OTTAWA – The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is putting acrimony with its national counterpart aside for the moment in order to try once again to get Prime Minister Stephen Harper to agree to a meeting with aboriginal leaders and the Governor General.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak held a press conference on Parliament Hill this afternoon to say a Manitoba-spawned resolution calling for such a meeting on Jan. 24 received unanimous consent from the Assembly of First Nations executive and an invitation to Harper and Governor-General David Johnston is now in the works.
The request does not remove the possibility Manitoba might withdraw partially from the AFN, as numerous chiefs are still quite angry about what happened last week and are calling for the province’s bands to dictate the AFN no longer has authority to speak for Manitoba’s treaties.
Nepinak acknowledged the issue will arise next week at a special chiefs' assembly in Manitoba but he said the immediate concern is the health of Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence and Cross Lake elder Raymond Robinson, who are continuing their fast to demand a meeting with Harper and Johnston.
"Our priority is Theresa Spence and the love we have for her," said Nepinak.
Nepinak and Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Murray Clearsky met with Spence and Robinson in Ottawa Friday. Clearsky said they delivered a message from elders in Manitoba that it’s time for both Spence and Robinson to go home to their families. He said the elder women in Manitoba wanted Spence to know they felt she had made her point and want her to reconsider continuing to refuse solid food.
Spence and Robinson have survived on salmon broth and herbal tea alone for more than a month while they demand action from the government. Spence wants a meeting with Harper and Johnston, while Robinson is demanding the government withdraw parts of its budget implementation bill which reduce environmental reviews, affecting fisheries regulations and amend parts of the Indian Act. He and others argue the changes were made without proper consultation with First Nations.
A week ago, Harper met with AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo, and other AFN representatives but Johnston was not at the table. That was unacceptable to numerous chiefs, including the leadership in Manitoba, who boycotted the meeting.
Nepinak was livid Atleo went ahead with the meeting against the express wishes of so many chiefs, but he said Friday he had a week to think about what happened and believes First Nations across Canada standing united to address the issues facing their people is of paramount concern.
Nepinak said he is not calling for a review of Atleo’s leadership right now, although he acknowledged "we’re not out of the woods yet on that issue."
Atleo is on medical leave at the moment and it’s unknown when he will return.