The high drama surrounding the January 11 meeting between First Nations leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has focused national attention on aboriginal issues but also highlighted deep divisions between the grassroots ground troops of the Idle No More movement and Native politicians.
The frenzied and sometimes chaotic preparation for the summit featured tense confrontations on how to challenge the Conservative government’s agenda and whether First Nations should even participate in a meeting that had been a central demand behind the high-profile hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. She eventually refused to attend and said the meeting should not proceed because Governor General David Johnston was not participating in the talks, though he did offer to host Native leaders at subsequent meeting at Rideau Hall.
Two days before the meeting, media reported that Spence, then on the 29th day of her hunger strike, had drawn up a will and was preparing for death. According to APTN, she had already lost 22 pounds and was suffering weakness and stomach pains.
Meanwhile, a gathering of chiefs at Ottawa’s Delta Hotel January 10 heard many calls for Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo to walk away from the summit. Some supported Spence’s position that both the prime minister and Governor General David Johnston should attend the meeting since First Nations treaties, the central subject of the discussion, were signed with the Crown, not with the executive branch of the Government of Canada. Others felt that Prime Minister Harper’s initial intent to be present only for the first and last 30 minutes of the meeting showed that the gathering would change nothing (in the end, Harper was present for the whole five-hour meeting).
The Delta Hotel meeting was moved by an emotional address from Wallace Fox, Chief of the Onion Lake Cree Nation. To cheers and wild applause from the crowd, Fox said no one should “bow down” to Stephen Harper.
“I wasn’t sent here to compromise my treaty,” he tearfully proclaimed. “To the [AFN] executive, no more deals, please. Use your heart; use your compassion. Why do you need to go meet the prime minister on his agenda? I know he’s scared of us. Now he shows his true colours. Because we can never, never sell our mother earth. We will not compromise. It’s not for sale, it never will be – that’s not our right. It’s our right to protect it.”
Bill Namagoose, Executive Director of the Grand Council of the Crees, observed that many people were swept up the emotions expressed in the January 10 meeting at the Delta. A number of people showed support for Chief Fox by standing behind him on the stage, noted Namagoose, but many other leaders felt the meeting with Harper should proceed, including Atleo and former AFN national chiefs such as Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and Ovide Mercredi.
At a press conference the following morning, Coon Come complained that mainstream Canadian media fixates on this “division” among Aboriginal people, as though they should be more unified than settler Canadians, who are represented in Parliament by five political parties. Namagoose agreed.
“There’s a double standard if we expect Aboriginal people to be totally unanimous on everything,” Namagoose added. “Whereas Canadian society can be divided on all sorts of things. In the mainstream media, you can have 100 native people in the room, 99 agree and one of them doesn’t agree – the one that didn’t agree will make the headlines.”
Still, the decision by Atleo and Coon Come to meet with the prime minister the next afternoon was explosive. On the front steps of Parliament’s Langevin Block, the building (named after the architect of Residential Schools), which houses the prime minister’s office, Coon Come was confronted by an angry crowd shouting, “Don’t go in!”
The Grand Chief responded that he had the support of 13,000 people in Eeyou Istchee, and entered the building to a chorus of boos.
The issue isn’t why Atleo and others proceeded with the meeting, argued Bill Namagoose. “The question is why didn’t [the dissenting chiefs] go into the meeting. They asked for the meeting, the prime minister accommodated them, and also the Governor General. Only it wasn’t the configuration they wanted. They have a right to their own view, but I think they made a mistake. A lot of chiefs have been calling for a meeting with the prime minister for many years. We’ve had two meetings with the prime minister in the space of one year: we have to take advantage of that. You can’t waste an opportunity.”
Others have argued that the meeting Namagoose refers to, the Crown-First Nations Gathering in January 2011, was little more than a symbolic nod to Aboriginal leaders.
“Everybody agrees with that,” Namagoose responded. “It’s unanimous that nothing moved. But that meeting broke the ice. It also helped to visualize that there is an issue, with respect to the conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada. Nobody knew what the answers were last year. Because of that meeting, Idle No More began because people got impatient with that lack of movement, even though we had a Crown-First Nations meeting. The Idle No More movement was sparked by that first meeting.”
That connection between the two summits is part of the problem, said Wemindji’s Bradley Georgekish.
“[The January 11 meeting] seemed to be a continuation of the summit from last January rather than a focused meeting on the concerns and demands of the Idle No More movement, which is to address Bills C-45 and 38,” Georgekish said.
Georgekish isn’t completely in opposition to the Grand Chief, however, noting that Cree agreements are with Quebec and Canada, rather than the Crown. “In this regard, I feel he was justified in meeting with the PM. Ultimately, his mandate from the Crees of Eeyou Istchee is to attend to the best interest of our people while considering current and future generations, to protect our traditional way of life, the cornerstone of our culture.”
Nonetheless, Georgekish sees a disconnect between the demands of the Idle No More movement and the agenda of the Native leaders who met with Harper.
“I would have liked to see the PM show an understanding as far as the demands of First Nations,” he explained. “If Harper had met the demands and sat down with treaty chiefs and the Governor General, the impact would have been two-fold. First, Harper would have shown a flexibility that he has not shown any other demographic of Canada, which many in his party might have seen as a weakness. Secondly, and most important, it would signal the validity and authority of the treaties. As we know, this substantial acknowledgement would essentially defeat his omnibus bill.”
