(Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo and delegation of First Nations leaders. Photo/PMO handout)
APTN National News
While Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo sat in the meeting room of the high-security Langevin Block building flanked by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and Treasury Board President Tony Clement he could hear the sounds of the Idle No More protest that had shut down the streets outside.
Atleo, who attended the meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper Friday despite heated pressure from Manitoba, Ontario and some Saskatchewan chiefs, said the sounds of the protests gave the meeting added weight.
“Listening to the power voices of the Idle No More rally that was surrounding the Prime Minister’s Office, it added a sense of strength, that we are in a moment we can’t go back from,” said Atleo. “That our people will stand up for the land, the water, the air.”
Atleo led a delegation of about 16 First Nations leaders to meet with the prime minister and several cabinet ministers.
During the meeting, thousands of people marched down Ottawa’s Wellington Street which separates Parliament Hill from Langevin Block which houses the Prime Minister’s Office. Rallies also unfolded across the country, from Whitehorse to Halifax, Yellowknife to Winnipeg, from Vancouver to Toronto to Montreal to Fredericton, thousands of people rallied under the banner of Idle No More. Nova Scotia also saw a rail blockade by members of Millbrook First Nation.
There were over 200 Idle No More related events around the world, from London, England, to Texas, to New Zealand.
A massive round dance also framed the lawn of Parliament Hill at one point and the drums shook the air.
“I am blown away, I am filled with pride, I am just standing here trying to take this in,” said Molly Peters, a Mi’kmaq Idle No More organizer from Nova Scotia, who was standing on the steps of Parliament Hill watching the round dance slowly turn on the lawn below.
“I came for unity,” said Stacie Landon, from Neyaahiinigmiing First Nation in Ontario. “I am here for my children’s future.”
Janice Trudeau, from unceded Wikwemikong First Nation, said she took the streets in Ottawa in solidarity with other Indigenous people.
“I came in solidarity with other Anishinabe people to form a united front against Harper,” she said
And while the grassroots flooded the streets of Canada with round dances, songs and drums, fissures developed between First Nations chiefs over the meeting with the prime minister.
A few hours before the meeting began, chiefs from Ontario and Manitoba stated they would not be participating and warned that they would be initiating economic disruptions on Jan. 16.
“We can’t live in poverty anymore while Canadians live this great life,” said Grand Chief Gordon Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians. “We’ll stop it the only way we can stop it…Stop the roads, stop the rails, stop the transportation of goods.”
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who marched Friday morning along with about 150 others, including Ontario and Saskatchewan chiefs to the door of the Langevin building, said Manitoba chiefs would be standing with the grassroots.
“Across the tables in this room and across the street paper crosses hands and artificial laws are made to control us. We are saying no more,” said Nepinak as he stood at the gates to Parliament Hill and across the street from Langevin.
Nepinak and Peters were among a number of chiefs who opposed the meeting. They wanted Governor Genernal David Johnston to appear along with the prime minister and the chiefs wanted it to be held in a larger venue. Many said they also supported Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence who has been on a liquids-only fast since Dec. 11. Spence had said she’d end her protest if the governor general and the prime minister met with First Nations leaders.
“It’s important for both of them to be there at the same time with all leaders, not just some,” Spence told reporters early Friday outside her Victoria Island compound where she’s spent most of her days in a teepee.
Spence has said she’ll continue to abstain from solid foods.
Yet, despite this opposition, Atleo led chiefs from the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan into the meeting with Harper.
The AFN released a list of points they planned to discuss with the prime minister and Duncan, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Clement and senior bureaucrats.
Atleo said the meeting lasted from about 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. and it was done with a tone of “respectful dialogue.”
Atleo said he felt the chiefs who attended the meeting managed to convince Harper that he needed to personally take charge of the issues between Canada and First Nations.
“The ability now to have direct prime ministerial engagement on matters of great concern for our people…including unilateral legislative development…We now have a forum…that we did not have before,” said Atleo, in an interview with APTN National News. “It is incumbent and the responsibility of the prime minister and the Crown to honour and implement the treaty relationship with First Nations. It will require a lot of work.”
Atleo acknowledged that many of the chiefs from Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan were against the meeting because they wanted to stand behind Spence.
Spence is expected to continue her fast because the prime minister and the governor general did not appear together at the meeting.
Atleo said he understands the chiefs’ position, but he has been pushing to meet Spence’s demands which appeared to shift.
“On Dec. 31, on New Year’s Eve, we had a national conference call with 50 or 60 chiefs on the line and that if we were to secure a meeting with the prime minister and governor general, that Chief Theresa Spence would end her hunger strike,” said Atleo. “It turns out we all either didn’t understand or there was miscommunication. Twenty-four hours later, I had had chiefs saying we need to go sit with Chief Spence and she said she would continue until there was a meeting with the prime minister and the government general.”
On the Conservative government’s side, Duncan said he felt the meeting was “constructive,” but he wouldn’t go into specifics about some of the demands the chiefs had like resource revenue sharing.
However, he did say that although it was discussed, Bill C-45 and Bill C-38 would not be repealed as requested by many First Nations across the country.
“We’re quite comfortable that we have met our constitutional obligations with those bills and we believe there is every reason to proceed,” said Duncan.
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a release saying that Harper had a “good, frank dialogue with First Nations.”
The prime minister says both sides did not agree on all matters, but First Nations brought “serious and important proposals to the table.”
Harper says he will debrief his cabinet onFriday’s meeting and committed to meeting with National Chief Shawn Atleo in the coming weeks to “review next steps.”
The Prime Minister was initially going to attend only at the beginning and end but took part in the entire meeting, which went two hours longer than planned.
Serpent River Chief Isadore Day, who opposed Atleo attending the meeting, said many chiefs were “shocked” the meeting occurred.
Day said Atleo had no “business” talking about treaties at the meeting.
“I’d like to denounce the national chief even discussing treaties when the majority of the treaty communities weren’t even at the table,” said Day.
Day warned Atleo earlier in an email earlier in the day Friday that if he went to the meeting he could face a motion of non-confidence from chiefs.
“The talk is that a lot of people aren’t happy, obviously, you know people are shocked, folks are saying that the best thing for people to do is take a bit of a step back and go home and do something thinking,” said Day. “How could in one day, the national chief say we are united and that we are all standing behind Chief Spence and in the next day, take this entourage to a meeting. That is not sitting well with the majority of the chiefs in assembly.”
Former National Chief Matthew Coon Come who was one of the first to arrive to the Langevin offices told reporters earlier that it would be a lost opportunity if chief didn’t take advantage of the meeting.
*Note APTN National News has changed the terminology of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s protest to a liquids-only fast