By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The Assembly of First Nations is trying to organize a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders in the New Year which is one of the demands of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence who is now into day four of a hunger strike, APTN National News has learned.
Harper’s office has not commented publicly on Spence’s hunger strike and on Friday morning the PMO sent an email to APTN National News deferring the issue to Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s office.
A spokesperson for the PMO denied there were negotiations. APTN National News, however, learned there have been “back and forth” discussions between the AFN and the PMO to set up the encounter.
The AFN is seeking to have Harper meet with regional and tribal council chiefs from across the country. Aside from a meeting between a handful of chiefs and Harper in his Langevin Block office and informal chats during a day of speeches, there was no direct discussions between the prime minister and First Nations leaders during last January’s Crown-First Nations gathering.
Spence, who is living in a teepee on Victoria Island in the shadow of Parliament Hill during her hunger strike, said it’s not enough to just have Harper at the meeting. She wants Queen Elizabeth II either directly involved in the meeting or through her representative in Canada, Governor General David Johnston.
Spence said she was disappointed that AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo wasn’t pushing for the Crown’s involvement.
“I am very disappointed. At the beginning I asked the national chief to write the Crown,” said Spence, in a telephone interview. “It is very discouraging that they are taking a shortcut. I am not happy about it…All parties need to meet together, not separate.”
Spence said the treaties were signed by the Crown and it’s up to the Crown to ensure they’re upheld.
“The Crown has been covering their eyes on these violations of the treaties,” said Spence. “Johnston needs to tell the prime minister that he has to work with the treaty and the leaders as partners and not go separate ways. The Crown made a promise to First Nations that if anyone violated the treaties they would be punished.”
Spence said she doesn’t feel that the AFN is fully supporting her fight.
In an interview inside her teepee on Victoria Island, Spence said she faced pressure to end her hunger strike from officials at the AFN and that NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat, has asked her to consider moving into a hotel.
“They’ve tried to get me to reconsider,” said Spence. “I’m staying here I feel close to my ancestors. It reminds me of how it was before.”
Behind the scenes, frustration has been bubbling among her supporters. They say that while the AFN appears on the surface to be supportive, providing the organization’s event teepee for Spence, paying for hotel stays for Spence’s supporters, buying wood for the fire and coordinating daily press conferences this week to trumpet her cause, behind the scenes they claim officials are trying to dissuade the chief from continuing the hunger strike.
Two of her supporters described an exchange during a meeting at the AFN offices Thursday morning saying one Spence backer told a senior AFN aide: “That’s the colonial way; it’s not the way we do things.”
They said the official responded saying: “It’s not colonialism; we are concerned about (Spence’s) health.”
APTN National News confirmed the exchange.
The backroom drama has also pulled in Manitoba’s regional Chief Bill Traverse who fired off a text message Thursday to Peter Dinsdale, the AFN’s chief operating officer, telling him to stop intervening and await direction from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC)/Exec.
“We are advised u r intervening with Chief Therese Spence’s…hunger strike,” said the text. “Plse cease+desist, further direction will come frm AMC/”
Dinsdale responded in an email flatly denying he was intervening.
“Chief Spence and her supporters came to the AFN and asked for our assistance and support,” wrote Dinsdale. “The AFN is fully supporting her efforts by providing wood, our teepee, supplies, hotel stays for people helping Theresa and ensuring she has full access to health care services.”
In an interview with APTN National News, Dinsdale said the AFN has never tried to dissuade Spence from continuing her hunger strike, but there is a lot of concern around her health.
“We are trying to be supportive,” he said. “In our first meeting with her, we expressed concern about the hunger strike and we expressed concern about the viability of a meeting with the Queen.”
Dinsdale said Spence was also presented with the option of conducting the hunger strike in a hotel room or a house.
“We also suggested, given the temperature and given her health that it makes sense for her to be in a hotel or a house,” he said. “We absolutely did offer her that in no way was it done to dissuade her.”