OTTAWA -- Today's meeting between First Nations leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared salvaged at the last minute Thursday night, but Manitoba's contingent is one of several electing to stay away.
Jody Wilson-Ribauld, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for British Columbia, said late Thursday she and AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo were still pressing for the attendance of Gov. Gen. David Johnston, but they would attend the meeting this afternoon regardless.
"We're working as hard as we can," said Wilson-Ribauld.
She could not say how many other regional chiefs would join them. Regional chiefs from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories all said they would not attend.
Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said it was a simple request that Harper and Johnston both attend the meeting at a downtown Ottawa hotel where the aboriginal leaders have been meeting all week. The location was so more chiefs could listen to what Harper had to say.
"This meeting is on our terms," Nepinak said Thursday morning.
In a bid to save the meeting, Johnston will host aboriginal leaders for a ceremonial event at Rideau Hall tonight, but he would not attend the working meeting in the afternoon, nor would Harper agree to change the location from a Parliament Hill office building to the hotel.
An AMC news release called Harper's behaviour "dictatorial" and "unrelenting."
Today's meeting was first requested more than a month ago by northern Ontario Chief Theresa Spence, who stopped eating solid food to try getting Harper and Johnston to meet her and discuss serious problems plaguing her Attawapiskat First Nation and others. Her hunger strike was around the same time the Idle No More movement gained momentum and demonstrations were held across the country by young aboriginals demanding treaties be upheld and recently passed legislation affecting First Nations be repealed.
A week ago, Harper announced he would meet with First Nations leaders today, but that Johnston would not attend. Johnston said through spokesmen it was a working meeting and thus it was not appropriate for him to attend.
Spence said that wasn't good enough and refused to attend. Manitoba's chiefs followed suit. More than 200 chiefs and aboriginal elders and others met Thursday night and expressed their frustration. Most vowed they would not participate.
Atleo never told the group he would attend, although his aides said he was going to the meeting. In a rousing speech to the chiefs, Atleo praised the courage of the Idle No More leaders and called on chiefs to back the movement, saying none of the events this week would be happening if the protesters hadn't stood up.
"We better make sure we follow the young people," he said. "They are not the leaders of tomorrow; they are the leaders of right now."
Atleo did say he would take the message to Harper to continue to press for change.
"This is 400 years in the making," he said.
Atleo made a plea for unity. He admitted he had made mistakes and that the membership of the Assembly of First Nations was divided. "We need to continue to stand united -- chiefs, delegates... If we are to be divided at a moment like this, the governments will see that."
Earlier Thursday, Atleo called today's meeting a "moment of reckoning and the tipping point that for so long we've said was coming."
"We have to put a stop to this lurching from conflict to conflict, from disappointment to disappointment."
He said he hoped the meeting would start a process leading to the end of the Indian Act and the recognition of century-old treaties. He said the dream is for First Nations to share in the wealth of their ancestral lands, but with sustainable development, to ensure First Nations are lifted out of poverty, have enough schools and clean water.
Nepinak was far more militant than Atleo, saying the chiefs are making "demands, not requests. We're not here to make requests. We're here demanding an end to 140 years of colonialism."
He said the power of the Idle No More movement has shown First Nations have the strength to back up his words.
"It has the people and the numbers that can bring the Canadian economy to its knees," Nepinak said.
He said Manitoba First Nations want to see the government commit to some form of revenue-sharing on natural resources.
"We're looking for a transformation in the relationship, a transformation that is not about slight policy shifts, slight increments in funding," he said. "We are talking about a transformation back to a nation-to-nation, treaty territory-by-treaty territory relationship that recognizes our attachment to our ancestral lands, which today would look something like resource revenue-sharing."
-- with files from The Canadian Press