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First Nations balk at meeting with PM

Shawn Atleo's leadership as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is on the line today amid demands from First Nations chiefs that he boycott talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"The Assembly of (First Nations) as a great organization hangs in the balance. More critically, lives are at stake," one northern Ontario chief, Isadore Day, wrote in an emotional letter to Atleo.

"I implore you to stop this meeting with the PM."

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is calling again on both Harper and Gov.-Gen. David Johnston to come together to meet the chiefs. In a statement this morning, Spence pointed out that she has the "unanimous" backing of the chiefs for a nation-to-nation meeting with both men.

"We can no longer have a paternalistic relationship and be dictated to," she said in a release. She also called a news conference for later this morning.

On Thursday, Harper had agreed to be present for two sections of a four-hour meeting among some cabinet ministers, top officials and about 30 First Nations leaders. He also gave the green light to the Governor General to hold a separate "ceremonial" meeting at Rideau Hall with First Nations representatives after his own meeting wraps up.

Chief after chief rejected those conditions on Thursday, but Atleo and some of his close supporters indicated they were still ready to go to the meeting with Harper. Late Thursday, as support for Atleo evaporated, a huge gathering of chiefs at a downtown hotel erupted into chaos.

Instead, they declared they will only meet Harper on their own turf, on their own terms.

The Manitoba chiefs have issued an invitation for Harper and Johnston to come down to the ballroom at a downtown Ottawa hotel.

"This invitation to meet still stands," they said in a midnight statement.

"To have both the prime minister and the Governor General attend our requested meeting will give a powerful message to us," said Murray Clearsky, grand chief of southern Manitoba.

"But to refuse will send the counter message to the Canadian public that they have no honour, nor respect for the rule of law and international agreements, and their corporate agenda which goes against the greater good of their nation, their citizens and the environment."

Atleo has not yet said publicly whether he will attend the meeting with Harper or not. The Assembly of First Nations is expected to clarify this morning.

Even if the meeting with Harper proceeds, Day predicted only a handful of chiefs would attend.

"There will clearly be no mandate to negotiate."

The dispute over procedure comes despite a hard-won agreement among disparate First Nations on a united, concrete list of demands that they wanted to present to Harper.

They want to see a school and clean drinking water on every reserve. They want Ottawa to commit to a national inquiry into the hundreds of missing or murdered aboriginal girls and women. They want a top-level political commitment to modernize and implement treaties so that First Nations share in the wealth of Canada's resources. They want stable funding that grows with population and inflation.

And they want Harper to repeal major parts of his two budget omnibus bills that they say sacrifice environmental protection to resource extraction.

The Canadian Press


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