US & Canada

Canada native hunger strike sparks Quebec blockade

Theresa Spence
Image caption Ms Spence has urged the prime minister to "open his heart"

Protesters supporting a Native Canadian chief's 23-day hunger strike have blocked a rail line in eastern Quebec.

Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation has been fasting in a bid to secure a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

She began her protest against a budget bill critics say weakens native land rights and environmental safeguards.

Her hunger strike is also linked to Canadian indigenous rights movement Idle No More.

While the Attawapiskat leader has continued her fast, First Nations protesters and others have rallied around her and Idle No More to protest a range of issues.

At Quebec's Pointe-a-la-Croix, protesters on Wednesday blocked cargo transport but allowed passenger trains through.

"We are aware our fight is not with the citizens of this country, but rather the Harper government," Alexander Morrison, a spokesman for the group, told CBC News.

Many protesters are from the nearby Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nation.

Broth and tea

Ms Spence has staged her protest in a traditional teepee within sight of the parliament buildings in Ottawa, Canada's capital city.

Ms Spence has urged Mr Harper to "open his heart" and meet native leaders.

Instead, the Canadian government has offered a meeting with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

During her hunger strike, Ms Spence is consuming only water, fish broth and a medicinal tea, Reuters news agency reported.

"I know it's hard for people to understand what I'm doing," she told reporters on 28 December. "But it's for this pain that's been going on too long with our people."

Ms Spence invited MPs and senators to visit her teepee on Sunday. High-profile visitors have included former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark.

Budget legislation passed last month by Canadian lawmakers will reduce environmental safeguards for rivers and lakes and make it easier to sell reserve lands, critics say.

Aboriginal groups have also criticised what they say are unfulfilled promises by the federal and provincial governments - dating back to the early 1900s - to give them a stake in the development of natural resources, and other benefits.

Supporters of the Idle No More movement held marches, rallies and highway blockades across Canada in 2012, as well as "flash mob" protests with traditional drumming and dancing.

Mr Harper last met aboriginal leaders in January 2012.

In his year-end remarks on Monday, he said the government "continued to strengthen our relationship with First Nations", but did not mention Ms Spence.

A spokesman for Mr Duncan, the aboriginal affairs minister, said the federal government had built schools and homes, enacted measures to protect women's rights, and invested in safe drinking water in native areas.