Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence says she will join a "working meeting" between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a delegation of First Nations chiefs, but is not ready to give up her hunger strike.
Spence made the announcement from Victoria Island just north of Ottawa, where she has been conducting a hunger strike that is now in its 25th day.
"To all the supporters and the helpers, I'm really grateful today. I'm just really overjoyed .... to hear that the Crown and the prime minister and the governments, that they're going to meet with us Jan. 11th, but I'll still be here on my hunger strike until that meeting takes place," Spence said.
Spence said she would attend the meeting, but when asked whether it would be enough to end her hunger strike, she said she would wait to see the outcome.
"We'll see what the results are, if there's really a positive result, because there are a lot of issues that we need to discuss," Spence said.
Spence's spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, said Spence and her supporters want Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty at the meeting as well, and said the hunger strike could continue after Jan. 11.
The prime minister's office announced the meeting earlier Friday.
"This working meeting will focus on two areas flowing from the[2012 Crown-First Nations] Gathering: the treaty relationship and aboriginal rights and economic development," said a release issued Friday morning by the Prime Minister's Office. "While some progress has been made, there is more that must be done to improve outcomes for First Nations communities across Canada."
Speaking Friday near Toronto, Harper said the AFN will "determine the composition of their own delegation."
Asked about whether he's worried the Idle No More protests could get worse, Harper said Canadians expect everyone to obey the law while protesting.
"People have the right in our country to demonstrate and express their points of view peacefully as long as they obey the law," he said.
Cornwall police issued a statement Friday saying they were closing the Seaway International Bridge crossing to the United States due to planned protests on Saturday morning that could cause possible disruptions and traffic delays. Sarnia police issued a similar warning for the Blue Water Bridge international crossing near Sarnia Saturday afternoon.
Spence calls situation 'a crisis'
Metatawabin said he cried when he heard the news of the meeting.
"Tears started to come down my eyes and I had to hold off my tears because I wanted to share my tears with Chief Theresa and all the helpers that came to support her," Metatawabin told reporters at an Ottawa press conference earlier Friday.
Early Friday morning, a news release issued by Spence — who, despite frigid temperatures, remains camped out with her supporters on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River between downtown Ottawa and Gatineau, Que. — says that as the 25th day of her hunger strike begins, "her message is becoming more crucial."
"This is a crisis, and we cannot continue on this path of social indifference," Spence says in the release, reiterating her call for an "urgent" meeting on the implementation of treaties between First Nations and the Crown.
On Thursday, Spence's camp said a meeting needs to happen within 72 hours and suggested protests across Canada sympathetic to her cause could escalate.
Friday's statement quoted Metatawabin as saying the chief "cannot physically sustain her hunger strike" until Jan. 24, a meeting date proposed earlier by the AFN, which had been calling for Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to meet with chiefs from across Canada on the first anniversary of their 2012 Crown-First Nations gathering.
Metatawabin says he visited Spence on Friday morning and "she's well, but you can tell her body is weak."
AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo and other regional chiefs from northern Ontario were on Victoria Island on Thursday, meeting with Spence in an apparent effort to broker some sort of compromise solution that could respond to demands without further endangering anyone's physical well-being. Atleo said little as he left, however, apparently unsuccessful in his efforts.
Resource-sharing at issue
Atleo has been meeting with officials from the prime minister's office behind the scenes in an effort to address not only Spence's hunger strike but the concerns of the Idle No More protest movement more generally.
Some involved with the movement have suggested theirs is a grassroots protest and the elected national chiefs cannot represent their interests because they are part of the system that has failed them in the past.
First Nations leaders are calling for resource-sharing arrangements so that they can share in profits from development around their land.
"If they're opening up a mine near your town, they have a duty under Ontario law, in this case, to be able to talk to your mayor and council ... no such thing for First Nations," Grand Chief Stan Louttit said.
"We can't just rely on impact benefit agreements that we're forced to negotiate. There needs to be a process in place where we get a piece of the pie, just like Ontario does, just like Canada does... we need to get part of that as well so that we can begin to prosper, so that we can get out of the poverty that we're in."
Results of audit expected soon
Asked about criticism over the salaries of Spence and the rest of the band council that in 2010-11 totalled $304,364, Louttit said the Attawapiskat council agreed to a comprehensive audit looking at all the funding that goes into the community and how it's spent.
The salaries that year ranged from $22,980 to $69,579 for Spence and covered 22 people who sat on the council for anywhere from one month to a full year.
Louttit says the audit is done and being reviewed by the Aboriginal Affairs Department and Health Canada, which provide the funding.
"If a comprehensive audit or an offer for a forensic audit is not sufficient for people, then I don't know what is. There's just that perception out there: 'There's little old Attawapiskat, 2,000 people, they get $60 million over five years, wow, I can't fathom that. That's a problem,'" Louttit said.
In reality, he said, everything in the North costs up to 20 times more and as much as half of the government funding goes to education.
"I've worked in that system for many, years and I can vouch for the fact that it is very, very difficult to do business in a remote community. Not like it is in Ottawa, not like it is in Timmins or anywhere else... but the average Canadian out there, they see millions and millions and they just get concerned and said, 'Hey, there's something going on there.' But I challenge those people, come to the community and look at the books and come and live there for a couple of weeks and you'll see," Louttit said.
Harper wouldn't say when the audit will be released.
Spence is not alone on her hunger strike. Cross Lake, Man., elder Raymond Robinson has also gone without food since Dec. 11.
The CBC's Adrienne Arsenault reported that while Spence is weak and reporting some pain, she remains upbeat and takes a daily walk with her friends and supporters.
Arsenault said Robinson is not faring as well, telling her yesterday that he's lost more than 30 pounds and is having trouble standing up straight because of his pain.
In a separate development, a release issued Friday morning by the Sikniktuk Mi'kmaq Rights Coalition in New Brunswick said the group has notified the RCMP that it plans to block CN Rail trains from transporting goods along the Highway 126 rail line in Adamsville, N.B., between now and Monday.
The release says the chosen location is a historical trading post where Mi'kmaq people bartered their handmade baskets for goods with local settlers.
Previously, Mi'kmaq protesters from Elsipogtog held a four-day traffic slow down along Highway 11. The group is calling for recent federal legislation to be abolished or stopped, saying it infringes on their treaty rights and human rights.