Canadian tribal chief: Fight for rights not over

  • Associated Press
  • January 24, 2013 - 4:12 PM

TORONTO - A Canadian aboriginal chief who galvanized a national protest movement over treaty rights ended a six-week hunger strike Thursday, but vowed the fight for better conditions in indigenous communities will continue.

Theresa Spence, an Attawapiskat chief in northern Ontario, decided to end her hunger strike after Canada's main opposition political parties agreed to sign a declaration agreeing to help aboriginal communities push for improvements to housing and education.

Spence, 49, was discharged from a hospital Thursday afternoon after being held overnight on an intravenous line, recovering from 44 days without solid food. She and other tribal leaders joined representatives of the Liberal Party and other opposition groups in signing the declaration soon afterward.

Spence began fasting to demand a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Governor General David Johnston, the representative of Queen Elizabeth II, in Canada.

She became the face of the "Idle No More" protest movement, which erupted 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 movement gained momentum on Dec. 11 when Spence began subsisting only on fish broth and medicinal tea.

Harper met with top aboriginal leaders earlier this month, but Spence and other chiefs refused to attend because Johnston was not at the meeting. Spence argued the governor general's presence was imperative because the talks centered on treaty rights first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1793 when Canada was a British colony.

The meeting with Harper ended with plans to meet again within a month to continue the dialogue on treaties and comprehensive land claims. Harper also agreed to modernize and implement ancient treaties that were supposed to grant land, resources and other tools to First Nations in return for giving up their land to settlers.

The outcome did not satisfy many aboriginal activists who staged more protests last week, slowing highway traffic, snarling a rail line and protesting at the busiest Canada-US crossing point.

"Indigenous peoples have lived well below the poverty line in a country that considered one of the wealthiest in the world. We are no longer idle and precedence has been established over this past six weeks," Spence said in a statement issued before she left the hospital. "There's no going back, our voices have be heard and now I ask for your involvement to move our agenda forward."

The 13-point declaration signed Thursday calls for improvements to housing and schools on reserves, as well as an immediate meeting between Johnston, the federal and provincial governments and aboriginal leaders.

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