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Algonquin Nation guaranteed space in Indigenous centre as deal ends hunger strike

A supporter walks past a wigwam where Verna Polson, grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, is hunger striking due to a lack of consultations regarding the former US Embassy building which was dedicated to Indigenous people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The Algonquin Nation will be guaranteed a space in a major Indigenous centre in Ottawa after an agreement with the federal government ended a grand chief’s hunger strike.

Verna Polson of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council had refused both food and water starting early Monday and extending into Tuesday evening.

Polson was protesting the limited role the Algonquins were playing in the development of the Indigenous Peoples Space, a project that encompasses a prime area near Parliament Hill centred on the former U.S. Embassy.

The project is run by three national Indigenous organizations. Polson said the Algonquin deserve equal standing because the building is on unceded traditional Algonquin land.

Under the agreement struck Tuesday between the Algonquin Nation and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, the Algonquin Nation will have a space in the Indigenous Peoples Space guaranteed for its use.

The Algonquins will have control of space between the former embassy and a building on the next block occupied by a bank.

Frankie Cote, a band councillor for an Algonquin community near Ottawa who participated in the meetings with the government, said the Algonquins would likely construct a building in the infill space.

He said it’s important to the Algonquins that they have their own area in the project and he is glad the two parties came to an agreement as soon as they did.

“We were working hard, 12 hours on Canada Day, because of the utmost concern for Grand Chief Polson’s health,” Cote said.

“We were trying to come to a resolution that would get her out of the wigwam and drinking water.”

Discussions with the government had been going for several weeks before Polson’s hunger strike increased pressure on the talks, he said.

In an emailed statement, the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations MinisterCarolyn Bennett said they “fully support the participation of the Algonquin people.”

The statement said it will be up to the Algonquin Nation to determine how to develop the space, and the federal government has committed to work with the Algonquins to “ensure it will fully reflect their vision.”

The dedication of the space to the Algonquin Nation sets the stage for further discussions between the Algonquins and the current Indigenous partners leading the project: the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Metis National Council.

While the Algonquins secured a dedicated space, the agreement with the government did not guarantee the Algonquin Nation an equal seat at the table in the overall decision-making on the project — one of Polson’s stated goals in her hunger strike.

The government’s position prior to Polson’s hunger strike was that the Indigenous groups responsible for the project should determine its governance structure themselves.

But Cote said the government has reiterated a commitment not to open the space until the Algonquins’ concerns are dealt with.

The Assembly of First Nations strongly supported Polson’s and Cote’s view, but the groups representing Inuit and Metis peoples had opposed the proposal to give equal standing to the Algonquin Nation.

Cote said discussions between the Algonquins and the national groups will continue to determine what role the Algonquin Nation will play.

The AFN’s national chief Perry Bellegarde said Tuesday a series of memorandums of understanding had been drafted with the help of Assembly of First Nations staff and might form the basis of an agreement between the Algonquin Nation and the national organizations.

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press