Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
Credits: AGNÈS CHAPSAL/QMI AGENCY
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to a key demand of protesting Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and her supporters and asked Gov. Gen. David Johnston to meet with First Nations leaders Friday evening.
The meeting between First Nations leaders and Johnston will take place at Rideau Hall, the governor general's official residence in Ottawa, after the conclusion of a "working meeting" between Harper and First Nations leaders.
On Thursday morning, before Harper announced Johnston would meet with First Nations leaders, a group of Manitoba chiefs announced they wouldn't participate in the "working meeting" with Harper unless Johnston attended.
The Manitoba chiefs also threatened that unless the federal government meets their demands - which include the repeal of the government's budget bill - the protest movement Idle No More is ready to seriously disrupt the Canadian economy.
"We have the power," Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told reporters. "The Idle No More movement has the people and the numbers that can bring the Canadian economy to its knees. It can stop Prime Minister Harper's resource development plan and his billion-dollar plan to develop resources in ancestral territories. We have the warriors that are standing up now that are willing to go that far. So we're not here to make requests. We're here to demand attention and to demand an end to 140 years of colonial rule. That's what we're all about."
Bill Travers, the regional chief for Manitoba for the Assembly of First Nations, said the No. 1 demand of Manitoba chiefs is the repeal of the government's omnibus budget bills, C-45 and C-38.
"These bills must be repealed, must be rescinded," Travers said.
Among other things, those bills changed environmental regulations for navigable waters, reducing the amount of federal oversight required when a development may affect rivers and lakes.
It wasn't immediately clear if Harper's request to have the governor general meet separately with the chiefs would prompt chiefs like Nepinak and Spence to boycott the working meeting with Harper.
"This meeting is on our terms," said Nepinak, who referred to Canada's non-Native population as "the settler society we've agreed to live with."
Stan Louttit, the grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, the regional council of eight First Nations on Western James Bay including Attawapiskat, suggested it's a reasonable concession to meet with Johnston after the working meeting.
"If we can have a dialogue, put our issues on the table...and to be able to start the discussion, that's good enough for me," Louttit said. "[But] If it is just a ceremony and we are just sitting there to eat a good meal and not to talk...what's the sense? We might as well not go. "
Spence, who has been protesting since mid-December by consuming nothing but fish broth, water, and tea, was resting Thursday, her supporters said, and had not been briefed on the Johnston meeting.
The Manitoba chiefs praised Spence's protest and one chief, David Harper, referred to Spence as "our own Mother Teresa."
- With files from Kristy Kirkup