OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to meet aboriginal leaders on Jan. 11, but that pledge alone will not compel three aboriginal leaders to end their hunger strikes.
Harper announced the meeting Friday morning, a day after Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence said a meeting proposed for Jan. 24 by the Assembly of First Nations was too far away. Spence has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 11 demanding a meeting with Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston. She gave a 72-hour deadline for the meeting Thursday or said there would be mass protests.
Harper didn't meet that deadline, although that no longer seems to matter.
"I'm just really overjoyed to hear that the Crown and the prime minister and the governments, that they're gonna meet with us on Jan. 11," said Spence, standing outside a teepee in the shadow of Parliament Hill, where she has been living for 25 days.
"But I'll still be here on my hunger strike until that meeting takes place."
Spence said she will attend the meeting herself, along with Manitoba Cross Lake elder Raymond Robinson and Mi'kmaq elder Gene Sock, both of whom are also refusing food in protest. Robinson began his hunger strike Dec. 12, demanding the federal government withdraw its recent omnibus budget-implementation bill that amends the Indian Act to make it easier for reserves to lease their land. He started in Cross Lake but flew to Ottawa earlier this week to join Spence.
They are living on Victoria Island, a native campsite on the Ottawa River, a few hundred metres from Parliament Hill. They are eating only herbal tea and salmon broth.
"It's been a long journey," Robinson said Friday.
"I'm going to remain here on my hunger strike until I see meat and substance both at that meeting."
But neither Spence nor Robinson could say what has to happen for them to start eating again.
"I'll worry about that when the day comes," said Spence.
Robinson said he wants a clear commitment from Harper to have an open dialogue about treaty rights.
"Not this paternalistic 'I am the chair and I'll tell you what is good for you,' " he said.
Harper answered a few questions about the situation during an announcement Friday concerning the automobile industry at a Ford plant in Oakville, Ont.
He said the meeting will be a continuation of the themes begun last year at the Crown-First Nations gathering and will specifically look at economic development, the treaty relationship and aboriginal rights.
"These are long-term challenges, but we are committed to addressing them," he said.
Harper was not directly asked what he thought about Spence and Robinson using a hunger strike as leverage but when asked about the Idle No More protest movement, he said he has no issue with peaceful protests.
"People have the right in our country to demonstrate and express their points of view peacefully as long as they obey the law, but I think the Canadian population expects everyone will obey the law in holding such protests," he said.
Dozens of protest have taken place across the country as grassroots First Nations members demand action from the government on a number of issues. Most have obeyed the law, although at least one blockade of a rail line was forced to end by the courts.
There is talk of some protesters blocking the Canada-U.S. border at some points in the coming days.
Idle No More is not directly connected to the hunger strikes, although Spence has asked the protesters to stand together with all First Nations people.
Whether Harper's olive branch also quiets the Idle No More movement is still up in the air.
Many of the complaints from the Idle No More protesters surround a number of government bills and decisions they say were made without consulting aboriginals.
Critics say that violates both treaty rights and the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people, of which Canada is a signatory.