It was no ordinary scene in the staid halls of Parliament.
About 50 Native people from across Canada ordered pizza, sipped Tim Horton’s coffee and frequently shouted from the public gallery as the Commons committee on aboriginal issues met until 4:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“This land is our land. Why aren’t we at the table?” was a repeated refrain from the peaceful but loud crowd.
They kept the late-night vigil, including a drumming circle on the steps of Parliament, to protest the proposed First Nations Governance Act.
The bill would force about 600 Native communities to draft election and hiring codes, conform with the Canada Human Rights Code, and file more detailed accounts of how they spend federal funds.
Native leaders, the Canadian Bar Association, a former Liberal Indian Affairs minister and several academics have said the bill was imposed without proper consultation. They say it will also infringe constitutional Native rights to self-government.
Proponents counter that it will make Native leaders more accountable and offer independent recourse for complaints. Improved governance will also attract more investment and jobs to impoverished reserves, they argue.
The grandparents, teens and other reserve residents who kept watch with several chiefs early Wednesday weren’t buying it.
NDP MP Pat Martin and Bloc MP Yvan Loubier were given eagle feathers as a show of gratitude for their stands against the bill.
Federal Liberals are anxious to usher the much-maligned legislation through the House of Commons before Parliament breaks for summer in June. It must then clear the Senate to become law.
The Liberal-dominated committee hoped to report back to the House on proposed changes to the bill by week’s end. That will likely require all-night sessions Wednesday and Thursday, since the panel is less than half-way through debate on about 200 amendments.
What’s the rush, asked Roberta Jamieson, chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory near Brantford, Ont.
“Our people sitting in the observers’ seats were so outraged to see (MPs) doing their income tax returns while issues of our inherent rights, our constitutional rights, are being discussed. They were reading or doing correspondence . . . just sitting there robotically holding up their hand to ram this bill through.”
Jamieson said lively protests in the committee’s public gallery will continue.
“We were so energized and outraged when we left the Hill, so proud of our people who stood there, clapped and prayed and had whatever voice we could have.”
Auditor General Sheila Fraser recently criticized the federal government for demanding a “crazy quilt” of Native audits – many of which are never read.
“We do our audit every year, we publish it, our members can question our auditors,” Jamieson said.
She blames under-funding for the fact that about one-quarter of Native bands are under remedial management because of deficits.
Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault said he’d listen to Native people, Jamieson said. But he’s ignoring the fact that an overwhelming number of witnesses at the committee opposed the legislation, she charged.