Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief and Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde is urging Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to end her hunger strike.
“We hold up the fasters … but I think their work is done,” said Bellegarde. “They’ve helped shine a light on how Canada deals with treaty, lack of treaty implementation, lack of resource revenue sharing.”
Spence is into the 37th day of her hunger strike. Cross Lake Elder Raymond Robinson joined Spence one day later. Earlier this week, Jean Sock, from Elsipogtog First Nation, ended his hunger strike after 28 days, citing his mother’s ailing health as his reason.
Bellegarde said Spence and Robinson can now move on to helping bring the message across in a different way.
“I say to them it’s time to come walk with us and stand with us now and they can come and stand with us with honour and dignity,” said Bellgarde, who is concerned about their health.
“And that’s what I say in a very respectful way.”
But in a Jan. 15 letter addressed to Chiefs and Grand Chiefs, Spence said she and Robinson will not give up their hunger strike.
“Many of you have asked me directly or called on us indirectly to stop our hunger strike, but as we stated before, our exit or to end this hunger strike will be on our own terms. We ask all of you to respect that and ask you to refocus on the spirit and the intent of this movement,” wrote Spence.
When Spence began her hunger strike last month, she stated that she would not end it until the federal government “(committed) to a meaningful dialogue to discuss engagement for implementation of treaty rights and inherent rights.”
Spence boycotted the Jan. 11 meeting with the Prime Minister, as did Bellegarde. Both said if Governor General David Johnston would not be in attendance, neither would they. Chiefs from Manitoba and Ontario also joined Saskatchewan chiefs in boycotting the four-hour long meeting with Harper. However, Spence and Bellegarde attended a meeting hosted by Johnston that same evening at Rideau Hall.
“He’s the Queen’s representative here in Canada and our relationship as treaty people is with the Queen … so our relationship with the sovereign is very important,” said Bellegarde. He also said it was important that the chiefs were welcomed to Rideau Hall, which is where heads of state go to conduct business.
Along with calling on chiefs to respect her decision to continue her hunger strike, Spence also called for unity.
“With the challenges ahead, we need to spend less energy fighting amongst ourselves; instead we must focus on finding a common ground, a common understanding and respecting each other’s goals and objectives. We must stand united, strengthen our unity and agree on an agenda that works for all of us and not just the few. The politics within our camp can wait and work itself out on its own time,” she wrote.
It would be “surprising” not to have dissension among the ranks, said Bellegarde, who points out the diversity of the people in the room: 633 First Nations Chiefs, over 50 different tribal groups and a variety of treaties.
Bellegarde says AFN is also feeling the ramifications of a recent leadership race.
“There’s also a degree of politics here. The July election has come and gone … and … there’s always that political jockeying for positions,” he said. Bellegarde would offer no names saying only, “You see what’s going on, you make your determination.”
First Nations people across the country have been drawn together under the banner of Idle No More, participating in rallies, marches and flash mobs. Idle No More is a movement founded by four women, which has also received vocal support from failed AFN leadership candidates Pam Palmater, Diane Kelly and Ellen Gabriel. Palmater, who was runner-up to Atleo, has emerged as a spokesperson for the movement.
Bellegarde contends that Idle No More plays an important role in moving the First Nations agenda forward.
“We lift them up and hold them up. They’ve done a fantastic job,” he said. “It’s a grassroots movement and it’s a spiritual re-awakening of our people.”
Political activism is one of three points figured into any action plan, he says, along with legal action and meetings with politicians.
“[We] acknowledge and respect the Idle No More movement, their founders and spokespeople for promoting awareness of the controversial omnibus bills recently passed in the Senate. Our fights may be different, but our dreams and hopes for our people are common,” wrote Spence.
Crowds have also gathered to form blockades on highways around the country and in Alberta, the Athabasca Chipewyan and Frog Lake First Nations have begun court action against the federal government’s omnibus bills C-38 and C-45, which were passed into law at the end of 2012.
“Everything you’re seeing? It’s basically the frustration that’s being built up over centuries of oppression and injustice,” said Bellegarde. “We hope and pray it doesn’t get (violent).”