OTTAWA - Top First Nations chiefs from across the country have set aside their differences for now and signed on to a request for yet another meeting with the prime minister — all in an attempt to bring the protest by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to an end.
The Assembly of First Nations' executive agreed to the request in writing and sent a letter to Stephen Harper on the weekend, calling for a meeting as soon as Thursday — a day by which Shawn Atleo could well be back on the job.
Atleo took a sudden sick leave after his controversial meeting with Harper 10 days ago amidst a leadership crisis within the AFN. He issued a statement Monday saying he would be back in the saddle "later this week."
Unlike the divisive Jan. 11 meeting, this week's proposed meeting with Harper would include a broad range of chiefs as well as Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, as requested by Spence.
"The intent behind it is to try to end Chief Spence's hunger strike," said Morley Googoo, regional chief for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
And unlike the previous meeting, Spence's spokesman says the Cree leader is onside.
"We all need to work together," said Danny Metatawabin, adding that Spence was feeling "well, chirpy, happy" on Monday morning despite having spent the last six weeks subsisting only on fish broth and medicinal tea.
There's nothing to suggest Harper is inclined to agree to the request, despite the newfound unity among chiefs. Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for the prime minister, said Harper would respond to the AFN's letter "in due course."
"For us, the next step is (meeting) National Chief Atleo, one-on-one, to hammer out some of the detail on the way forward," MacDougall said.
The Governor General was not included in the previous meeting because it is the government that makes policy decisions in Canada, not the Queen's representative, he added. "And that's how we're still looking at the matter."
Still, MacDougall acknowledged that there is a great deal of pressure to show concrete results that will lead to material improvements for First Nations peoples.
"We have to keep up the momentum and keep showing that there is progress that can be made."
Googoo said the best way for Harper to show goodwill and immediate progress would be to agree to the Jan. 24 meeting, which would be in addition to the meeting with Atleo to work on treaty implementation and comprehensive claims.
Thursday is the AFN's "preferred date" for a broader meeting, he said, because it is the one-year anniversary of a major summit between chiefs, Harper and Johnston that was supposed to reinvigorate the Crown-First Nation relationship. But the AFN realizes there may be a need for some flexibility on the date since it is so soon, Googoo acknowledged.
He said he hopes that a solid commitment to such a meeting would be enough to entice Spence to end her protest.
Harper agreed to a meeting with the AFN, but his exclusion of Johnston and his setting of the meeting agenda prompted Spence and many other chiefs to orchestrate a boycott and question the leadership of Atleo, who went into the meeting despite loud protests in the streets.
In his statement on Monday, Atleo called for unity and rational discussion of internal disagreements. But he also opened the door to structural changes within the national organization, just as conflicts in the past have led to restructuring.
"Many changes were made; many more conversations remain," Atleo writes.
"Let us ensure that those conversations are conducted with respect, respectful of our traditions, respectful of each other and respectful of our different approaches to winning progress for our peoples."
But while angry chiefs have muted their criticism of Atleo for now, they still harbour concerns about his leadership.
"For Ontario, we're just trying to maintain focus on what the objectives are.... There's a concern regarding leadership but there's a process and time for that," said Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy, who boycotted the Jan. 11 meeting.
"The sense of urgency there is that Theresa Spence has indicated that she'll continue on with her hunger strike until such time as a meeting takes place."