* Hunger strike in 3rd week as "Idle No More" movement grows
* Aboriginal leaders demand top-level meeting
* Protests spread with help of social media
* Flash mobs in dozens of Canadian, U.S. shopping malls
By Louise Egan
OTTAWA, Dec 28 A Canadian aboriginal chief in
the third week of a hunger strike is urging Prime Minister
Stephen Harper to "open his heart" and meet with native leaders
angered by his policies as small impromptu protests spread
beyond Canada's borders.
Chief Theresa Spence from the remote northern Ontario
community of Attawapiskat has been fasting since Dec. 11 and has
vowed to continue until Harper commits to talks on a litany of
complaints, including new legislation that she says will harm
"He's a person with a heart but he needs to open his heart.
I'm sure he has faith in the Creator himself and for him to
delay this, it's very disrespectful, I feel, to not even meet
with us," she said in an interview in Ottawa.
Spence is at the center of an unprecedented Canadian
aboriginal protest movement called "Idle No More" that began
with four women in the province of Saskatchewan raising
awareness about the Conservative government's budget legislation
passed earlier this month.
The legislation, which has also been criticized by
opposition politicians, reduces environmental protections for
lakes and rivers and makes it easier to sell reserve lands.
Aided by Facebook and Twitter, their protest proliferated
and is now drawing comparisons to the "Occupy Wall Street"
"Flash mob" protests with traditional dancing and drumming
have erupted in dozens of shopping malls across North America.
There have been rallies, marches and highway blockades by
aboriginal groups across Canada and supporters have emerged from
as far away as New Zealand and the Middle East.
The campaign aims to draw attention to dismal conditions
faced by many of the country's 1.2 million natives, including
poverty, unsafe drinking water, inadequate housing, addiction
and high suicide rates.
'I'M WILLING TO DIE'
Camped out in a traditional teepee within sight of Ottawa's
Parliament buildings, Spence appeared weak and short of breath
but resolute on Thursday, Day 17 of her hunger strike, staying
warm by a wood stove as a snow storm raged outside.
To critics who question her strategy and say her demands are
too vague, Spence replies that she has run out of patience.
"I know it's hard for people to understand what I'm doing
but it's for this pain that's been going on too long with our
people," she said, sitting on her makeshift bed and flanked by
Blankets hung from the inside walls of the teepee and a
faint aroma of cedar rose from branches spread on the ground.
Spence is consuming only water, fish broth and a medicinal tea.
"It has to stop and I'm willing to suffer until the meeting
goes on. Even if I don't make it, people will continue my
journey. Like I keep saying, I'm willing to die for the people
of First Nations because the suffering is too much," Spence
Spence was in the headlines last year when a housing crisis
in her community forced people to live in tents in temperatures
of minus 40 Fahrenheit (minus 40 Celsius).
The Canadian government suggested taxpayer funds were being
squandered and appointed an outside adviser to oversee the
town's finances, a move seen as insensitive and later rejected
by the courts.
At the core of Spence's protest are what aboriginal groups
say are unfulfilled promises by the federal and provincial
governments dating back to treaties in the early 1900s that
would give aboriginal groups a stake in natural resources
development, among other benefits.
Many native communities are affected by mining developments
or projects like Enbridge Inc's planned C$6 billion
($5.9 billion) Northern Gateway Pipeline. The project, which has
yet to win government approvals, would take oil sands crude to
the Pacific coast.
Harper met with native leaders in January but Spence says he
imposed his own agenda. Harper's office declined to comment.
A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said
the minister has tried repeatedly to reach Chief Spence.
"We will continue trying to engage the chief and other First
Nation leaders to discuss how we can build on the progress we
have made since 2006," said the spokesman, Jason MacDonald.
MacDonald said Ottawa had built and renovated schools and
homes, invested in safe drinking water, introduced legislation
to protect the rights of women on reserves and settled over 80
Health minister Leona Aglukkaq, the one aboriginal member of
Harper's cabinet, urged Spence on Friday to resume eating and to
meet with Duncan.
SIMILAR TO 'OCCUPY' MOVEMENT?
Meanwhile, with the help of social media the Idle No More
movement has taken on a life of its own in much the same way the
first "Occupy Wall Street" camp gave birth to a multitude of
"occupy" protests with no specific demand or leadership.
But Peter Russell, an expert in aboriginal politics at the
University of Toronto, says unlike the "99 percent" campaign,
aboriginals at just 3 percent of the population historically
have taken drastic action to be recognized. He sees no sign
"Idle No More" will dissipate soon.
Events listed on the group's Web site for Friday include
rallies in Los Angeles and London, where protesters plan to
present Queen Elizabeth with a letter.
But organizers say they've lost track. Their initial
Facebook page has 33,000 members and the Twitter hash tag was
mentioned 40,000 times in a single day at its peak on Dec. 21.
"This has spread in ways that we wouldn't even have
imagined," said Sheelah McLean, an instructor at the University
of Saskatchewan who was one of the four women who originally
coined the "Idle No More" slogan.
"I don't think the hash tag is the most important thing that
has happened," she said.
"What this movement is supposed to do is build consciousness
about the inequalities so that everyone is outraged about what
is happening here in Canada. Every Canadian should be outraged."