The grand chief representing First Nations communities in the James and Hudson Bay areas including the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat says he welcomes the decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hold a "working meeting" with a delegation of First Nations leaders co-ordinated by the Assembly of First Nations next Friday.
In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Stan Louttit, Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, told host Evan Solomon he was "pleasantly surprised' when the news of the meeting came 25 days into the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.
"The prime minister did the right thing," Louttit said.
While Spence was "overjoyed" at the news of a meeting with Harper, on Friday she said she would continue her hunger strike at least until the day of the meeting.
Unless there are "concrete results," said Louttit, "there is a chance that the hunger strike will continue after Jan. 11."
And while Louttit acknowledged that one meeting will not solve everything, he said he will be looking for "some commitment by the prime minister that there is going to be continuing dialogue, that there's going to be continuing discussions beyond Jan. 11."
Louttit called on First Nations leaders to "seize this opportunity with the prime minister, and that'll set the stage in terms of any future discussions that might be required with other government leaders including the premier, including the governor-general."
Harper said in a statement released Friday that the meeting, which will include Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan, is expected to focus on "the treaty relationship, aboriginal rights, and economic development."
Duncan's performance under fire
Spence refused to meet solely with Duncan despite numerous attempts by the minister to do so.
"[I've dealt] with his little ministers before and they don't really work with us. They always put [on] a band-aid solution," Spence told CBC News on Dec. 27.
When asked about Duncan's handling of this file, Louttit told Solomon: "I want a new minister because he has shown with the Attawapskat crisis that he could not deal with that situation, that he fumbled through that process."
Louttit said he's not alone, that First Nations leaders would not only like to see a new minister in place but would also like to have some input into the selection of the next minister overseeing the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio.
In a separate interview airing on The House, Greg Rickford, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs, defended Duncan saying he has "nothing but admiration for the leadership he's shown on a number of key files, not the least of which would be education."
Rickford, who confirmed he will be attending the Jan. 11 meeting along with Harper, Duncan and "another minister," described the federal government as a "willing partner in a process that will focus on economic development on reserves and certainly issues around treaties."
Pam Palmater, a lawyer and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, doubts there will be any concrete results stemming from next Friday's meeting.
In an interview with CBC News Network on Saturday, Palmater said she wouldn't even qualify this meeting as "a small step" forward.
Palmater said "oppressive legislation" and "significant budget cuts" is all that followed last January's gathering of the Crown–First Nations leaders.
But the parliamentary secretary to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development also defended the changes included in the second budget implemetation bill.
"With respect to Bill C-45, the changes to property leasing provisions, these changes respond directly to the request of a number of First Nations Chiefs to provide them with more flexibility," Rickford said.
Palmater, who is also an indigenous rights activist with the Idle No More movement said, the news of this meeting has had for effect to see their activities "ramped up" and there will be "more activities" in the lead-up to Friday's meeting including a "massive rally" in Ottawa.