Eli Moore, Carleton University student originally from Waswanipi and Senneterre, was one of those who opposed the meeting with the prime minister.
“I didn’t agree with [Grand Chief Coon Come] going in there,” Moore said. “I felt that he undermined the thousands of people on the street, and Chief Spence, and the many chiefs that stood in solidarity with Idle No More. This meeting was supposed to go under the terms that Chief Spence outlined and what Idle No More wanted, but Harper set the agenda and told everybody there were only [roughly] 20 seats allowed. It’s hard to hear the concerns of all the communities when only 20 chiefs are represented at the table. There’s so many issues out there that need to be addressed.”
Bill Namagoose said people should stop focussing on the different roles of the grassroots movement and the political leadership, because their efforts are ultimately complementary.
“We have the backdrop of Idle No More and the grassroots movement. It’s always helpful for political leaders having meetings with high-level government when people are in the streets. If you’re a wise, astute political leader, you have to take advantage of the situation that your people are in the street. That’s how difficult changes are made. When the AFN came to town, there was a debate with the chiefs and the Idle No More movement. And also you have the backdrop of Chief Spence and her hunger strike, which has brought humanity into the issue. You can’t highlight humanity more than with what Chief Spence has done for over a month now.”
However, Namagoose says that Idle No More went to far in its opposition to the meeting with Harper.
“It gets very difficult when a grassroots movement without a political head crosses into the political world and places demands on leaders that they do or don’t do such and such a thing,” he said. “I would have preferred that Idle No More had stayed a pure grassroots movement. It wouldn’t have lost its lustre. But they strayed into the political arena, the domain of elected chiefs and leaders. When you mix those two up, you create an almost unmanageable situation.”
Bradley Georgekish does not like that opposition – he wants Idle No More to continue pushing for more immediate change.
“I think Atleo’s decision to meet with Harper went against what the majority of First Nations in Canada were hoping for,” he says. “Idle No More has to stay focused and determined. It is not a trend. It is a stand for the only home we have, it is a stand for sovereignty and rights. Most important of all, we are protecting our children’s inheritance. There is a collective desire to see the current system, hiding behind the illusion of democracy, returned to the ideals of the Canadian population. I think that if we become entangled by the political aspects, we will lose our focus.”
This sentiment is one shared by Eli Moore, who says that he doesn’t like to align himself with or against any leader, but rather with ideas.
“My stand is with the people,” he said. “The grassroots isn’t represented as much as it should be. It seems like in the old days, especially with the Great Whale project, the grassroots was really strong among the Crees, and unity was there. Today it doesn’t really feel that way. It feels like we should always follow what our chiefs. But our chiefs aren’t always right, and it’s healthy that we should call them out on that. That’s what Idle No More represents for me: holding our Chiefs accountable, calling them out on their actions, and reminding them that we don’t always agree with what they say. And they shouldn’t take any offense with that.”
For Bill Namagoose, the meeting with Harper was a good start to a much larger project, that of fixing the treaties between First Nations and Canada. National Chief Atleo presented the prime minister with a list of eight demands, including a commitment to work on treaty relationships, resolution of land claims, and resource revenue sharing. Harper agreed to only one on the list – the promise of “high-level meetings” in the future. But Namagoose feels that it will be possible to build both on the January 11 meeting and on the results of meetings in the past.
“There’s been a lot of solutions that have been proposed, and there’s also a lot of solutions on the shelves. If there’s to be a process between Aboriginal leadership and the prime minister’s office, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel – there are things that have already been looked at, studied, proposed, and recommended.” For instance, Namagoose said issues addressed by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples would be a good starting point.
On January 14, National Chief Atleo released a letter summing up the meeting with Prime Minister Harper, at which . “We have seized the attention of Canadians and of this government,” he wrote. “This has been a fateful moment in the decades of struggle by our peoples. We have secured important new ground. Now the harder, but less visible, work of turning promises into action begins.”
Later the same day, Atleo announced that on advice from his doctor, he would be stepping aside for a brief period to “rest and recover” from the stress of the preceding week and exhaustion following an attack of norovirus.
The following day, January 15, Chief Theresa Spence responded with a letter to the calls by many, including by Grand Chief Coon Come, that she end her hunger strike.
“With the challenges ahead, we need to spend less energy fighting amongst ourselves,” Spence suggested. “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.
“What we have endured here at the island is a small price to pay compared to what our ancestors, our own mothers and fathers endured. Putting aside the real purpose of our hunger strike, this was our way to pay tribute to our ancestors who have forgone some of the harshest periods in our history, to honor those among our Nations who continue to struggle for the basic standard of living to this day, as well as to raise new hope among our youth and to protect our future generations. […] We will assess carefully our next steps in the coming days and will continue to remain optimistic. […] We ask you to respect our choices and to leave us the decision when and if this hunger strike should end.”
As this issue of the Nation went into production January 16, a cross-country Idle No More day of action was beginning. A series of blockades were set up, including one at the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, to the United States. Bridges, rail lines, and highways were being blockaded at several other points across the country.