* Harper meets about 20 chiefs; some native leaders boycott
* Agrees to high-level dialogue
* Ontario chief threatens blockades on Wednesday
* Nova Scotia rail line blockaded
By Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, Jan 11 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen
Harper agreed in a meeting with native leaders on Friday to pay
more attention to their demands, trying to mollify an aboriginal
protest movement that has threatened to blockade roads and
railways across the country.
Faced with a seemingly intractable situation that has
confronted successive governments, H arper agreed to a high-level
dialogue with the natives and to have his office t a ke increased
responsibility for their issues, Aboriginal Affairs Minister
John Duncan said.
"Working together remains the best way to achieve our shared
objective of healthier, more prosperous and self-sufficient
First Nations," he told a news conference, using the formal name
for most of Canada's aboriginal groups.
Hundreds of aboriginal protesters had blocked the main
entrance to a downtown building where Harper was preparing to
meet about 20 native leaders on Friday, demonstrating their
frustration, but also highlighting a deep divide within the
country's First Nations on how to push Ottawa to heed their
The noisy blockade, which lasted about an hour, ended just
before the meeting, even as other leaders chose to boycott the
session with Harper.
Chiefs have warned that the "Idle No More" aboriginal
protest movement is prepared to damage the economy unless Ottawa
addresses the poor living conditions and high jobless rates
facing many of Canada's 1.2 million natives.
Native groups complain that Canada has ignored treaties
signed with British settlers and explorers that they say granted
them significant rights over their territory.
Ottawa spends about C$11 billion ($11.1 billion) a year on
its aboriginal population, but living conditions for many are
poor and some reserves have high rates of poverty, addiction,
joblessness and suicide.
'THE NATIVES ARE RESTLESS'
The meeting was hastily arranged under pressure from an
Ontario chief who says she has been subsiding only on fish broth
f o r a month. It took place in a building across from Parliament
where Harper and his staff work.
Outside in the freezing rain, demonstrators in traditional
feathered headgear shouted, waved burning tapers, banged drums
and brandished banners with slogans such as "Treaty rights not
greedy whites" and "The natives are restless."
Until midday on Friday, it was uncertain if the meeting
would go ahead, with many native leaders urging a boycott and
others saying it was important to talk to the government.
"Harper, if you want our lands, our native land, meaning
everyone of us, over my dead body, Harper, you're going to do
this," said Raymond Robinson, a Cree from Manitoba.
"You'll have to come through me first. You'll have to bury
me first before you get them," he shouted toward the prime
minister's office from the steps outside Parliament.
The aboriginal movement is deeply split over tactics and not
all the chiefs invited to the meeting turned up. Some leaders
wanted Governor-General David Johnston, the official
representative of Queen Elizabeth, Canada's head of state, to
Johnston had declined the invitation, saying it was not his
place to get involved in policy discussions. He instead later
hosted a ceremonial meeting at his residence.
The elected leader of the natives, Assembly of First Nations
National Chief Shawn Atleo, who led the delegation that met with
Harper, said in a statement h i s people wanted a fundamental
transformation in their relationship with Ottawa. He said they
would press for a fair share of revenues from resource
development as well as action on schools and drinking water.
The meeting did not resolve those issues, but Matthew Coon
Come, grand chief of the Crees, praised Harper's pledge to
consult. "The (commitment to) high-level dialogue for me was the
highlight," Coon Come told CBC television.
BANGED ON THE DOOR
Gordon Peters, grand chief of the association of Iroquois
and Allied Nations in Ontario, threatened before the meeting to
"block all the corridors of this province" next Wednesday unless
natives' demands were met. Ontario is Canada's most populous
province and is rich in natural resources.
Peters told reporters that investors in Canada should know
their money was not safe.
"Canada cannot give certainty to their investors any longer.
That certainty for investors can only come from us," he said.
Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who said on Thursday
that aboriginal activists had the power to bring the Canadian
economy to its knees, was one of the leaders of the protest at
the building where the meeting occurred.
"We're asking him (Harper) to come out here and explain why
he won't speak to the people," said Nepinak, who banged on the
door at the main entrance to the building after choosing to
boycott the meeting.
Nepinak and other Manitoba chiefs are also demanding that
Ottawa rescind parts of recent budget acts they say reduce
environmental protection for lakes and rivers. The most recent
budget act also makes it easier to lease lands on the reserves
where many natives live, a change some natives had requested to
spur development but which others regard with suspicion.
Duncan said the government was convinced it acted
appropriately and constitutionally with the legislation.
In Nova Scotia, about 10 protesters blockaded a Canadian
National Railway Co line near Truro on Friday
afternoon, CN spokesman Jim Feeny said.
A truck had been partially moved on the tracks and was
cutting off the movement of container traffic on CN's main line
between the Port of Halifax and Eastern Canada, he said.
Passenger services by Via Rail had also been disrupted.
The incident was the latest in a series of rail blockades
staged by protesters in recent weeks to press their demands.