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On day of critical meetings, First Nations protest descends on Parliament Hill

OTTAWA - A sprawling crowd of native protesters swirled outside the Prime Minister's Office in the shadow of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill on Friday as a controversial meeting between First Nations leaders and Stephen Harper got underway.

A crowd of about 3,000 people, according to police estimates, first gathered outside the sandstone building known as Langevin Block, chanting, drumming and waving makeshift banners.

Some of those near one of the entrances even pounded on the doors in a futile attempt to either gain access or invite the prime minister outside.

Many then crossed Wellington Street and rallied in front of the Centre Block, brandishing flags and chanting along with the rhythmic beat of skin drums.

Raymond Robinson, a Manitoba elder who has spent the last 30 days fasting to back a demand that Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston meet native leaders together, said he's fed up.

"We were never respected as First Nations people of this land," Robinson said. "They're always saying what's good for us. We know what's right for us."

Robinson said he will stick to his liquids-only protest -- one of several that have been taking place over the last month alongside that of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

"I'm going to continue until I get my demands met. I will not stand down until Harper meets with my chiefs with the Governor General present."

A sporadic cold drizzle fell all morning and into the afternoon, leaving feathered headdresses in the crowd looking somewhat bedraggled. It didn't appear to do much to dampen the spirits of protesters, however.

The demonstrators began their march on Victoria Island, a nearby outcrop in the Ottawa River where Spence has been camped out for more than a month, subsisting on a diet of fish broth and medicinal tea.

Spence looked frail -- her voice shaky and her speech a bit disjointed -- as she met briefly with members of the media outside her makeshift island encampment prior to the march on Parliament Hill.

Aboriginal people now have an opportunity to hold the government to account for years of broken promises, she said. "This meeting's been overdue for so many years."

Spence also spoke for the first time about how her Ontario reserve spends government money, saying most of what flows to the isolated James Bay community actually gets spent outside the community.

She says the money goes to buy supplies and to pay contractors, consultants, lawyers -- and to taxes.

"Most of the funding that we have, it goes back to you, to taxpayers," she said in response to a question about reserve spending that was shouted over the objections of her handlers.

A government-ordered audit, leaked earlier this week, concluded there was little documentation to back up Attawapiskat's spending.

Spence said she has been the victim of false statements about her reserve's handling on money.

"It goes out of our reserve," she said. "For example, if there's housing, we have to hire contractors, we have to order the materials from out of town and the shipment, we pay tax on that.

"We hire lawyers ... consultants -- that's where the money goes."

Spence is expected to continue her hunger protest, since Friday's meetings weren't taking place according to the terms demanded by the chiefs -- on their turf, with both Harper and Johnston together.

Terry Pedwell reports for the Canadian Press.

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