Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence vowed to remain on a hunger strike, shortly after she and about 100 other chiefs attended a ceremony with the Governor General at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, despite a promise by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to engage in "high-level dialogue" on treaty relationships and comprehensive land claims earlier Friday.

Spence, who has become an inspirational figure for the grassroots Idle No More movement, had refused to attend the earlier "working meeting" between some First Nations chiefs and Harper unless the Governor General was present as well, but she decided in the end to go to the Rideau Hall meeting, which was described by the government as "ceremonial."

While Spence and other chiefs dismissed the usefulness of the government's efforts, at least two of the chiefs who attended the Harper meeting earlier Friday sounded a more positive tone — as did the government.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, addressing reporters on Parliament Hill, said the prime minister had agreed to:

  • High-level dialogue on treaty relationships and comprehensive land claims.
  • Enhanced oversight from PMO and Privy Council. 
  • Holding further meetings with the head of the AFN.

However, on the environmental changes in the omnibus bills that so concern the Idle No More movement, Duncan insisted that constitutional obligations to Aboriginal Peoples were in fact respected by the government when it drew up the bills.

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Grand Chief Derek Nepinak from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs displays a medal depicting the Indian Treaty before marching with Idle No More protesters to Parliament Hill Friday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

On the issue of resource revenue-sharing, Duncan said, "The federal government does not receive resource revenues, and so that's a question that really will involve the provinces and that's — that was recognized by the room."

Asked about Spence's hunger strike, Duncan said he once had a "small part" in convincing Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to end a hunger strike, and he hoped to have that conversation with Spence. So far, Spence has refused to meet with him.

Divisions remain among AFN chiefs led by Shawn Atleo who attended the Harper meeting and chiefs who boycotted the talks.

After the meeting, Atleo downplayed any rifts between aboriginal leadership.

"We have full consensus on the substance of the issues that were pressed fully today by the delegation that went to the prime minister," Atleo told The National's Wendy Mesley. "It's going to require real work to follow through, but we have now a highest level mandate from the prime minister. I cannot understate that the voices of our people helped create the level of urgency."

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come of Quebec, who also attended the Harper meeting, told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that he was surprised by the reaction of the prime minister whom he said "moved a couple of posts forward."

Coon Come seemed optimistic, and even though Harper didn't promise to remove the controversial environmental provisions in two omnibus budget bills, Coon Come said those issues "are on the table" and that the prime minister indicated he was willing to carry out his duty to consult with First Nations on legislative matters that impact their territories.

Coon Come said there was no commitment to hold an inquiry into the issue of missing aboriginal women. However Coon Come added he thinks there are too many inquiries, and said he favours "concrete measures"  to reduce harm to women.

GG stresses hope

The "working meeting" with the prime minister was followed by a ceremonial event at Rideau Hall which included a greeting by Gov. Gen. David Johnston, a procession, and a smudging ceremony and prayer performed by a native elder, according to a statement from the Office of the Governor general of Canada. 

Johnston's remarks to the First Nations leaders, released by Rideau Hall, included concern for Spence and fellow aboriginal hunger-strikers Raymond Robinson and Jean Sock. "My deepest wish is for the well-being of all Canadians and for dialogue to always take place in a safe and healthy manner."

Johnston stressed themes of hope and trust in his remarks.  

"We can strike a balance between diversity and unity that will strengthen as us nations and as a nation," he said.

According to Danny Metatawabin, who is a spokesperson for Spence, she 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," Metatawabin told gathered First Nations chiefs as he described the meeting as "a show, a picture opportunity."

"Sadly," he said, "the hunger strike continues."

Divisions during the day

Before the meeting ended, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of Manitoba, who shunned the event, called Friday "a great victory" and said he was "ecstatic about our drums and about our people today."

Pam Palmater, an Idle No More spokesperson who ran against Atleo for the AFN leadership, said Atleo has no independent decision-making power. The fact Atleo and what she called "a minority of chiefs" attended the meeting "doesn't mean good things for the AFN," Palmater said on Power & Politics.

She also said that chiefs, such as Nepinak, who boycotted the meeting, "took their control back" and that they are the ones who control the AFN.

Earlier, some protesters attempted to block the door to the Langevin building where the meeting was being held. Chiefs from Manitoba spread tobacco on the steps to "protect" their people, and several dozen women linked arms to try to stop people from entering. When Coon Come entered despite their pleas, one woman broke down in tears.

"I know there's times for small groups to meet. But now is not the time," another woman said. "Today's the day to stand for our ancestors ... there will be other prime ministers to meet with. The gold in the land is not going away. The water is not going to go away," she added, to cheers from the crowd.

