Manitoba Chiefs Pledge Unity As Spence Continues Fast

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DEREK NEPINAK
Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak speaks with the media Friday, January 18, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld | CP

A Manitoba chief who was among the most vocal critics of National Chief Shawn Atleo downplayed divisions among Assembly of First Nations chiefs Friday, while repeating his call for a First Nations meeting with the prime minister and Governor General.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs told reporters on Parliament Hill Friday that emotions have cooled since last week, when Nepinak refused to join Atleo at a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"We have seen an ongoing attempt to demonstrate there is a rift that has occurred within the Assembly of First Nations, and in the absence in the national chief it is very important that we maintain the unity," Nepinak said.

Nepinak announced that the AFN had approved a resolution renewing calls for a meeting with Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston on Jan. 24, in the absence of AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo who has taken time off on doctors' orders.

Nepinak has backed Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's demand for Johnston to be present at a meeting between First Nations and Harper to discuss treaty issues. Spence also wants Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty at the meeting.

Nepinak was among the chiefs who tried to prevent Atleo from attending last Friday's meeting with Harper alone. When asked what another meeting would accomplish, he replied that it would be "a gesture of goodwill."

Nepinak said Friday the demand for a larger meeting, on Jan. 24, accommodating all chiefs and community members who want to attend, should be held in a large enough venire to hold possibly "hundreds of people."

But he downplayed talk of a plan to oust Atleo as the head of the AFN, saying there was no mandate from Manitoba chiefs to do that. That could change when the Manitoba chiefs meet next Tuesday.

Spence has refused solid food since Dec. 11 as she stages a protest on Victoria Island, just north of Ottawa, and has not wavered from her demand that the Governor General be present at a meeting with Harper.

Spence continuing hunger strike

Spence, approaching day 40 of her hunger strike, told RDI Friday that she will not give up her refusal to eat solid food, and that she is prepared to die unless Harper and the Governor General meet on a "nation to nation" basis with the aboriginal leadership. She has been consuming only tea, water and fish broth during her protest.

"We're giving them this opportunity to correct their mistakes in what they've been doing to us. It's a simple request of a meeting. Why are we so different when we ask for a meeting? It doesn't make sense," Spence told host Anne-Marie Dussault of RDI's 24 heures en 60 minutes.

Spence, along with Raymond Robinson of Cross Lake First Nation, who is also on a hunger strike, spoke from a teepee on Victoria Island, across the river from Parliament Hill.

"When I die," Spence said, "I expect my body to be carried out of here with honour, with Ray [Robinson], and to go and lay in peace with my ancestors."

Spence said that she's getting weaker every day and her blood pressure is going down, but she added that doctors who speak to the media about the effects of 40 days without eating have not seen her. Instead, she said, she consults her community's healers who provide her with medicine.

Spence responded angrily when Dussault asked about an audit of her Attiwapiskat reserve that revealed spending mismanagement and poor accounting practices.

"The media has been doing that. For you to make that kind of statement, that's very rude of you and that's how you mislead Canadian citizens," Spence said.

Robinson spoke about his own reserve where, he said, funding per capita had not increased since 1982, and pointed out that the population had grown from 3,000 to 8,000 since then.

"How would you handle that kind of responsibility," he asked. "You tell me: are you mismanaging? We don't have enough money."

Spence added that former Auditor General Sheila Fraser had been making recommendations about improving aboriginal funding since 2000.

"They ignored it and it collected dust," Spence said. They always do studies on us, you know. Costs, housing and all that stuff, but they collect dust."

'It's time to come home'

Grand Chief Murray Clearsky of the Southern Chiefs Organization, who appeared at the press conference with Nepinak, told reporters Friday he delivered a personal message to Spence from elders and elder women "back home" for her to end her fast "and return home to her family, to her [band] members."

"I also told her, for a woman to take the lead, it's time to come home. Now it's time for the men to step up.That is our tradition," Clearsky said.

Ellen Gabriel, of the Indigenous Women of Turtle Island, said Friday that the prime minister is fostering hatred of aboriginals across the country by failing to condemn racist reactions to the Idle No More movement.

Gabriel, who is from Kanesatake, made the comments after she and Leanne Simpson delivered a letter to Harper, pleading with him and the Governor General to meet with Spence.

A letter from Buckingham Palace dated Jan. 7, obtained this week by The Canadian Press, told a Spence supporter that the chief should deal with the federal cabinet. "This is not a matter in which The Queen would intervene," says the letter.

Gabriel said on CBC's Power & Politics Friday that the Queen was "shirking her responsibilities."

Manitoba chiefs on Friday insisted the that the Crown has a direct responsibility for Canada's First Nations people.

"From the Queen, for her to say something like that, I don't believe it's true," said Clearsky. "Because there's an obligation from her with us that's not fulfilled."

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