Manitoba chiefs pledge unity as Spence continues fast

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.

Nepinak has backed Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's demand for Gov. Gen. David 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.

Nepinak said Friday the demand for a larger meeting, on Jan. 24, still stands. 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 told Radio-Canada in an interview Friday that she will not end her hunger strike, now in its 39th day, until the meeting happens and she is satisfied with the result. She has been consuming only tea, water and fish broth during her protest.

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."

Clearsky added that Spence had taken the lead as a woman in pushing for the federal government to hear First Nations' concerns, and now it was time for the men to do their part.

Nepinak told CBC News Thursday that he was not looking to push Atleo out.

"Considering mounting a challenge to his leadership makes the presumption that it's all Shawn's fault, and I'm not ready to make that conclusion at all," Nepinak said in an interview from his Portage Avenue office in Winnipeg Thursday.

"We all know Shawn to be a loving person, a very kind person and a dedicated and committed professional to his job."

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