On December 10th, thousands of Indigenous people and their supporters across Canada marched through the streets of major cities, small towns and reservations to oppose the Conservative government’s increased attacks on Native rights. Under the banner of “Idle No More”, this co-ordinated action took specific aim at the omnibus budget implementation Bill C-45, which the Conservative government introduced and tried to push through without anyone noticing.
What is Bill C-45?
Bill C-45, also known as the Jobs and Growth Act, 2012, was introduced by the Conservative government to put in to law different aspects of the federal government’s 2012 budget plan. It is an omnibus bill that includes extensive amendments and revisions to more than 60 existing federal laws and regulations, including changes to the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, and the Indian Act. The bill was introduced in October, and the House of Commons immediately passed a motion to limit how long it could be debated by MPs. While this was taking place, a delegation of leaders from some of the major Indigenous organizations were barred from entering parliament to deliver a message in opposition to the bill. This ‘just push it through’ style is nothing new for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In March 2012, when the Conservative government announced its new budget plan, it used its majority in the House of Commons to push it through, despite huge opposition across the country to its gutting of social services, blatant attacks on the rights of workers, Indigenous people, and its completely undemocratic nature. The Conservatives then introduced their first budget implementation bill, Bill C-38 (Bill C-45’s older sibling), and once again passed a motion to limit its time for debate. As it stands now, Bill C-45 has gone through the different layers of government and has been made in to law. But, not without opposition.
What is wrong with Bill C-45?
Just like its older sibling, Bill C-45 will be implementing a budget that is not only ignoring the interests of people in Canada, but is steadfastly working against them. The Idle No More national day of action took particular aim at the devastating effects that this bill will have on the environment and Indigenous people in Canada.
The changes made to the Fisheries Act, the federal government act designed to protect fish and fish habitat, would benefit the demands of industry and make it less accountable for their abuse. Industry would be able to request changes, or even cancellations, to their existing commitments to protect fish habitat, or be left off the hook for lost or damaged habitat if they promise compensation. While many Indigenous people depend on harvesting fish, and either have the inherent or treaty-recognized right to access it, this change puts this livelihood and its future more in the hands of industry whose interest is only in exploiting the area for what it can get.
After the changes will have been made to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, only 97 out of the 32,000 major lakes and waterways in Canada would remain protected. For the bodies of water that remain ‘protected,’ any public participation from decision-making would be eliminated, allowing the Minister of Transport to push through any project without consulting, or even notifying, the public. On top of that, pipeline and inter-provincial power line projects will no longer be required to prove that they won’t damage or destroy navigable waterways in Canada. Eighteen First Nation, environmental, recreation and grassroots groups, including the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, wrote an open letter opposing this bill and outlining that “Bill C-45 further demonstrates a pattern of recklessness by the federal government that puts the long-term safety and health of Canadians in jeopardy. These are major changes that, if not stopped now, will ripple out across communities everywhere in Canada -- putting our water, air, food and quality of life at risk.”
Aside from the huge impact that Bill C-45 will have on industrial developments on Native land and impact on the waterways and fish habitats, it is a blatant attack on the self-determination of Indigenous nations. This time, the government is making changes to the Indian Act, without the consultation, or even involvement of Indigenous people and is undermining the institutions and structure that itself imposed on Indigenous people. The Indian Act is one of the most debated issues when it comes to Indigenous people’s relationship with Canada. It was one of the first acts that the new government passed after Confederation and brought in the legal separation of Indigenous people from other Canadians and complete control over their affairs in the hands of the state. With these new changes, the lease or surrender of reserve lands will be based on a majority of votes at a meeting of band members or in a referendum, instead of waiting for a majority vote from all eligible voters. Instead of the majority of the band deciding, it is now a handful of people deciding the sale of reserve lands. This leads to pretty severe complications since included in these changes is the fact that now an Aboriginal Affairs minister will have the authority to call a band meeting or referendum for the purpose of considering a surrender of the band’s territory, and can expedite this process. Reserve lands in Canada make up less than a quarter of one percent of the country’s land mass, and the Conservative government is trying to whittle away what is left.
It didn’t begin and won’t end with Bill C-45
Bill C-45 is a continuation of Canada’s policy of extinction towards Indigenous people and their rights. This new bill is aimed to make the theft of Native land and resources that much easier. For this, nobody is fooled by the words of Stephen Harper when he spoke about building a new relationship with Indigenous people. The relationship has not changed and is based on the same antagonisms of a colonial state trying to extinguish a people.
Leading up to the omnibus bill, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan announced deep funding cuts to Canada’s Aboriginal representative organizations, in some cases by up to 80%. More than 120 academics from across Canada wrote to Duncan expressing the damaging effect this would have on the ability to perform critical research on issues facing Native people today, like clean water, violence against women, and healthcare. The Conservative government is also introducing a number of bills that would affect First Nations education, clean drinking water, band elections, and more changes to the Indian Act.
This increased attack has led to a growing sentiment among Indigenous people, from grassroots to major organizations, to take on Stephen Harper and the Conservative government. There is the example of Theresa Spence, Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, who is right now on a hunger strike, demanding to meet with the Prime Minister Harper and the Queen to discuss treaty rights. In her own words, “I’m willing to die for my people because the pain is too much and it’s time for the government to realize what it’s doing to us.” There are also the actions, sparked by Idle No More, which culminated on December 10th and have continued to grow. Actions on that day were organized in more than 15 cities, towns and reservations, including Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, North Battleford, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, attracting a large number of supporters and activists who are fed up with the Conservative government’s attacks on Native people. Following this, a weekend of highway roadblocks and handing out literature was organized by activists throughout Northern Alberta, and more are planned across the country, culminating with an action to march on Parliament Hill on Friday.
The Idle No More protests have demonstrated that Indigenous people and their supporters are in motion across the country to defend their rights. These actions also show the importance of uniting together to defend our rights. The issue of Native rights is now discussed more and more, and naturally, is polarizing those involved. The Conservative government will not end with Bill C-45. This much is true. It is vitally important that the opposition to these attacks grows and that working, poor and oppressed people in Canada show their solidarity to defend Native rights against the Conservative government agenda.
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