With the federal government’s controversial budget-implementation Bill C-45 set to pass through the House of Commons, hundreds of First Nations chiefs marched on Parliament December 4 to protest the lack of consultation on an array of legislation that will affect their members.

The chiefs were meeting at an annual Assembly of First Nations gathering across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec.

Inspired by Chief Wallace Fox of Saskatchewan’s Onion Lake First Nation, who urged his fellow leaders to take the fight to Parliament, they marched up the Hill into the House of Commons, where security guards barred their way. Nonetheless, Fox was able to debate Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who is responsible for elements of the 400-page omnibus bill that will remove hundreds of lakes and rivers from environmental review processes governing industrial development.

Outside the House, Fox told reporters that all he and his colleagues wanted was an “audience” with the government that is unilaterally imposing far-reaching changes on First Nations peoples across Canada in Bill C-45. “This is what we did today, serve notice,” Fox said after he and the others were escorted out by security. “We’re not going to put up with this.”

Among the most controversial amendments to the bill are those to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which will remove hundreds of lakes and streams from federal protection. The Conservatives say the changes simply eliminate red tape that held up projects along waterways under the guise that they would impede navigation. Critics say it removes environmental oversight over some of Canada’s most treasured lakes and rivers.

“It’s basically declaring open season on all parts of Canada, but especially on First Nation territory,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, who led the Native leaders into Parliament. “No consultation. There’s a real frustration. So the desire was for some of the leaders to be able to come in and actually say, wait a minute, how come you’re pushing this through, this omnibus legislation, you haven’t spoken to us.”

After opening the AFN meeting with a call for unity, National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said Bill C-45 is a central element “of the siege that we’re under right now.”

Later, on the steps of the Parliament buildings, Atleo said, “We are gathered here with a strong message, a message to our peoples, that we will stand together, we will stand united, and we will stand strong. There is a great struggle going on. We want this message heard.”

Atleo had earlier called on the annual Special Chiefs Assembly to mobilize against an unprecedented federal attack on First Nations rights.

“What I hear and what I see in all of the regions is an absolute determination to push back, to remain rock solid in our rights and identity, yet there is an equally firm conviction to push forward our own solutions to address the many challenges faced by our peoples,” said Atleo during his opening remarks to more than 600 Chiefs and Assembly delegates. “Together we are forever rejecting the status quo and the failures of the past that continue today. Together we have the solutions. We will not back down. We will stand firm on our rights and we will achieve change by acting now.”

Last month, Atleo represented the AFN at a Senate committee examining Bill C-45.

The bill’s amendments to the Navigable Waters Protection Act will remove federal oversight from most of the lakes and rivers in Canada, giving the minister of transport authority to approve projects that may affect the navigability of the 167 listed lakes, rivers and oceans. However, the minister will not need to take into account First Nations rights, title, perspectives or interests.

“Unilateral changes to important environmental legislation without discussion, engagement or consultation with First Nations is unacceptable,” Atleo told the committee.