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PM offers First Nations meeting next week, but hunger strikes to continue

File photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper has acquiesced to demands from First Nations leadership for a meeting amid ongoing protests by aboriginal activists.

Harper said the meeting will take place next Friday, about 10 days earlier than the date the Assembly of First Nations had proposed in a bid to both calm protests and put an end to one aboriginal chief’s nearly month-long hunger strike.

But Chief Theresa Spence has so far given no indication that the setting of a date for a meeting will see her close up her encampment on Victoria Island, where she has been since Dec. 11 without solid food.

“We want certainty,” Grand Chief Stan Louttit said Friday in explaining why the hunger strike would continue at least until the meeting takes place.

In the past, other promised meetings fell through, he said.

The meeting next Friday, to be co-ordinated by the Assembly of First Nations, will focus on treaty relationships and aboriginal rights and economic development, the prime minister’s office said.

It is being billed as a follow-through on talks in January 2012 when the government and First Nations committed to an ongoing dialogue.

“While some progress has been made, there is more that must be done to improve outcomes for First Nations communities across Canada,” Harper said in a statement.

“The government of Canada and First Nations have an enduring historic relationship based on mutual respect, friendship and support. The government of Canada is committed to strengthening this relationship.”

Harper did not acknowledge Spence’s ongoing hunger strike when asked about the meetings at an event Friday in Oakville, Ont. And with regards to the broader Idle No More movement, he remained vague.

“In this country, people have the right in our country to demonstrate and express their points of view peacefully as long as they obey the law,” he said.

“I think the Canadian population expects everyone will obey the law in holding such protests.”

Protesters have threatened to shut down parts of the Canada-U.S. border on Saturday as part of ongoing protests.

The Idle No More movement has brought aboriginal communities together, suggested Alvin Fiddler, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a regional advocacy network.

But there is a lot of work to do to repair the government’s relationship with First Nations, though he called Harper’s overture a “good first step.”

“It will not take just one meeting to fix that relationship that is broken,” he said.

“We will continue to hold the prime minister’s feet to the fire to ensure that meeting, if it does happen next Friday, will begin to establish that process.”

Louttit said the one-day meeting between the two sides last year accomplished little in the long run. Next week’s summit has to move things forward,  he said.

“We’re looking for better results this time around.”

A key issue for First Nations leadership is revenue sharing from natural resources development.

For example, Spence’s remote community of Attawapiskat, which is in northern Ontario, sits near a diamond mine.

While some band members as well as several new businesses are making decent money from the mine, the community remains impoverished.

Spence has been subsisting mainly on fish broth since Dec. 11, living in a tent on frigid Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, just upstream from Parliament Hill.

“She’s well, but you can tell her body is weak,” her spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, said Friday.