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A family at last Saturday's Idle No More march over the Cornwall bridge.  Photo by David Sommerstein.
A family at last Saturday's Idle No More march over the Cornwall bridge. Photo by David Sommerstein.

Big expectations for "Idle No More" meeting in Canada

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First Nations chiefs are meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa today. The meeting is a response to months of protests by a grassroots aboriginal group called Idle No More.

The group is demanding the government address issues such as poverty, land claims, and profits from natural resources.

As Karen Kelly reports from Ottawa, it may be difficult for today's meeting to soothe decades of discontent.

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Many people on the streets of Ottawa didn’t want to comment on the protests.  But those who did were sympathetic.

One said, "the fact that they’re still fighting for human rights is commendable because I don’t have the balls to do that."  Another said, "I think there are so many years where we’ve ignored native issues in this country and I think it’s a pretty natural reaction to the situations that are present on reserves."

At it's most basic, Idle No More is an eruption of decades of frustration among native people in Canada.  The majority live in poverty.  Many reserves lack basic services, like clean drinking water and well-insulated buildings.  The education system is sub-standard compared to the rest of Canada.

But beyond that, there's a feeling that First Nations tribes are losing their influence over their own land and the water and minerals that are on it.  Lynda Kitchikeesik Juden, a member of Idle No More in Ottawa, says most aboriginal people are concerned their waters are not being protected.

She fears changes to water protection that were passed in a omnibus government bill in December.  Government leaders say they're cutting red tape by getting rid of environmental assessments for projects on most rivers and lakes.

Kitchikeesik Juden says that has outraged many in the native community.  She says clean water is essential to all people.  "It’s what our animals drink, it’s what the plants drink," she says, "it’s what the air needs.  It’s not just that it’s sacred to us.  It’s about life."

Last Saturday's protest across the bridges between Massena, NY and Cornwall, Ont. was just one of dozens of Idle No More demonstrations that have been held since October.  Most were in Canada, but some were in the U.S., even in other countries.

They've marched over rivers.  They've danced in shopping malls.  And one Northern Ontario chief has gone on a hunger strike.  All have called for today's meeting.

Member of parliament Charlie Angus says it's impossible it will live up to the hype.  "There’s a lot of suspicion, the chaotic nature of the demonstrations," says Angus.  "It’s making it problematic for those who come to table to set out agenda that will see some results. There’s possiblity but it’s a very volatile moment."

Angus represents a part of Northern Ontario that's home to the Attawapiskat reserve—infamous for its extreme poverty.  It's that reserve's chief, Theresa Spence, who is staging a hunger strike.  Her action precipitated the meeting with Prime Minister Harper.

The prime minister's office is describing the face to face with First Nations leaders as a working meeting.  MP Angus says it will be a tough group for him.

"This is a prime minister who’s very much a tactician in that its always a zero sum game, he always wants to win in the short term," says Angus.  "He has to be able to show a more magnanimous position, broader view. That doesn’t come easily to him."

As a member of the opposition, Angus is obviously critical of the prime minister.  Many observers across Canada argue it’s hard to pin down the demands of the movement.  Plus, there's no one leading voice—which makes it tough for the government to work with them.

Angus acknowledges that.  "You know, anybody who claims they speak for Idle No More, I’d raise my eyebrows.  There's frustration everywhere."

Angus says the problems are entrenched, and so far, no one's found the solution.  He hopes this time will be different.  "I think this is a moment of reckoning for Canadians. We haven’t had to deal with some of these issues of our colonial past… and it’s going to be on the PM’s shoulders. I never thought he was the guy for the job, but he’s the man now and I hope he delivers something."

Regardless of what happens today, it's unlikely the Idle No More protests will disappear.

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