OTTAWA — Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has agreed to end her hunger protest, and National Chief Shawn Atleo is coming back to work, but Ottawa-First Nations politics are certainly not returning to normal.
Spence agreed Wednesday to call a halt to her 44-day fast, during which she stayed in a teepee on a frigid island upstream from Parliament Hill — and managed to push First Nations issues to the top of the national political agenda.
The protest commanded the attention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, his ministers and his top officials, and galvanized public opinion in Canada and around the world, revealing a stark division between people who want to see more help for First Nations and those who believe they already get too much.
The protest also exacerbated a schism within the Assembly of First Nations, with many chiefs questioning Atleo’s leadership, and touched off a round of public soul-searching about what it takes to bring success to aboriginal people in Canada.
“Our shared goal is simple and clear: to guarantee that our children can achieve the brighter future that they deserve. This is what every chief across this country, every member of the Assembly of First Nations, will continue to fight to achieve,” Atleo said in a statement Wednesday.
“Our mandate is to advance the priorities of First Nations in those areas, and to achieve that justice for our children. We have made real progress in recent weeks. Our journey — the chiefs, the AFN and mine — will not be over until we have won those guarantees.”
Those sentiments aren’t new, but Spence’s protest — coupled with the thousands of people who marched in the streets and blocked highways in the dead of winter under the Idle No More banner — gave Canada a taste of the impatience aboriginal communities have with the status quo.
On Thursday, First Nations leaders served notice that they don’t intend to fade away.
“Chief Spence is a brave warrior and we commend her foresight and commitment to propel the First Nations agenda to the forefront, which governments have dismally failed to do since Confederation,” Manitoba chiefs said in a joint statement.
“The chiefs in Manitoba agree to continue the fight that will bring expedient fundamental change.”
Spence has been subsisting only on fish broth and medicinal tea since Dec. 11 to push for a meeting between First Nations leaders, the prime minister and the Governor General.
Both she and Elder Raymond Robinson, who has been engaged in a similar protest, have agreed to stop, spokesman Danny Metatawabin said in a statement late Thursday afternoon.
The breakthrough comes after a coalition of Liberal and NDP politicians and First Nations chiefs agreed to a declaration spelling out 13 specific demands for continuing negotiations between First Nations and the federal government.
The declaration calls for improvements to housing and schools on reserves, as well as an immediate meeting between the Governor General, the federal and provincial governments and all First Nations.
It also says historic treaties that originally defined the relationship between many First Nations and Ottawa should be modernized and fully implemented within five years.
“We fully commit to carry forward the urgent and co-ordinated action required until concrete and tangible results are achieved in order to allow First Nations to forge their own destiny,” the preamble to the declaration reads.
Numerous other chiefs and band councillors from the northern Ontario region around Attawapiskat are travelling to the capital to be part of a Thursday procession that will celebrate Spence.
separate celebration in Vancouver is meant to underscore the leadership credentials of Atleo, who is returning to work after taking a sick leave.
Spence had initially hoped to force meetings between chiefs and Harper and Gov.-Gen. David Johnston to discuss treaty implementation and improving conditions on reserves. But as that quest looked increasingly futile, attention shifted to the opposition parties as a way to prompt policy change.
Things began to turn last weekend. Chiefs from Spence’s region in northern Ontario were working hard on drafting the declaration, and elements were quickly coming together. Women chiefs were also working a ceremonial exit plan that would allow Spence to claim a dignified, meaningful victory.
The two plans converged in a lengthy conference call Sunday that included Alvin Fiddler, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, as well as interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, Spence’s key confidantes and an official close to Atleo.
With the opposition coming out squarely onside with Spence, the declaration — and the political alliance behind it — will likely keep the pressure on the Conservatives as MPs return to the House of Commons next week after their Christmas break.
Not only will Harper face criticism for allowing First Nations unrest to boil over, but he will also face fresh demands to revisit environmental oversight that was dramatically changed in the government’s two controversial omnibus budget bills.
“We have political and legal and constitutional issues to deal with. That’s the road that Mr. Harper has chosen,” said NDP critic Romeo Saganash.
Harper is focused instead on his plans for forthcoming talks with Atleo based on an agenda they agreed to earlier this month — some of which overlaps with the Spence declaration.
“The important thing is that we continue to make progress so that the living standards of our aboriginal people improve and that their opportunities for participating in the economy continue to improve,” Harper said Wednesday at an event in Cambridge, Ont.
“Those opportunities exist with resource development in remote areas, with the shortage of labour the Canadian economy is going to be experiencing. And I want to see aboriginal people, particularly young aboriginal people, take advantage of those opportunities.”
The declaration also demands a thorough review of the two Conservative government omnibus bills, which dramatically changed environmental oversight.
“Far too long we have been denied an equitable stature within the Canadian society,” the draft declaration states. “The time is ours and no longer will we be silenced and idle.”
Thursday is the day Spence and the AFN originally wanted Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to hold a broad meeting with the country’s chiefs, in part to commemorate the first anniversary of last year’s Crown-First Nation Gathering, which was supposed to have reset relations between the two sides.
Spence’s allies say she has scored numerous victories: greater national awareness of First Nations issues; a meeting between the AFN, Harper and several cabinet ministers; and a commitment to modernize treaties and aboriginal rights, with negotiations between chiefs and the top levels of government.
Spence’s protest also attracted unwanted attention, however: 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.