A top aboriginal chief, Matthew Coon Come, who was among a delegation of chiefs that met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa on Friday, says it's time for Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to save face and end her hunger strike — now on its 33rd day.
Spence, who attended a ceremonial event with the Governor General at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Friday evening, along with about 100 other chiefs, has since vowed to continue her hunger strike until the prime minister and Governor General meet with First Nations together, in the same room.
In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, acknowledged that Spence's efforts had "an influence" on the resulting meetings but also questioned the wisdom of her decision to continue her diet of fish broth and medicinal tea beyond four weeks.
"I'm not sure who is advising her," Coon Come told host Evan Solomon.
Coon Come, who also served as former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) from 2000 to 2003, went on to question Spence's rationale for wanting the prime minister and the Governor General to meet with First Nations in the same room.
He explained that while the Canadian Constitution Act places executive powers in the Queen, in practice this power is exercised by the prime minister.
"The prime minister is not going to relinquish his executive powers to the Governor General. That's the reality," said Coon Come.
"I don't know who is advising her. I don't know who she has surrounded herself with," said Coon Come adding "but I think if one is to make statements, they have to be credible based on at least some facts, on some knowledge, and hopefully be able to compromise."
Speaking from his own experience, Coon Come said "when you ask for something in this country, in my experience in negotiations, it's a give and take. There has to be a save-face, for both sides."
Coon Come, a long-time advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples in Canada, is also best known for his fight against the Quebec government's James Bay hydroelectric project.
"I chose to be part of the process, and I think I've done something for my nation that others only dream of," he said.
Spence continues hunger strike
Coon Come told Solomon he thinks Spence has been successful in her demands, and that it's time to put her health first.
"I would hope that she would [end her hunger strike], for her health. I think she has succeeded. The Governor General responded by saying I will meet. Maybe not the way she wanted it. The prime minister said he was going to meet with First Nations. I think both have been done."
But Spence put the onus on ending her hunger strike — and that of two fellow hunger-strikers — on the prime minister and Governor General, in a written statement released Saturday.
"We are deeply disappointed that my efforts to bring both the Governor General and prime minister of Canada with our First Nations leaders has been compromised while my life along with Raymond Robinson and Jean Sock lives hang in the balance," said Spence.
"They both have the decision to stop this hunger strike."
According to Spence, "the state of Canada" has an obligation to call for "an emergency meeting that is inclusive of all First Nations leadership and end this once and for all."
"Thirty First Nation Chiefs don’t represent nor legitimize the mandate of all First Nations," Spence said.
That sentiment was echoed by Idle No More protesters and some First Nations leaders such as Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of Manitoba who refused to attend the working meeting with Harper lead by the AFN in a show of support and solidarity with Spence.
Harper, First Nations commit to treaty talks
Nevertheless, First Nations leaders who did attend the working meeting with the prime minister emerged with something to show for it, and so did the federal government.
In separate interviews airing Saturday on The House, National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Greg Rickford, who was also at the meeting, detailed what was accomplished.
Atleo said Harper committed to "prime ministerial oversight" and "admitted, recognized that, that political oversight was necessary for there to be real change in the relationship between First Nations and Canada."
"We found common ground," said Rickford who described the working meeting as "polite, respectful and substantive meeting."
Atleo presented Harper with eight "elements of concensus" stemming from First Nations dialogue and strategy sessions held with First Nations leaders in the lead-up to Friday's working meeting. Discussion of treaty relationships, resolution of land claims, and resource revenue sharing among other points.
The national chief told Solomon that the prime minister "responded to all eight points" and that Harper stayed for the entire duration of the working meeting which "wasn't expected."
Atleo said the prime minister committed to "rapid follow-up" within the "coming days and weeks."
Atleo concedes room for improvement
When asked about the divisions that emerged among First Nations since Spence's demands and resulting hunger strike, Atleo conceded that "to a large extent" the way the national organization is structured "does not reflect the original nations that we come from."
"This construct reflects an Indian Act that was part of the discussion that First Nations are saying we need to move beyond... I think we really [have to] reflect on our organization and perhaps re-consider how it is that we do our work, because we are so diverse," said Atleo.
The national chief credited the grassroots movement Idle No More for "forcing" First Nations and the federal government "to take heed at this moment."
But diversity of voices aside, be they from Idle No More activists or First Nations chiefs, Atleo made clear that it was also in part thanks to the AFN that Friday's meeting with the prime minister took place.
"Make no mistake, we pressed for and we called for this meeting," Atleo said.
Idle No More protests are expected to continue throughout the coming days with larger events planned for a possible day of action on Jan. 16.
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