First Nations leaders vow to keep pressure on government

First Nations leaders vowed Thursday to keep up the pressure on the federal government, as Shawn Atleo returned to work following medical leave and Theresa Spence left hospital following her six-week hunger strike.

Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, sounded ready to continue work on issues like poverty, education and violence against women, as he praised the protesters behind Idle No More.

"Make no mistake, the energy that's coming from our people is not going anywhere," Atleo said from British Columbia, where he held his first press conference since going on medical leave Jan. 14.

Idle No More isn't going anywhere, he said, and has made an impact around the world.

"It's not only a single person in the prime minister. It's the fact that this country is now recognizing that we need to address the issues and the relationship between First Nations and Canada, and there's some shared objectives," he said.

"[The status quo is] not working not only for First Nations, it's not working for Canadians and it's not working for governments. And so we need to with great haste seize on this moment and say that we're not going to let it go by."

Atleo was last seen publicly on Jan. 11 when he met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, despite conflict among First Nations leaders over whether that meeting should go ahead. Some leaders said the meeting wasn't valid without Gov. Gen. David Johnston present.

The next week, Atleo announced he was taking medical leave, because he had been ill in December and hadn't had time to recover.

Today, he downplayed the conflict among First Nations leaders.

"On principles of substance, we are unified," he said.

Danny Metatawabin, a spokesman for Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, vowed Thursday that the struggle will continue, as she and Manitoba Elder Raymond Robinson wrapped up 43 days of a liquid diet in Ottawa.

Spence and Robinson ended their protest after representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, the NDP caucus and the Liberal caucus endorsed a declaration of specific commitments asked for by Spence.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who along with other MPs from his party was involved in meeting with Spence and her supporters, and negotiating this conclusion to her protest, spoke at a press conference with Metatawabin and Robinson, who fasted with Spence. Rae said the declaration agreed to on Wednesday captures issues that are "real and alive today."

"These are things that are going to take time, these are things that are going to take work," Rae said.

"[The declaration] is an absolutely realistic assessment of the steps that need to be taken in our lifetime if we are in fact going to achieve the reconciliation of which I have previously spoken."

Spence missed a press conference to mark the end of her protest because of a precautionary stay in hospital, where she was administered an intravenous unit.

New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash, who spent 30 years helping First Nations people negotiate agreements with government and with companies, said things can move fast when there is political will. He says having been at blockades and at high-level discussions, he believes in dialogue.

"I'm pretty saddened to hear from the mouth of a First Nations person, we want our rightful place in this country. This is Canada and this is 2013. This shouldn't be so. We shouldn't beg to have our rightful place in this country," he said.

Spence and Robinson achieved something big, said Michèle Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

"Hey, the international community is watching us, listening to us, watching the government, the federal government, it's something," she said.

"I'm sure [the prime minister] will see and more and more with the pressure with Idle No More, because next Monday lots of us will be on the street everywhere across Canada and on Parliament Hill to remind him that there's beautiful and strong people that want to make that change and he needs to jump in."

In a statement Thursday, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, said that a Jan. 11 meeting with the AFN "produced concrete commitments, and we continue to work with those aboriginal leaders who choose to work with the government of Canada to improve living conditions and create jobs in their communities."

As for Spence ending her fast, Duncan said, "any responsible person would urge Chief Spence to resume eating solid food."

The Attawapiskat council had been pressing for Spence to end her protest, with representatives travelling to Ottawa to ask her to return home.

Some in the community wanted Spence to return to her role as chief, while others felt she was doing work on behalf of all First Nations people and should continue the protest, acting chief Christine Okinaw Kataquapit said.

Despite that, the band council was prepared to put a resolution in place to have Spence step down if she wouldn't return to Attawapiskat.

"If she was not to accept [to end] her hunger strike, then she would be asked to step down," Kataquapit told CBC News.

The band had contacted its law firm and would have put in place a resolution forcing Spence out as chief, she said.

"That was our last resort from the community."

Kataquapit says Spence has made history and that she supports her.

Metatawabin said First Nations people have awakened and will not be put aside again.

"Change had to happen," Metatawabin said, "not only to protect our treaty rights but our non-treaty friends as well … for all our First Nation communities who live in Third World conditions. We will stand up, we will persevere. We want to be acknowledged, we want to be respected.

"The fight does not end because the hunger strike ends," he said.

Robinson said he tried to go to an emergency room but felt he was treated in an "almost racist" way and left without getting medical attention.

"Where's my place in Canadian society?" he said about how the nurse questioned why he was there. "When I needed medical attention …. I can't even go to the hospital to get the proper treatment that I want and to be confronted in that way."

Spence was not suffering from any acute condition, but was admitted to Ottawa's Civic Hospital to receive nutrients and hydration as routine checks were performed.

A source told CBC News that Spence had toast Thursday morning.

Spence said previously she was willing to die for her cause, and spoke as recently as last Friday of being prepared to have her body carried off Victoria Island with honour. Spence and Robinson based their protest at a camp with their supporters on Victoria Island, a native education centre in the middle of the Ottawa River between downtown Ottawa and Gatineau.

Throughout her protest, she has been taking regular breaks to shower, nap and visit with family members at a downtown Ottawa hotel.

The AFN continues to pressure the Harper government to follow through on efforts that began one year ago today, at the 2012 Crown-First Nations gathering held in Ottawa. On this one-year anniversary, chiefs are meeting to continue to plot their next steps on eight priority issues, including treaty recognition, education, and resource development.

A Jan. 11 "working meeting" was held in the Prime Minister's Office between representatives of the AFN and the Harper government, including Stephen Harper himself. Spence's protest is credited with adding pressure to Atleo's demands for a high-level meeting to press his organization's concerns, but she did not attend that day because Johnston was not present.

Atleo has struggled to keep his organization united in the face of dissent over his strategy in dealing with the Harper government.

The Governor General hosted Spence and other First Nations leaders later that day in a ceremonial event at Rideau Hall, at the prime minister's request. But the pair continued to decline solid food, feeling their concerns were not adequately addressed.

Harper confirmed with reporters Wednesday that he will have a followup meeting with Atleo in the near future, but no specific date has been set.

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