TORONTO — Thousands of Aboriginal rights activists protested Friday in front of Canada’s Parliament as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Aboriginal chiefs attended a summit to discuss disagreements over treaty rights and other grievances.
The meeting divided the Aboriginal community, with some chiefs boycotting the summit because Governor General David Johnston, a representative of Queen Elizabeth II, did not attend. They argued his presence is imperative because he’s a representative of the British monarchy and the talks center on treaty rights first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1793.
The meeting between Harper, other top government officials, National Chief Shawn Atleo and 20 other native Canadian leaders ended late Friday with plans to meet again within a month to continue the dialogue on treaties and comprehensive land claims, said Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
Atleo declared that Harper has finally agreed to modernize and implement the ancient treaties that were always supposed to bring peace and prosperity to First Nations.
There were early indications that what Atleo saw as a critical achievement, others saw as insufficient. A spokesman for Chief Theresa Spence, whose month-old fast has galvanized a cross-country grassroots protest movement, said late Friday the results of the meeting fell short of what was required for her to abandon her liquid diet.
Atleo defended what was delivered in the meeting with the prime minister
“The implications here are massive,” the grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations said
Atleo, the elected head of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s main body of Aboriginal leaders, said earlier this week that some chiefs want the Harper government to review sections of two budget bills that amend environmental laws. They are also demanding that a formal process be established to examine long-standing treaties.
Atleo also had said he would demand a national inquiry into the disappearance or killings of hundreds of Aboriginal women over the past decades with little police investigation. He planned also to bring up the need for a commitment to ensure every Aboriginal community has a school.
The governor general was scheduled to meet separately with chiefs after the summit but some chiefs said that wasn’t enough.
“They are meeting with him now, that was the appropriate response,” Duncan said in response to questions from reporters about why Johnston didn’t attend the meeting with Harper.
Among those boycotting was Spence, who launched a liquids-only hunger strike a month ago to demand the summit. Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat, a northern Ontario reserve, has become a central figure of Aboriginal rights protests that erupted almost two months ago against a budget bill that affects Canada’s Indian Act and amends environmental laws.
Protesters say Bill C-45 undermines century-old treaties by altering the approval process for leasing Aboriginal lands to outsiders and changing environmental oversight in favor of natural resource extraction.
The “Idle No More” movement, which has shown unusual staying power and garnered a worldwide following through social media, has reopened constitutional issues involving the relationship between the federal government and the million-plus strong Aboriginal community.
Spence, who remains on a hunger strike and is camped out on an island in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill, told the protesters before the meeting that Aboriginal people should have an opportunity to hold the government accountable for years of broken promises.
“This meeting’s been overdue for so many years,” she said.
Spence agreed to attend the ceremonial meeting with Johnston moments before it began Friday.
Other chiefs warned the protests will escalate unless Harper and Johnston agree to meet with them Friday together in one room at an Ottawa hotel on their own terms.
First Nations leader Gordon Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians threatened to block major economic corridors, such as border crossings to the U.S. next week. He said roughly 200,000 Aboriginals in Ontario would launch a “day of action” Jan. 16 if their demands are not met.
First Nations would move to “stop roads, rails, transportation of goods,” Peters said. “We just have to walk out on our land and stop it.”
Other chiefs criticized the boycott as extreme and counterproductive.
“I’m really troubled by what looks to be a breakdown in discipline,” said Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the First Nations Summit in British Columbia.
Kelly, a staunch ally of Atleo, said a “handful” of chiefs from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario are creating an appearance of division. He said Atleo was granted a mandate to negotiate with Harper by a number of chiefs.
“We didn’t vote for Theresa Spence as national chief,” Kelly said.