Mulcair engaged, if not visible, on aboriginal protests, hosts chiefs' meeting

The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has kept a low profile throughout the aboriginal protests sweeping the country.

But his office maintains he's fully engaged in the file — it's just that he's more interested in trying to produce results than photo ops.

Indeed, the NDP leader was hosting a private meeting late Thursday at the official Opposition leader's residence with 20 chiefs, including Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo.

Reporters and photographers were not invited to the Stornoway meeting, which is taking place on the eve of a long-sought meeting between the chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Theresa Spence, the Attawapiskat chief whose month-long hunger protest triggered demands for a meeting with Harper, will not be among those at Stornoway.

Mulcair spokesman George Smith says the media are being excluded because the NDP leader wants the meeting to be "productive."

"We don't want this to be a spectacle," Smith said.

Mulcair has been noticeably absent from the parade of politicians, including two former prime ministers, who have visited the island where Spence has been on a liquid diet to back up her demand for a meeting with Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston.

That has led to some speculation that Mulcair was deliberately keeping a cautious distance from the chief, whose financial administration of Attawapiskat has been called into serious question by a leaked audit, and from the grassroots Idle No More protest movement, whose traffic-blocking tactics have infuriated some Canadians.

However, Smith noted that Mulcair did send a "strongly worded" letter to Harper last month, urging him to act on the message of the Idle No More movement by re-engaging with First Nations and to "act swiftly" to avert a "personal tragedy" for Spence.

Moreover, Smith said numerous New Democrat MPs have visited Spence, including Charlie Angus, whose northern Ontario riding encompasses Attawapiskat, and Paul Dewar, whose Ottawa riding encompasses the island on which Spence is currently encamped.

As well, deputy leader Libby Davies, NDP whip Nycole Turmel and a delegation of 16 other MPs have been sent to confer with Spence during her protest.

Smith said Mulcair has also had a "long telephone conversation" with Atleo.