Assembly of First Nations leadership asked for a meeting with political leaders but was immediately rebuffed by hunger striker Chief Theresa Spence, whose spokesman says her health won’t last until their proposed meeting date.
National Chief Shawn Atleo issued the invitation for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to attend a meeting of the chiefs for the one-year anniversary of the 2012 Crown-First Nations gathering on Jan. 24.
But Spence’s spokesperson Danny Metatawabin said Thursday that the Attawapiskat chief, who is entering the 25th day of her hunger strike Friday, must have her demands met in the next 72 hours.
Spence has been demanding the meeting with Harper and Johnston since her fast began.
The split between the chiefs is reflective of the movement gripping the country — a leaderless protest gathered under the banner of Idle No More, where some opt for road blockades while others eschew them in favour of flash mobs. Some are calling the movement a new age of protest in Canada’s native population, fuelled by youth and inspired by Spence’s hunger strike.
“It’s completely different,” said Douglas Bland, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Armed Forces and professor at Queen’s University. “This is a countrywide, nationwide spontaneous reaction to government policy.”
Before, he said, protests were sporadic and isolated.
The movement has shades of the Occupy protests — there is little central organization, allowing aboriginals across the country to choose their own methods of protest and giving the grassroots a voice. This has led to confusion at the upper levels of government, according to Bland.
“You saw an example of that when the minister of aboriginal affairs said he’ll go and talk with (Spence),” said Bland. “She said no thanks. Now what are you going to do? It’s confusing the normal routine of negotiations.”
But where Occupy movements gathered around a constellation of causes, those involved with this movement all rally behind the cause of the treatment of aboriginals in Canada.
“Given the focus on genuine issues and the diversity of tactics, they are likely to be more successful than Occupy was,” said Vincent Mosco, a professor in Queen’s University’s department of sociology who studies political movements.
Mosco says the movement’s future depends on the support of all Canadians.
“It’s growing and it will reach a critical point, it seems to me, where it needs to draw support from the wider, non-native community and not just in clicks on petitions, but genuine support where people turn out with them and provide resource help,” he said.
He noted that Occupy was concentrated in specific locations, whereas the Idle No More actions are sporadic and, so far, short-term, making it difficult for enforcement officials to crack down on core members.
The approach to protests has largely been deferential. A 13-day blockade in Sarnia dissolved Wednesday night after conciliatory efforts by the local police chief and politicians rather than direct enforcement.
“Had there been a police intervention, I can guarantee you there would have been two blockades and three blockades and four blockades and many people out there disrupting the community,” said Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley.
Bradley said he’s fielding calls from other municipalities nervous about impending protests.
People from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, responsible for the Sarnia blockade, are calling for a rally Saturday at the Blue Water Bridge, linking Canada and the U.S. near Sarnia. A blockade is planned for the weekend at the beleaguered Akwesasne border, near Cornwall.
The decentralized nature of the organization makes it difficult to predict where future actions will happen or what their impact will be.