OTTAWA - Efforts to broker a solution to end a 24-day-old hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence have foundered.
First Nations leaders had initially proposed a Jan. 24 meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnson, and took their proposal to Spence's teepee on Thursday afternoon.
But Spence told the aboriginal leaders Thursday that her failing health means she can't wait that long for assurances that her concerns about treaty rights will be addressed.
"She remains committed, she remains strong and she remains steadfast in what she is setting out to do," said Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which includes the Attawapiskat First Nation.
"She is determined that a meeting with the prime minister is paramount and of utmost importance immediately."
Spence has been subsisting mainly on fish broth since Dec. 11, huddling in a tent on frozen Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, just beyond Parliament Hill.
Spence has no problem with First Nations leaders meeting with Harper in a few weeks time, Louttit said, but she wants to be included in a preliminary meeting well before then.
"I think what is required for the life of these individuals here, for the life of the chief, is that there needs to be a meeting with the prime minister soon, within the next two or three days. Her life is on the line," said Louttit.
"From a human perspective and as a leader of this nation, he has a duty — a moral duty as a father and a husband — to listen and be able to meet with Chief Spence so that she can finish what she has set out to do."
Louttit and other top Ontario chiefs travelled to Ottawa to strategize with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo on Thursday in hopes of clarifying Spence's demands and laying the groundwork for a compromise that would end her hunger strike.
But before their discussions began, Atleo issued an early-morning news release urging Harper and Johnston to meet with him and others on Jan. 24 — the one-year anniversary of Harper's summit with chiefs.
"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," Atleo said in the statement.
"There is no excuse for inaction either by First Nations leadership or by Canada."
A meeting with chiefs to mark the one-year anniversary of the Crown First Nations Gathering would have given Harper a graceful way to diffuse the conflict, but even before Harper had a chance to say yes or no to the invitation, Spence had declared it a non-starter.
A spokesman for Harper never did give a straight answer.
"We will reply to Chief Atleo in due course. The government remains willing to work with the First Nations leadership to deliver better outcomes for First Nations communities," spokesman Carl Vallee said in an email.
Government insiders say they are struggling to figure out exactly what Spence wants. And First Nations leaders have also recognized that they need to hash out a coherent list of expectations that would help the public make sense of the hunger strike as well as the Idle No More grassroots protests that have spread across the country and beyond.
"We have to co-ordinate the messaging," said Chief Isadore Day of the Serpent River First Nation in northern Ontario.
Day and other chiefs have been burning up the phone lines for the past week, trying to smooth over rifts between the grassroots protesters and the First Nations leadership, while also negotiating a concrete list of key issues that could be taken to a meeting with Harper.
On Thursday night, Day issued a public call for peace and unity among chiefs, protesters and the Canadian public.
At the heart of Spence's protest are treaty rights, said Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy, and that issue needs to be deal with on a nation-to-nation basis.
"It's not just a bureaucratic process she is looking for."
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has offered many times to meet with Spence, and has also offered to set up a working group to deal with treaty rights. But the chiefs say they have waited long enough for concrete government action.
Treaties were signed decades ago, and governments have not lived up to their side of the bargain, leaving First Nations without much power to deal with poverty, protect the environment, and provide for their children, Day added.
Spence has warned there will be more unrest, including "countrywide economic disturbances," unless Harper meets her.
Atleo, however, stressed the need for peaceful protest and concrete solutions.
"It's time for the Crown to honour its relationship and responsibilities to First Nations starting with the recognition and affirmation of our inherent and treaty rights,"he said.
"It's time for all First Nations citizens and their leaders to drive solutions."