Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence says she won't attend Friday's "working meeting" between First Nations chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, because the presence of Gov. Gen. David Johnston is "integral" and he won't be there.
"We have sent a letter to Buckingham Palace and requesting that Queen Elizabeth II send forth her representative which is the Governor General of Canada," Spence said in a release. "I will not be attending Friday's meeting with the prime minister, as the Governor General's attendance is integral when discussing inherent and treaty rights."
Earlier reports had suggested Spence might not attend, following Rideau Hall's announcement Tuesday that Johnston would not be part of the talks. But reached by CBC News on Wednesday morning, Spence’s spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, said she will be present, provided her health is not an issue that day. Within hours, the message changed.
Johnston's spokesperson characterized the Friday session as "a working meeting with government on public policy issues," differentiating it from the nature of the 2012 Crown-First Nations gathering in which Johnston did participate as the Queen's representative in Canada.
The key demand of Spence, who has been declining solid food since Dec.11 as a form of protest, is a meeting between the Crown and First Nations to discuss what she characterizes as "treaty issues."
Prior to Tuesday's announcement from Rideau Hall, Spence had been expected to participate in the meeting announced by Harper last Friday, as part of a group of chiefs from across Canada co-ordinated by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.
The AFN, which organized the 2012 gathering and had earlier invited the prime minister and Governor General to meet with its chiefs on the first anniversary of that event on Jan. 24, told CBC News Wednesday that it had not been contacted by Spence to say she would no longer participate.
A location for the Jan. 11 meeting has not yet been determined, and the AFN is briefing reporters Wednesday afternoon on its expectations for the agenda.
When Harper announced Friday's meeting, Spence left it open as to whether that meeting would be sufficient to meet her demands and end her hunger strike.
Why would the GG's attendance matter?
Gov. Gen. David Johnston is the representative of the Queen in Canada. His office represents the Crown, a constant in Canada's political system as prime ministers and cabinets come and go.
The earliest treaties with aboriginal people in British North America were negotiated with the Crown before Confederation and Canada's evolution as a sovereign state.
Although Canada is now independent, negotiations with First Nations leaders today are still legally bound by commitments made by the British Crown in these early treaties when it comes to rights and entitlements.
Some feel that even though the Governor General does not make public policy, his presence at meetings discussing treaty rights is an important symbol of the Crown's special relationship with First Nations.
Spence's Wednesday press release says "… the Treaties made under the Royal Proclamation of 1763 … allowed for settlement in our territories. The whole of Canada's legitimacy rests on the Treaties made with our ancestors.
"If the state of Canada continues to undermine and destroy the Treaty relationship, what rights does Canada have to exist within our territories?"
Precise demands unclear
Spence told the CBC's Terry Milewski on Dec. 27 that her protest wasn't about the Attawapiskat First Nation's issues, but about "all First Nations." She said that after 100 years or more, the meeting she wants is "overdue."
She said that subsequent "little ministers" working on the government's behalf "don't really work with us. They always put [on] a band-aid solution."
"It's a simple request. Get the meeting going with the prime minister and the Crown and all the leaders. The National Chief and the regional chiefs and the tribal chiefs to sit down and talk about all the things the government's been doing to us … taking everything away from us: our rights as a person, our rights as a leader, our rights to educate our kids, our rights to protect the lands and to have our own laws in our community. We were our own people," she said in that interview.
As of Wednesday morning, confusion remains around Spence's exact feelings, intentions and goals for Friday's meeting. Exchanges between journalists trying to visit Spence or speak with her spokespeople have been tense, with her representatives often keeping cameras and reporters at a distance and accusing the media of not conveying their message accurately.
Global News reported Tuesday that one of their television reporters and a photojournalist trying to visit Spence's isolated James Bay community was threatened with arrest and escorted back to the airport by the band police. Reporter Jennifer Tryon said the acting chief told her she had received a call from Spence, who wanted all the media to leave the community.
On Monday, a much-anticipated audit of the Attawapiskat First Nation's finances by accounting firm Deloitte was leaked to the media. The report revealed a significant lack of documentation and a "lack of due diligence" for the band council's expenditures of some $104 million in federal government funding between 2005 and 2011.
The audit also raised questions about whether federal officials provided sufficient oversight for the troubled community, whose administration has been under co-management with the federal government for more than a decade.
Spence characterized the release of the audit as a "distraction," with her camp suggesting its information may be wrong and its release timed to discredit her.
Fontaine met with Spence
Former national chief Phil Fontaine met with Spence on Tuesday, telling reporters afterwards outside her camp on Victoria Island on the Ottawa River that he was there to show support for her cause.
"Chief Spence has been very clear and focused on why she's here and why she took this action, and the least we could do is come here to show our support for her action," the former AFN leader said.
Fontaine did not comment specifically on Attawapiskat's finances, but said that Spence "has a lot of support out there." He is not attending Friday's meeting.
He also denied earlier reports that he was considering returning his newly announced Order of Canada as a form of protest.
"I think people know it's not the government that is responsible for this award," he said.
AFN holds strategy meetings
During a joint news conference on Parliament Hill with Thomas Boni Yayi, president of the Republic of Benin and chairman of the African Union, Harper told reporters Tuesday afternoon that his government "has a record of moving forward clearly step by step on a lot of issues," including the aboriginal file.
"I know that there are great challenges in certain aboriginal communities and we will continue through legislation, through meetings – not just the meeting this week, but the meetings we have had in the past, the meetings we will continue to have – to identify ways to move forward in the same way that we want to move forward for all Canadians: with the creation of growth, jobs and long-term prosperity for all communities," Harper said.
The Assembly of First Nations began holding strategy and planning meetings in Ottawa Tuesday to prepare for Friday's meeting. On Wednesday and Thursday, the AFN is expected to hold ceremonies and other forums to engage its membership and consult in advance of the talks.
Also on Friday, the grassroots protest movement Idle No More announced Tuesday that it's organizing a "one-day national dialogue" with indigenous chiefs to "discuss water, land, sovereignty and treaty relationships" at Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan's Treaty 4 Governance Centre.