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On eve of national protest, hunger-striking chief pushes Harper to lead change

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OTTAWA - On the eve of a day of aboriginal protest, the hunger-striking chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation is again calling for a meeting with the prime minister and Canada's governor general.

Chief Theresa Spence issued an open letter Thursday to Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston, urging them to embark on a national discussion about the state of poverty among aboriginal communities.

Spence, who began a hunger strike Dec. 11, says many First Nations communities face impoverished conditions, despite assurances from the government that progress is being made to alleviate poverty.

"Land and natural resources continue to be reaped by the federal and provincial governments through taxation of corporate resource companies with little compensation to First Nations for use of our traditional territories," Spence wrote.

"Trilateral discussions and financial action plans must be committed to in order to alleviate the existing state of poverty."

Spence said Wednesday that she was feeling weakness and other effects of the hunger strike, after nine days of consuming mainly water and fish broth.

Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, voiced frustration Thursday at being unable to speak with Spence about her concerns.

"Since she began her hunger strike the minister has expressed his concern for Chief Spence’s health and he has indicated several times his willingness to meet with or talk to her," MacDonald said.

"Unfortunately, he has been unable to reach the chief, and her colleagues have been unwilling or unable to share an alternate phone number where she might be reached."

A movement dubbed Idle No More was planning a rally Friday on Parliament Hill to demand the Conservative government reverse legislation that it says will affect treaties and traditional land use.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo and up to five other chiefs were expected to take part in the march and rally, along with a number of opposition politicians.

Protests and marches have been held country-wide in recent weeks to demand the Conservative government reverse legislation that First Nations say will affect treaties and traditional land use.

On Thursday, members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northern Alberta blockaded a highway north of Fort McMurray.

Chief Alan Adam told the gathering that the federal government is clearing the way for development on traditional land, and that oilsands projects have already sullied rivers and lakes in the area.

Bill C-45, he said, "gives the green light to destroy the rest."

“The people are standing up and saying enough is enough," Adam said.

The Athabasca Chipewyan band has been raising concerns for years about the impact of the oilsands on the environment and on the health of people living in the area.

Another protest Thursday in Quebec saw dozens of Mohawk protesters walk up the on-ramp of a bridge that links downtown Montreal to the city's south shore to denounce the government's budget legislation.

The Harper government has maintained that it has made progress on aboriginal issues since coming to power in 2006, including building new schools, building and renovating homes on reserves and settling dozens of land claims.

But more needs to be done to build the treaty relationship between the government and First Nations, MacDonald acknowledged.

"We agree that on this point more work is required," he said.

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