian government to meet treaty obligations.
"We need to have a better dialogue," Theresa Spence told reporters after she arrived on Parliament Hill on Monday, in hopes of getting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to meet with her.
"[We need] a partnership … as we speak, our people are suffering because of the decisions that are made by the government."
Attawapiskat, an isolated community located at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River at James Bay, was thrust into the national spotlight last year by a housing crisis, with a couple of dozen people living in substandard shacks or tents.
The NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay said there's a growing frustration in aboriginal communities.
"When I talked to Theresa and I asked what was motivating her, she said it was being at the national meetings last week," Charlie Angus said.
"And just getting a sense of the growing hopelessness among many communities."
While she didn’t single out housing issues as a reason for planning a hunger strike, Spence said the relationship between First Nations people and the federal government needs to change.
"I'm willing to die for my people and the First Nations people," she said. "The pain is too much and it has to stop."
When the Attawapiskat housing crisis was in the national spotlight last year, the federal government did send in modular homes, but also put the First Nation under third-party management — a move the Federal Court called unreasonable.
5,000 consultations each year
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan told reporters Tuesday morning that he would be happy to meet with Spence.
"There's been no request that I'm aware of," Duncan said.
"I've met with her before. I'd be happy to meet with her again. I think we, as a government, we've made good progress and there is a little bit of politics at play here."
Duncan said his Conservative government has settled more claims than any other government, and is committed to such initiatives as education reform in First Nation communities.
A spokesperson with Duncan's office added the government respects its duty to consult.
"Every year our government conducts over 5,000 consultations with First Nations," Jan O'Driscoll said. "Since 2010, the minister of aboriginal affairs has personally visited 50 First Nations communities and had hundreds of productive meetings with chiefs, councillors and aboriginal community members across Canada."
Spence's decision to go on a hunger strike comes on the heels of a national day of action by aboriginal groups.
A grassroots campaign called "Idle No More" organized rallies in several Canadian cities to protest recent legislative changes that some say attack the rights of First Nations.