Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has decided to end her six-week-long hunger strike after members of the Assembly of First Nations and the Liberal and New Democrat caucuses agreed to back a list of commitments supporting aboriginal issues.
Representatives from the AFN, the NDP caucus and the Liberal caucus have all signed a declaration of specific commitments asked for by Spence. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who was in Sarnia Wednesday, will also be signing the 13-point declaration.
Michèle Audette, president of the Canadian Native Women's Association, said Spence will hold a press conference Thursday morning in Ottawa at 11 a.m. ET, along with Raymond Robinson, an elder from Cross Lake Nation in Manitoba.
Robinson, who joined Spence in her liquids-only diet, will also announce an end to his protest.
"I have never been in such an awe-inspiring movement … with all the nations of different races coming together to try to achieve a common goal, and I cannot thank them enough for all the generosity, all the support," Robinson told CBC News Wednesday.
There will also be an "honouring ceremony" for Spence and her fellow fasters Thursday afternoon hosted by Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which Rae and the other representatives are expected to attend.
AFN chief Shawn Atleo expressed his personal appreciation for Spence’s contribution.
"Our shared goal is simple and clear: to guarantee that our children can achieve the brighter future that they deserve. This is what every chief across this country, every member of the Assembly of First Nations will continue to fight to achieve," Atleo said in a statement.
Spence, who had been subsisting on fish broth and medicinal tea since Dec. 11, had been examining ways to return to her home and nurse herself back to health.
She had been engaged in her protest for six weeks, camped on an island in the Ottawa River not far from Parliament Hill, in an effort to convince the country's top leaders to take First Nations concerns seriously.
A delegation that included Rae and Alvin Fiddler, northern Ontario deputy grand chief at Nishnawbe Aski Nation, had been working closely with Spence to hash out a dignified solution.
Rae brought with him a reputation as a firm but approachable and respectful mediator in tricky situations such as the Burnt Church aboriginal fishing dispute in 2000. Fiddler is from the same region as Spence and is known as a practical, sharp thinker.
As well, a delegation from Attawapiskat is heading to Ottawa, and had been intending to ask their chief to end her hunger strike. Attawapiskat's acting chief, Christine Okimaw-Kataquapit plans to meet with Spence in the morning.
Kataquapit told CBC Radio she will present a letter signed by all band councillors in Attawapiskat.
The letter states that community members feel she has made her point and it's time to come home. The letter also expresses concern for Spence's health.
Declaration calls for many actions
Spence and a couple of her closest confidantes crafted a declaration of the chief's concerns.
A copy of the declaration, obtained by CBC News, lists 13 commitments:
- An immediate meeting between the Crown, the federal and provincial governments, and all First Nations to discuss treaty and non-treaty-related relationships.
- Clear work plans and timelines, and a demand that the housing crisis within First Nations communities be considered as a short-term immediate action.
- Frameworks and mandates for implementation and enforcement of treaties on a nation-to-nation basis.
- Reforming and modifying a land-claims policy
- A commitment towards resource revenue sharing, requiring the participation of provinces and territories.
- A commitment towards sustained environmental oversight over First Nations lands
- A review of Bill C-38 and C-45 to ensure consistency with constitutional requirements about consultation with aboriginal peoples.
- Ensure that all federal legislation has the consent of First Nations where inherent and Treaty rights are affected
- The removal of funding caps and the indexing of payments made to First Nations.
- An inquiry into violence against indigenous women.
- Equity in capital construction of First Nation schools and additional funding support for First Nation languages.
- A dedicated cabinet committee and secretariat within the Privy Council Office responsible for the First Nation-Crown relationship.
- Full implementation of the United Nations declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples.
One important point is the requirement for consent for federal legislation that affects inherent or treaty rights. The constitutional requirement has been for the government to meaningfully consult with aboriginals over legislation that affects them. The notion of consent seems to take the obligation much further.
Meeting with Harper, GG sought
Thursday is the day Spence and the Assembly of First Nations had asked Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to hold a broad meeting with the country's chiefs, partly to commemorate the first anniversary of last year's Crown-First Nation gathering, which was supposed to have reset relations between the two sides.
Harper and Johnston have not agreed to that meeting, but several chiefs are expected to come to Ottawa that day anyway, Ontario Grand Chief Stan Beardy said earlier this week.
Speaking Wednesday from Cambridge, Ont., where he made an auto-industry announcement, Harper said that a date for a meeting has not been set. He stressed the need for aboriginal people to be able to participate in the economy.
"Those opportunities exist with resource development in remote areas with the shortage of labour the Canadian economy's going to be experiencing and I want to see aboriginal people, particularly young aboriginal people, take full advantage of those opportunities," Harper said.
Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, speaking from Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, said Wednesday that he plans to work with the AFN and Chief Shawn Atleo.
"We continue to hope that as discussions move on we can see rather rapidly an end to the hunger strikes because we're worried about people's health," he said.
Mulcair has not visited with Spence since she began her hunger strike, but he noted that about 20 NDP MPs had met personally with her.
Mulcair is not expected to attend Thursday's honouring ceremony, but MPs Romeo Saganash and Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat, will be there to represent the NDP.
There has been a growing list of politicians and First Nations leaders anxious to see Spence end her protest. They have been careful, however, to leave the final decision up to her.
Instead, they are telling Spence how they count her victories: greater national awareness of First Nations issues; a meeting between the AFN, Harper and several cabinet ministers; and a commitment to modernize treaties and aboriginal rights, with negotiations between chiefs and the top levels of government.
They also say Spence's resolve helped galvanize thousands of protesters across the country under the Idle No More banner.
Spotlight on band's finances
Spence's protest attracted unwanted attention, too: much publicity surrounded a government-ordered audit of her band's finances that showed a lack of proper documentation for about $100 million in funding.
Despite the negative publicity engendered by the audit, it is women chiefs who have been instrumental in keeping Spence's spirits up, say insiders.
Indeed, a group of Manitoba women chiefs just wrapped up a visit to Spence, and issued a call for female chiefs to come to Ottawa on Thursday to support the Cree leader.
"We share Chief Spence's deep concern for the future of our nations and echo Chief Spence's call for restoring our relationship with the Crown to reflect the original spirit and intent of the treaties," said a statement from Chief Betsy Kennedy of War Lake First Nation.
Atleo to return to duties
While Spence's protest may be forging a bond among First Nations women leaders, her refusal to budge over the past few weeks has divided the Assembly of First Nations and prompted questions about the leadership of Atleo.
He attended the meeting with Harper on Jan. 11 even though the Governor General was not included, as Spence had demanded. She boycotted the meeting, as did many chiefs from Manitoba, Ontario and other parts of the country.
Atleo has been on sick leave, but issued a statement on Monday saying he would be back at work with a united AFN later this week.
Late Wednesday, the AFN issued a press release saying that Atleo will address the media Thursday at an AFN Special Chiefs Assembly taking place at the Musqueam Community Recreation Centre in Vancouver.