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Chiefs urge PM to meet in 72 hours

Waiting till Jan. 24 too late

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OTTAWA -- A Manitoba elder on a hunger strike said Thursday a proposed Jan. 24 meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper is too long to wait.

Raymond Robinson, 51, from Cross Lake First Nation, has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 12, protesting the passage of Bill C-45, an omnibus budget bill that amends parts of the Indian Act and environmental and fisheries regulations that affect First Nations.

Robinson said Harper is trying to use legislation to eradicate treaty rights.

"They promised us our treaties would be maintained," he said. "This bill is contrary to that... I'm making a stand that over my dead body are you going to take my land."

Robinson travelled to Ottawa to join forces with Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, who has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 11, demanding a meeting with Harper.

On Thursday, Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, who speaks for Spence, said the chief has no problem with First Nations leaders meeting with Harper on Jan. 24, but she wants to be included in a preliminary meeting well before then.

"I think what is required for the life of these individuals here, for the life of the chief, is that there needs to be a meeting with the prime minister soon, within the next two or three days. Her life is on the line," said Louttit.

Thursday, the Assembly of First Nations made public it had requested a meeting with Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston for Jan. 24, the one-year anniversary of the Crown-First Nations Gathering.

That event, held in Ottawa, was intended to reboot the relationship between Ottawa and First Nations but few if any concrete results have been seen in the year since.

Robinson said he can't wait until Jan. 24.

"That's too long," he said. "You want us to go another three weeks on our hunger strike?"

It's not clear yet whether Harper or Johnston will agree to a meeting. So far, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has offered to meet with Spence, but Harper has not. Spokespeople for both Johnston and Harper said Thursday they would respond to the invitation "in due course." Harper has an announcement planned in Oakville, Ont., today where he is certain to be asked about the situation.

AFN Chief Shawn Atleo proposed the meeting as tensions grew among First Nations nationwide, and the Idle No More movement gains more attention.

Atleo met with Spence and Robinson Thursday afternoon at their temporary homes in a teepee and a tent on an island in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill. Robinson said they made clear to Atleo the meeting has to be sooner.

"We are not going anywhere until we get that meeting, and we told him to take that message to the prime minister," said Robinson.

Spence is reported to be very weak as she has gone without food for more than three weeks. Robinson said his stomach hurts and he can no longer stand up straight. They are surviving on herbal tea and salmon broth.

One of the chief concerns about Bill C-45 is amendments to the Indian Act that make it easier for band councils to designate reserve land for lease to outsiders. Previously, in order to lease land for development, a band council needed to get a majority of votes from a majority of band members on the reserve's voters' list. The change means the majority of votes only has to come from a majority of band members who attend the community meeting where the vote takes place. It also means the minister of aboriginal affairs can approve or reject a land designation himself, rather than also having to get cabinet approval.

Many First Nations interpret the changes as the government trying to make it easier to co-opt reserve land for oil, gas and other mineral development.

A spokesman for Duncan said Thursday the changes in C-45 are intended to work toward "strong, self-sufficient and more prosperous aboriginal communities."

"In fact, it was First Nations themselves who asked for these changes," said Jan O'Driscoll.

He noted Oxford House Cree Nation in Manitoba recently used the land-designation process to set up a Tim Hortons but the process would have been less cumbersome under the new rules.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2013 A9

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