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MP: Chief's hunger strike entering deadly stage

NDPer says Spence's fast could become national crisis

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OTTAWA -- An aboriginal chief's decision to go on a hunger strike until the prime minister agrees to a meeting has entered a deadly serious phase, a New Democrat MP said Thursday.

Charlie Angus, who stood by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence as she began her fast on Dec. 11, says he's now reaching out to area chiefs to see what steps can be taken to solve what's at risk of becoming a national crisis.

"This is much bigger than Theresa Spence, it's much bigger than any individual community," Angus said Thursday as he prepared to travel to Ottawa to visit Spence today.

"This is across the country now, it really needs the prime minister to take action."

Spence launched her protest earlier this month with a vow to "die" unless the Conservative government started showing more respect to First Nations' concerns and aboriginal treaties.

She is demanding a meeting between the Crown, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders to create a new relationship.

Her remote northern Ontario reserve was catapulted into the spotlight late last year after Angus wrote about the dire housing and economic conditions.

The crisis in Attawapiskat was followed by a historic Crown-First Nations gathering in Ottawa in January, where Harper met with aboriginal leadership to discuss economic and social development.

They had agreed to produce a report in one year's time on progress made since the summit and in late November, Harper met with Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo.

A spokesman for the prime minister pointed to that meeting when asked directly why Harper has so far refused to sit down with Spence.

"We are willing and ready to work with partners who are willing to take concrete action to improve conditions on reserves," Andrew MacDougall said in an email.

Though she has declared a hunger strike, for the last 21/2 weeks Spence has subsisted on some soup and tea.

She has welcomed a steady stream of family, friends and other opposition politicians into her teepee on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, just across from Parliament Hill.

The island is considered by the Anishinaabe as traditional territory.

On Thursday, an invitation was issued via Spence's Twitter account for talk-show giant Oprah to come visit.

Angus will visit today, saying he is concerned for health.

"I was very concerned with Theresa taking this step," he said.

"There is too much pressure on her shoulders, putting her health on the line."

On Wednesday, Liberal leadership contender Justin Trudeau visited with Spence, saying he found the visit moving and that she was "willing to sacrifice everything for her people" that "she shouldn't have to."

His visit was followed by the issuing of a letter by fellow leadership contender Marc Garneau, who said Harper shouldn't be worried about setting a precedent by agreeing to a meeting.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has expressed disappointment that Spence will meet with other politicians but not him.

"Given your willingness to accept meetings now, I am hoping that you will reconsider my offer, as a Minister of the Crown, to meet or speak with you," Duncan wrote Spence late Wednesday night.

Duncan is offering to set up a joint working group with senior federal and First Nations representatives.

He has repeatedly tried to speak to her by phone over the last few weeks.

Earlier this week, Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau went to Victoria Island in an effort to speak to Spence but was turned away.

Angus said it seems only Harper can now solve this problem.

"If this thing goes south, who knows what the consequences are going to be, but there will be a huge breach in relations in Canada," he said.

"That's why the prime minister needs to put down the eggnog and get serious and understand that he needs to show some kind of leadership and willingness to actually defuse the situation."

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has issued a statement calling on Harper to meet with Spence, though he has not met her on his own.

Spence's hunger strike coincides with rolling protests by aboriginal groups across the country under the banner of Idle No More.

Flash mobs, a rail blockade and sustained social media campaigns have attracted some international support.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2012 A17

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