Atleo joined by other chiefs

Joining Atleo and Coon Come inside were delegates representing Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, P.E.I., Quebec, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Alberta and Yukon.

AFN representatives from its Youth Council, Women's Council and Elders Council were present as well. But Saskatchewan AFN Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde, who appeared with Atleo at a press conference yesterday, did not attend, saying he wanted "to respect other chiefs," including large groups from Manitoba and Ontario who were vocal in their dissent. However, Bellegarde planned to meet with the Governor General at Rideau Hall.

Speaking earlier on behalf of Quebec leaders, Coon Come said that his colleagues want to be able to go home and tell their people they didn't come to Ottawa just to protest, but to have a meeting and address real issues.

Spence stuck to her refusal to attend Friday's meeting with Harper because Johnston and all First Nations leaders weren't participating.

In a brief appearance before the media on Victoria Island on Friday morning, Spence offered a short statement and took no questions, even as some yelled, "What did you do with the money, Theresa?" as she spoke.

In a brief, rambling statement, Spence criticized Harper for earlier remarks he made about millions of dollars going into the Attawapiskat reserve.

"He makes false statement about fundings. He doesn't give details about where it goes. Most of the funding that we have, it goes back to you, to taxpayers. It goes out of our reserve. For example, housing:  we have to hire contractors, we have to order the materials from out of town and to shipment. We pay tax on that. Even when we hire lawyers, that's from our reserve. Consultants, that's where the money goes, " she said.

Not about strength

At the meeting

Here are some of the people who attended a meeting between First Nations chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, according to the PMO and the Assembly of First Nations.

From the government:

  • Harper.
  • Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
  • Treasury Board president Tony Clement.
  • Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
  • Parliamentary Secretary Greg Rickford.
  • AANDC officials, including Deputy Minister Michael Wernick and senior assistants.
  • Senior officials from the Privy Council, Natural Resources and HRSDC.

From the AFN:

  • National Chief Shawn Atleo.
  • Terry Paul, Debora Robinson (Nova Scotia/N.L.).
  • Regional Chief Roger Augustine, George Ginnish (New Brunswick/P.E.I.).
  • Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come (Quebec).
  • Leo Omani, Norma Johnstone, Marcel Head (Saskatchewan).
  • Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould, Grand Chief Ed John, Doug White (B.C.).
  • Regional Chief Mike Smith, Eric Fairclough (Yukon).
  • Grand Chief Charles Weaselhead Treaty 7, Grand Chief Roland Twinn Treaty 8 (Alberta).
  • Sasha Maracle, AFN Youth Council.
  • Bertha Commanda, AFN Elders Council.

As the meeting with Harper began, a group of about 20 protesters, many of them from Manitoba, entered Parliament's Centre Block at the invitation of MP Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal critic for aboriginal affairs. The protesters spoke to a group of university students who happened to be holding a mock parliament.

Earlier, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who pointed out he had been a mediator during the explosive Burnt Church crisis that occurred after the Supreme Court recognized some native fishing rights, said at a news conference that it wouldn't be a "big deal" for the Governor General to be present at the meeting alongside Harper.

"No one's caving," Rae said. "If you use the language of caving, you'll never understand the nature of a discussion. It's not about I'm stronger than you, I'm better than you, I'm bigger than you. That's a truly silly way of looking at it, in my view."

Rae indicated he disagreed with Harper's "imperial style," and said, "This country has a rendezvous with this issue, and we have to figure out a way to deal with it in a way that's actually going to work."

Divisions in sharp relief

By last night, the talks were thrown into disarray, with chiefs from first Manitoba and then other regions including Ontario, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories saying the talks must be held on their terms: involving more chiefs, in a bigger room and including the Governor General.

Former AFN national chief Ovide Mercredi, from northern Manitoba, who was part of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Harper's chief of staff Nigel Wright earlier, said late Thursday that Atleo himself had tried to persuade the PMO to bend. But with no luck.

The dissident group from Manitoba joined the national Idle No More march to Parliament Hill after the prime minister and the Governor General did not acquiesce to their demands.

Protesters will block roads

Chiefs from Ontario and Manitoba have called for a non-confidence vote for the AFN national chief because Atleo didn't boycott Friday afternoon's talks with Harper.

Grand Chief Gordon Peters told reporters Friday that aboriginal protesters will block major roads and rail lines in Ontario on Wednesday if their demands are not met. He also threatened to go to international investors and tell them their resource extraction projects are not safe if the government pushes through developments without consent from First Nations.

Recent omnibus budget legislation aimed at streamlining resource projects has been a major irritant for the ongoing Idle No More protest movement. Other Harper government cuts to aboriginal programs and organizations are also concerns.

But part of the Idle No More movement is a criticism of the current First Nations leadership as ineffective in dealing with the needs of their people.