Search for solution to Theresa Spence's protest reaches critical point

Associated Press

OTTAWA - Discussions to resolve Chief Theresa Spence's six-week-long hunger protest have intensified over the past 48 hours and have reached a critical point, say sources close to the talks.

The Attawapiskat chief, who has been subsisting on fish broth and medicinal tea since Dec. 11, is examining ways to return to her community and nurse herself back to health, multiple sources have told The Canadian Press.

A delegation that includes interim Liberal leader Bob Rae and northern Ontario deputy grand chief Alvin Fiddler has been working closely with Spence to hash out a dignified solution.

Rae brings 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.

Members of the delegation, along with Spence and a couple of her closest confidantes, are working the phone lines to craft a declaration of the chief's concerns that would be signed by supporters. They also hope to design a ceremony to mark what her protest has accomplished.

And they want to define a process that will allow Spence a recovery.

The sources, who don't want to be quoted on the state of the discussions because they are at a fragile stage, say they hope for a resolution soon — perhaps even by Thursday.

That's the day Spence and the Assembly of First Nations had asked Prime Minister Stephen 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.

Spence has been engaged in her protest for six full weeks, setting up camp 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.

There's a growing list of politicians and First Nations leaders anxious to see Spence bring her protest to an end. 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, Stephen 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.

Spence's protest also 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.

Rae, the Assembly of First Nations, Spence's spokesman and Fiddler would not comment Tuesday when contacted by The Canadian Press.

Women chiefs have been instrumental in keeping Spence's spirits up, say insiders.

Indeed, a group of Manitoba women chiefs has just wrapped up a visit to Spence, and has 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.

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 National Chief Shawn Atleo.

Atleo attended the meeting with Harper on Jan. 11 even though the Governor General was not included in the meeting, 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 ever since, but issued a statement on Monday saying he would be back at work with a united AFN later this week.

View Comments (1)