Theresa Spence pulls out of meeting with Harper

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence says she won't be at a meeting Friday between First Nations leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper because Gov. Gen. David Johnston isn't attending.

Hunger-striking Attawapiskat chief says Gov. Gen. David Johnston should be at meeting Friday

Chief Spence boycotts meeting

11 years ago
Duration 2:35
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence will not attend a meeting with First Nations leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper because Gov. Gen. David Johnston won't be attending

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence says she won't be at a meeting Friday between First Nations leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper because Gov. Gen. David Johnston isn't attending.

Earlier Wednesday, spokesman Danny Metatawabin said Spence would be at the meeting even though Johnston said he wouldn't attend. Spence's camp distributed a news release less than four hours later saying she wouldn't go after all and that she'd sent a letter to Buckingham Palace asking Queen Elizabeth to order Johnston to be at the meeting.

A spokeswoman for Harper said the meeting will proceed as planned. But the CBC's Terry Milewski reports that the chiefs have been told that the prime minister will only be attending part of the talks.

Johnston's office said he isn't going "because it consists of a working meeting with government on public policy issues."

Asked whether he would reconsider, a spokeswoman for Johnston told CBC News that his decision not to go to the meeting hadn't changed.

Later Wednesday, the Assembly of First Nations delayed a news conference in which it was to lay out "clear expectations" for the meeting.

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo was to have laid out the group's expectations ahead of the meeting with Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan. The news conference is now set for Thursday afternoon.

"First Nation planning discussions and dialogue continue today," Atleo said in a release. "It is essential that this important dialogue continues, and we will set out objectives for Friday's meeting at a press conference Thursday."

Spence protesting treaty issues

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."

The Governor General was seen as an important participant for the meeting, because he represents the Crown, which negotiated the original treaties with aboriginal people.

Spence's news release said Johnston's "attendance is integral when discussing inherent and treaty rights."

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.

"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 the release.

The release from Spence's camp said Canada's legitimacy rests on the treaties made with First Nations ancestors.

The prime minister's office said the meeting Friday "demonstrates the next steps in our ongoing dialogue and commitment to improve outcomes for First Nations. The meeting will afford the Government of Canada and First Nations an opportunity to further treaty rights and economic development."

Former chief 'somewhat surprised' by Spence's decision

Phil Fontaine, the former Assembly of First Nations grand chief, who met with Spence on Tuesday, told host Evan Solomon on CBC-TV's Power & Politics that he is "somewhat surprised" that the Attawapiskat chief will not attend.

"I have no idea" why she changed her mind, Fontaine said. "My visit with Chief Spence was really to express my appreciation to her courage, her determination, her commitment."

He stressed that the meeting with Harper is still an important opportunity for First Nations leaders to secure commitments, with targets spelled out, on treaty rights, aboriginal rights, and the economy.

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 of federal government funding between 2005 and 2011.

"Obviously, there will be some that now question Chief Spence," Fontaine said. "The fact is her action, the Idle No More movement, the Assembly of First Nations, in all pursuing a common cause, all of those actions have resulted in a meeting with the prime minister. There's some real opportunities there and we shouldn't lose sight of that fact."

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, which was to be released by next Wednesday, as a "distraction," with her camp arguing its release was timed to discredit her.

'Position with integrity'

Taiaiake Alfred, a University of Victoria professor and an Idle No More supporter, told Solomon that Spence's decision not to go is a "position with integrity" because it's consistent and because the relationship between Canada and aboriginals is "nation-to-nation."

"The treaties that we're fighting so hard to have recognized and respected are treaties between nations," he said. "They're between the Crown and our people. And it's not really good enough to have the prime minister there, who is the person who is in charge of government. We need a representative of the Crown."

Alfred said the native community will splinter politically if Atleo doesn't get good results.

"I think it's a major crisis for Shawn Atleo, and it's a crisis as well for the AFN as an organization because if they can't deliver something meaningful in the minds of the people involved with Idle No More, they're in serious danger of being seen as an irrelevant force or, even worse, as part of a collaborating mechanism with the Government of Canada on their agenda."

Alfred said without progress it's going to come to a point where young people in First Nations will recognize that historically "the government only responds to trouble and they're going to find a way to make trouble for the Government of Canada in order to get a response."

Spence's representatives keep media at a distance

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.

Metatawabin told reporters Wednesday that they weren't allowed into the space where Spence was.

"Because of that leaked document with the audit report, we just don't want any negative vibes inside that fence," he said.

"Inside that teepee, in that sacred fire, it's all sacred to us ... We don't want to allow any media inside the boundaries of the sacredness of that fire, and we need to protect the chief. She needs to be at peace, focused on what she needs to do, and that's all we're asking for.

"We'll let you in when we talk about treaty [rights] and obligations and nation to nation relationship," he added.

The prime minister's office hasn't yet released a location for the meeting.