A three-week-long hunger strike by a Native American chief in Canada over alleged abuses of land rights and other grievances is stoking wider protests that are also spilling over into the U.S.
Theresa Spence, chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario, was on the 24th day of a hunger strike Thursday that she says won’t end until Prime Minister Stephen Harper agrees to meet with Native American chiefs to address the alleged wrongdoings.
Mr. Harper has declined to meet the chief. Canada’s minister responsible for aboriginal affairs, John Duncan, has said he would meet with Ms. Spence. But she has refused the offer, calling Mr. Duncan a «program manager,» Ms. Spence’s spokesman said.
Ms. Spence has cited provisions in a recent budget bill that she argues weakens environmental protection on native land, and alleged violations to treaty accords over proposals to lease territory belonging to First Nations, a group of native peoples.
The protest has become a rallying point for a broad group of protesters and inspired scattered rallies in some U.S. cities. Some protesters say they will blockade crossings on the U.S.-Canadian border Saturday.
«There are a lot of crossings, but there are a lot of Indians to blockade them,» said Ron Plain, a spokesman for the blockades, which are being organized by members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in southern Ontario.
Another group, Idle No More, has promised a series of national protests after setting up rallies across Canada to back Ms. Spence. One of its organizers, Alexandria Wilson, said the group also helped organize recent rallies in Denver, Boston, New York and other U.S. cities.
Some Canadians dismiss Ms. Spencer’s charges, saying that substantial resources have been plowed into First Nations and that the country has had better relations with its indigenous citizens than the U.S. They say complaints about native people’s relative deprivation should be addressed to native leaders who typically manage their resources, such as Ms. Spence.
Mark Milke, a director at Fraser Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said some indigenous leaders haven’t addressed economic and internal governance issues. «I don’t think Chief Spence is the best spokeswoman for progressive policy, given the problem is a broken system of reserves which often don’t have a connection to the wider economy,» he said.
The Spence spokesman said the chief wasn’t available for comment due to her «vulnerable» state. Ms. Spence is holding her protest in a teepee on an island on the Ottawa River, just northwest of Canada’s main parliament buildings in the capital.
Mr. Duncan will continue to «try to engage» Ms. Spence and other First Nation leaders, a Duncan spokesman said. Under Mr. Harper, annual spending at Canada’s aboriginal affairs department has risen by a third to C$7.2 billion (US$7.3 billion) in the past six years, he said. Still, as in the U.S., Canada’s indigenous communities lag the wider population in economic well-being and health. The unemployment rate among Canadian aboriginals hit 14.3% in 2010, versus 7.9% rate for other Canadians. First Nations members earned an average of $19,000 a year, against a national average of $33,000, according to the country’s 2006 census.
But while the protests have attracted support, a number of media commentators and think tanks have criticized the increasingly broad-based movement, calling its aims confused and ridiculing Ms. Spence for allowing herself to eat fish broth in the hunger strike. Her spokesman said the broth was meant «to keep the kidneys going.»
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