OTTAWA (Reuters) - 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 January 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 U.S.-Canadian border.
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 dysfunctional.
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.
Additional reporting by Cameron French in Oakville, Ontario; Editing by Janet Guttsman and Eric Beech