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Robinson, Spence end hunger protest

Coalition spells out 13 demands

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OTTAWA -- Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence has agreed to end her hunger protest and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo is coming back to work, but Ottawa-First Nations politics are not returning to normal.

Spence agreed Wednesday to stop her 44-day fast in which she stayed in a teepee on a frigid island in the Ottawa River upstream from Parliament Hill and pushed 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.

"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 Wednesday, First Nations leaders served notice 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 on only 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 Manitoba elder Raymond Robinson, who has been engaged in a similar protest, have agreed to stop.

"It's brought worldwide attention to the issues," Cross Lake Chief Garrison Settee said. "He's a hero. They are both heroes to us."

The breakthrough comes after a coalition of Liberal and NDP politicians and First Nations chiefs agreed to a declaration spelling out 13 demands for continuing negotiations between First Nations and the federal government.

The declaration calls for improvements to housing and schools on reserves and 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.

Numerous chiefs and band councillors from the northern Ontario region around Attawapiskat are travelling to the capital to be part of a procession today that will honour Spence. A separate celebration in Vancouver is meant to underscore Atleo's leadership credentials.

He is returning to work after taking a sick leave.

"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 Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2013 A6

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