Locals protest Omnibus bill C-45
Local First Nations expressed their opposition to the federal government’s Omnibus C-45 budget bill in a rally that organizers said is one of the first steps in a larger political movement.
The federal government is facing widespread criticism over the bill largely from the Idle No More grassroots campaign, which held protests against legislation affecting Indigenous land and water rights across the country on Dec. 10. The 400-plus-page Jobs and Growth Act is an omnibus budget bill that amends dozens of smaller related, but distinct, bills. It was passed in the House of Commons on Dec. 5 and will now move to the Senate for review.
Protesters at the NVIT rally said the government violated their treaty rights by failing to consult First Nations before passing the bill.
“These changes were made without consent or consultation with the people they directly affect — us,” co-organizer Andrea Sterling-Shintah said in a speech.
One of the most contentious changes the bill contains is to the Navigation Protection Act, formerly the Navigable Waters Protection Act, one of the oldest pieces of legislation in Canada. Organizers said the amendments reduce the number of waterways protected by the federal government by over 99 per cent. Instead of any body of water large enough to fit a canoe, the act would cover 97 lakes, portions of 62 rivers, and the three oceans that border Canada.
“I’m sure all of you are aware of the slogan of Merritt: ‘A lake a day, as long as you stay,’” Sterling-Shintah said. “Well, this is going to affect Merritt a great deal, with all of the lakes and rivers surrounding Merritt.”
Organizers said the amendments also reduce the length of time it would take for industry development to get federal approval to use the waterways from up to six to as little as two years. The Kitimat River, on the route of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, is not one of the 62 rivers covered in the act.
“Companies that would have to do certain assessments and make sure that they weren’t going to damage the waterways won’t have to do it because it’s not protected by the federal government,” co-organizer Helen Knott said. “That one should be at the heart of every Canadian.”
Protesters also spoke against the changes to the Fisheries Act included in Bill C-45. They said the amendment to the Fisheries Act changes the definition of “Aboriginal” as it relates to fisheries, recognizing food, social, and ceremonial fisheries, but failing to capture all First Nations fisheries, including those reaffirmed in the Marshall Decision, a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that excused a Mi’kmaq fisherman from fisheries regulations because of treaty agreements from the 1760s. They also cited an amendment to the Indian Act, which would allow First Nations communities to lease reserve land based on the majority votes of community members in attendance at votes, rather than the majority of eligible voters, as undemocratic.
Lower Nicola Indian Band Executive Director Arnie Narcisse said the act represents a way for the government to alter centuries-old treaties with First Nations. He likened the relationship between First Nations and the federal government to a buffalo jump, with the First Nations treaty and land rights as the buffalo driven over the cliff by the Harper Government, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan, and pipeline proponents.
“The Jobs and Growth Act basically gives the government the excuse to run roughshod over our right and title to this land,” he said. “All of these things are designed to sucker us into economics, if you will, at the cost of protecting the environment and all of the other things that matter to us.”
It was a concern echoed by the event’s organizers.
“The reasoning behind these acts is they’ll open up jobs, but they’re ignoring the land and the convenance that [the government] made before,” Knott said. “They’re ignoring our rights as First Nations people and the rights of our children, the future generation who have a right to this land, too.”
About 40 people attended the event and signed letters addressed to MPs expressing their opposition to the bill.
Shackan Indian Band Coun. Lennard Joe called for people at the event to follow up on their letters with MPs and to discuss their rights and legislation with others, including chiefs and councils.
The local rally was one of about 20 in cities across the country on Dec. 10.