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Future meeting between Harper and Atleo too late for Spence: chief

OTTAWA – Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo has invited Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston to join a meeting of First Nations leaders later this month as demonstrators across the country continue to decry the state of relations between Aboriginal people and the government.

The meeting, scheduled for January 24, would mark the one-year anniversary of a historic Crown-First Nations gathering held last year.

The gathering was meant to reset the relationship between the two parties, but widespread discontent embodied in the Idle No More movement suggests a year later there is still much work to be done.

“First Nations across this country have been voicing concern and frustration with a broken system that does not address long-standing disparities between First Nations and the rest of Canada, and address priorities in ways that will provide for long-term solutions and sustainability,” Atleo said in a press release.

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The national chief added that First Nations are ready to do the “hard work” needed to achieve a better future.

“It’s time for the Crown to honor its relationship and responsibilities to First Nations starting with the recognition and affirmation of our inherent and treaty rights,” Atleo said.

Treaty rights were central to last year’s meetings as the chiefs call on the federal government to restore the original treaties that gave them rights over land and resources.

Johnston’s office said the Governor General received the invitation and will send a response in due course. Atleo made a brief statement to media on Thursday saying he hasn’t yet heard from the Prime Minister.

He made the comment after leaving a teepee in Ottawa where Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence has been holding a hunger strike since Dec. 11, 2012.

The leader of the impoverished Northern Ontario First Nation is also seeking a meeting with Harper to discuss treaty rights – a request that a fellow chief said is becoming more urgent by the minute.

Grand Chief Stan Louttit, who represents an area including Attawapiskat, said a future meeting between Atleo and Harper will be too late for Spence.

“That is three weeks away,” he said. “There’s an urgency to this. Lives are on the line so let’s meet in the very near future within the next few days to be able to set that agenda forward.”

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While Harper has not agreed to meet Spence, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has – an offer that has been refused by the striking chief.

In a letter sent to Spence, Duncan offered to establish a working group to clarify the treaty relationship and explore ways of addressing First Nations’ constitutional rights.

Atleo and regional First Nations chiefs plan to hold a press conference on Friday to update Canadians about Spence’s demands.

Atleo also sent a letter to First Nations leadership urging them to engage with their communities to identify the priorities of their people and possible solutions – some of which are being highlighted in the Idle No More movement.

“We are stronger together. And we extend this invitation and encouragement to all Canadians to join us in understanding and support to achieve fairness and justice,” Atleo said.

With a file from The Canadian Press