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OTTAWA — The aboriginal interpretive centre on an island in the middle of the Ottawa River where Theresa Spence is living out her hunger strike is not an unhappy place. There are fires and drumming and even the occasional round of song.
Native leaders have come from disparate parts of Canada to meet with the Attawapiskat chief who has said she will fast until the federal government gives in to her demand for a meeting among first nations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a representative of the Crown.
Ms. Spence wants to discuss the treaty that was signed in the first decade of the last century that covered a broad swath of Northern Ontario, including her own impoverished reserve. It promised money, education and health care in exchange for sharing the land.
Ms. Spence, like the descendants of the signatories of similar treaties across the country, says Canada is no longer living up to its part of the bargain.
So, two weeks ago, after listening to other chiefs at a national gathering complain about the problems affecting their people, the 49-year-old mother of five girls embarked on a hunger strike, consuming only water, fish broth and medicinal tea.
“I am fine right now,” Ms. Spence said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. After taking part in an early-morning smudging ceremony, she had a cup of medicinal tea prepared for her by a young first-nations man who is one of many people helping her in her fast.
It was coincidental, she said, that her personal crusade began about the same time as first nations across Canada embarked on a widespread and prolonged series of demonstrations under the banner of “Idle No More.” Those actions were also aimed at the Conservative government – specifically at a number of bills that will have a direct effect on aboriginal communities.
But Ms. Spence has emerged as a movement hero and has had plenty of support from people such as Saulteaux actor Adam Beach, who stopped by over Christmas. And, on Boxing Day, she met with Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau. Her daughters and her partner, Clayton Kennedy, are also in Ottawa this week, and the atmosphere in the log-walled compound on Victoria Island is celebratory.
John Duncan, the federal minister of aboriginal affairs, wrote to Ms. Spence on Christmas Day to urge her to give up her hunger strike and to reiterate his own offer to meet with her. She rebuffed his overtures.
“I didn’t ask for Minister Duncan,” she said. “And I have dealt with him before. When I observe him, he doesn’t have a mind of his own because, before he would answer a question, he would always look at his people. He’s not the Prime Minister.”
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