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Angry Canadian aboriginals divided ahead of Harper meeting
January 11, 2013 / 4:55 PM / 5 years ago

Angry Canadian aboriginals divided ahead of Harper meeting

* Aboriginal leaders set to meet prime minister on Friday

* Many of Canada’s 1.2 million aboriginals live in poverty

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Deep splits emerged in the ranks of Canada’s aboriginal movement on Friday, casting doubt on a planned meeting between chiefs and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss a series of native grievances.

Native leaders say the growing aboriginal Idle No More protest movement is prepared to block highways and prevent resource development unless Ottawa does more to tackle the poor living conditions and high jobless rates facing many of Canada’s 1.2 million aboriginals.

Harper, under pressure from an Ontario native leader on a month-long hunger strike in Ottawa, had agreed to meet senior chiefs in his office at 1 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Friday.

Hours before the session was scheduled to begin, Teresa Spence, the hunger-striking leader, was insisting that the meeting include more natives and Governor-General David Johnston, the official representative of Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state. Johnston has already said he will not attend, saying it is not his place to get involved in policy discussions.

Spence said she would not attend the meeting unless Johnston participates.

Native groups complain successive Canadian governments have ignored treaties that aboriginals signed with British settlers and explorers hundreds of years ago, treaties they say granted them significant rights over their territory.

“We shared the land all these years and we never got anything from it. All the benefits are going to Canadian citizens, except for us,” Spence told reporters.

“It’s important for the government and the governor-general to understand about the treaties,” she said. “This government has been abusing us, raping the land.”

Spence’s stance underlines divisions inside the native community and the challenges facing Shawn Atleo, leader of the Assembly of First Nations umbrella group, which represents 633 separate bands.


Atleo said on Thursday he would attend the meeting with Harper, even in the absence of Johnston. If he does so, some chiefs have suggested they could propose a motion of no-confidence in his leadership.

In another indication of internal divisions, chiefs from the province of Manitoba said on Friday that instead of sitting down with Harper in his office, they wanted to meet both the prime minister and Johnston in an Ottawa hotel.

“If they do not show up, we will take to the streets with our people,” Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said in a statement. Nepinak said on Thursday that aboriginal activists have the power to bring the Canadian economy to its knees.

Nepinak and other Manitoba chiefs are also demanding that Ottawa rescind parts of two recent budget acts that they say reduce environmental protection for lakes and rivers, and make it easier to sell lands on the reserves where many natives live.

Ottawa spends around C$11 billion ($11.1 billion) a year on its aboriginal population, yet living conditions for many are poor, and some reserves have high rates of poverty, addiction, joblessness and suicide.

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