OTTAWA, Ontario – A Canadian tribal chief said she will end her six-week hunger protest over Aboriginal rights Thursday when indigenous leaders and advocates plan to their new agenda.
Theresa Spence, a 49-year-old Attawapiskat chief in northern Ontario, decided to end her fast after opposition parties and aboriginal chiefs signed a declaration Wednesday spelling out 13 specific demands they will present to the government.
Spence began fasting to press her demand for a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. She galvanized a cross-country grassroots aboriginal protest movement about legal changes to environmental laws and land rights. Harper met with top aboriginals leaders earlier this month, but Spence declined to attend because she also wanted Governor General David Johnston, the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada, at the meeting.
The declaration calls for improvements to housing and schools on reserves, as well as an immediate meeting between the governor general, the federal and provincial governments and aboriginal leaders. They argue the governor general's presence is imperative because the talks center on treaty rights first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1793.
The "Idle No More" protests picked up steam on Dec. 11 when Spence began subsisting only on fish broth and medicinal tea. Aboriginals slowed highway traffic, snarled a rail line and protested at the busiest Canada-US crossing point last week as part of a "day of action."
Danny Metatawabin, a spokesman for Spence, said she will end her hunger strike Thursday morning. Numerous other chiefs from the northern Ontario region are travelling to the capital to be part of a ceremony on Thursday where she is expected to speak. She remains camped out on an island in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill.
The protests erupted almost two months ago against a budget bill that affects Canada's Indian Act and amends environmental laws. Protesters say Bill C-45 undermines century-old treaties by altering the approval process for leasing aboriginal lands to outsiders and changing environmental oversight in favor of natural resource extraction.
The "Idle No More" movement, which has shown unusual staying power and garnered a worldwide following through social media, has reopened constitutional issues involving the relationship between the federal government and the million-plus strong Aboriginal community.