Paul Martin: Theresa Spence, Hunger-Striking Chief, Is An Inspiration

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Former prime minister Paul Martin says Chief Theresa Spence, who has gone without solid food for close to a month, is an inspiration to all Canadians. (CP)
Former prime minister Paul Martin says Chief Theresa Spence, who has gone without solid food for close to a month, is an inspiration to all Canadians. (CP)

OTTAWA - An aboriginal chief who has gone without solid food for close to a month in a bid to force renewed talks between First Nations and the federal government is an inspiration to all Canadians, says former prime minister Paul Martin.

Martin visited Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence at her camp on Ottawa's Victoria Island on Saturday.

He told CTV's Question Period Sunday that it was a good meeting.

"I just told her that she'd become really an inspiration for all Canadians and that we were obviously concerned about her health and that she's got to talk care of herself,” Martin said.

One of Martin's final acts as prime minister was the brokering of the Kelowna Accord, a deal between the government and First Nations that would have seen $5 billion in new spending over 10 years.

The money would have been used to improve education and health outcomes, as well as housing.

But Martin's Liberal government fell and was replaced by the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the accord was never implemented.

Resetting the treaty relationship was Spence's goal when she began her self-proclaimed hunger strike on Dec. 11, giving up solid foods in favour of a liquids-only diet.

Spence was seeking a meeting between the prime minister, Governor General and First Nations leadership.

Her strike came as aboriginal activists also began a national protest movement called Idle No More in response to the Conservatives' latest budget bill.

The Idle No More movement feels the bill threatens their treaty rights with the changes it makes to regulations surrounding waterways.

Without acknowledging Spence's strike or the protest movement, Harper announced Friday that he will meet with First Nations leadership this week.

The talks will focus on two elements: the treaty relationship and economic development.

Those two are part of six broader themes that Harper and First Nations leaders agreed to work on following meetings last January.

A spokesman for Spence reiterated Sunday that she will remain on her strike at least until the meeting takes place, and possibly longer.

"We're very cautious and she wants to wait based on the outcome of that meeting," Danny Metatawabin told CTV. "We want positive results."

Martin is the second former prime minister to meet with Spence. Former Tory prime minister Joe Clark went to see her at the end of December.

Meanwhile, Idle No More protests continued over the weekend with groups blocking rail lines and border crossing throughout the country.

A blockade of Via Rail lines near Kingston on Saturday held up trains on the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor, affecting about 1,000 people. Via Rail said service would be back to normal on Sunday.

A protest at the Seaway International Bridge near Cornwall, Ont., prompted police to close the border crossing as a public safety precaution.

The usually busy crossing, which connects the southeastern Ontario city and Akwesasne, Ont., to Massena, N.Y., was closed for more than three hours on Saturday as demonstrators marched across the toll bridge.

Cornwall Sgt. Marc Bissonnette said police estimated there were about 150 to 200 protesters participating in the action, which was peaceful.

A statement posted Friday on a website that's become a hub for the movement said the protests would continue until the goals of indigenous sovereignty and social and environmental sustainability were met.

"Once we reach these goals, we will continue to work to protect them," the statement said.

"In essence, Idle No More is here to stay."

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