OTTAWA – Indigenous Canadians marched on the capital and other major cities Friday and threatened to bring the country’s economy “to its knees” as their leaders met with officials to try to resolve a dispute over extreme poverty on reservations.
As many as 500 protested in freezing rain outside Parliament in Ottawa in support of a hunger strike by a northern Ontario chief. Hundreds more held rallies in Montreal and Winnipeg.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, met with 20 native chiefs behind closed doors in a bid to stem an escalation of demonstrations and highway blockades across the country.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said after the meeting that the prime minister agreed to ongoing “high-level dialogue on the treaty relationship.”
But beyond this commitment it was unclear at the end of the day what, if anything, was accomplished except to highlight divisions among Canada’s more than 600 tribes.
Attawapiskat leader Theresa Spence, whose 32-day hunger strike has become a focal point for an aboriginal rights movement calling for improved living conditions on reserves, boycotted the emergency talks.
She and her supporters had insisted on the participation of Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada, Gov. General David Johnston, describing his attendance as “integral when discussing inherent and treaty rights.” Canada’s more than 600 indigenous reserves were created by royal proclamation in 1763.
But Johnston declined, saying their plight is a political matter that must be taken up with elected officials.
“We’re giving this opportunity for them to resolve the broken promises from the treaty. And all we’re asking is a meeting and to sit down with them,” Spence told a news conference earlier in the day.
“All we want is justice, equality and fairness which we’re entitled (to),” she said, vowing to continue her hunger strike.
Chiefs from Manitoba and Ontario, as well as the Northwest Territories, joined her boycott, insisting on a meeting with the prime minister on their terms.
In addition to complaints of severe poverty, natives also blasted changes last month to environmental and other laws they say impact their hunting and fishing rights, which allow tribes to lease reserve lands to nonnatives.
Although the government insists the latter was meant to boost economic development, some fear it will result in a loss of native control of reserve lands and eventually lead to the end of aboriginal communities.