* Hunger strike, blockades had pressured Harper
* Spokesman says chief will continue hunger strike
* Harper says meetings sprang out of talks last year
* Unclear if blockade on U.S. border will go ahead
By Randall Palmer and Louise Egan
OTTAWA, Jan 4 Canada's prime minister will meet
with native leaders next week to discuss social and economic
issues, an olive branch to an angry aboriginal movement that has
blockaded rail lines and threatened to close Canada's borders
with the United States.
Stephen Harper made no mention of the aboriginal protests in
a statement on Friday announcing the Jan. 11 meeting.
But the meeting is a key demand from native Chief Theresa
Spence, who has been on a hunger strike for 25 days on an island
within sight of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.
Spence's spokesman Danny Metatawabin told reporters, on the
snowy ground outside her traditional teepee, that she would
continue her hunger strike until she was satisfied with the
outcome of next week's meeting.
Spence's hunger strike has been one of the most visible
signs of a protest movement called Idle No More, which had
announced plans for blockades on Saturday all along the
It was not clear if these blockades would now be called off,
or if there would be any disruptions at the border crossings
between the two big trading partners.
The movement is not centrally organized, and Metatawabin
said he would not tell others what to do. Several hours after
Harper's announcement, the Idle No More website still had a call
up for blockades on Saturday.
Demonstrators blocked a Canadian National Railway Co
line in Sarnia, Ontario, for about two weeks until
Wednesday, and there were shorter blockades elsewhere in the
country, including one that delayed passenger trains between
Montreal and Toronto for several hours on Sunday.
Harper said next Friday's meeting would address economic
development, aboriginal rights and the treaty relationship
between the government and native groups. He described it as a
follow-up to a meeting with aboriginal leaders last January as
well as talks in November with Assembly of First Nations
National Chief Shawn Atleo.
"While some progress has been made, there is more that must
be done to improve outcomes for First Nations communities across
Canada," Harper said in a statement.
Many of Canada's 1.2 million aboriginals live on reserves
where conditions are often dismal, with high rates of poverty,
addiction and suicide.
Treaties with Ottawa signed a century ago finance their
health and education in a way that many experts say is now
Speaking to reporters in Oakville, Ontario, Harper
sidestepped a question on whether he had agreed to the meeting
because of Spence's hunger strike and fear the protests could
snowball like last year's Occupy Movement.
Asked about the demonstrations, he said: "People have the
right in our country to demonstrate and express their points of
view peacefully as long as they obey the law, but I think the
Canadian population expects everyone will obey the law in
holding such protests."
Idle No More was sparked by legislation that activists say
Harper rushed through Parliament without proper consultation
with native groups and which affects their land and treaty
rights. But it has broadened into a complaint about conditions
in general for native Canadians.
In her meeting with reporters after Harper's announcement,
Spence said she planned to attend the meeting in person along
with three of her supporters and she wanted the governor general
- Queen Elizabeth's representative - and the Ontario premier to
attend as well.
She stood flanked by her daughter and several supporters,
some of them holding up feathers. There were several minutes of
drumming and singing before she and her spokesman began talking.
When asked what she needed to hear from the prime minister
in order to start eating again, she said, "a positive result
because there's a lot of issues we need to discuss" and that
they should discuss the issues as equal partners.