The Conservative bulldozers are roaring, trampling over our parliamentary democracy, our rights and, soon, through the rivers that are vital to many First Nations.
The federal government recently tabled Bill C-45, a bloated, 457-page assault on the common good that it dishonestly said is only intended to implement changes already announced in last spring’s federal budget. But it goes much further than that. The bill amends no fewer than 60 laws, most of them in an effort to give big business a free hand to ignore environmental, Aboriginal and social concerns in a blind pursuit of ever-bigger profits.
For First Nations people across Canada and the lands and rivers many bands depend on, however, Bill C-45 is a direct attack.
A small but crucial amendment to the Indian Act gives power to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to call a referendum in any band to surrender lands in the band’s territory. It’s another step in the government’s systematic campaign to weaken First Nations and open their territories up for exploitation by non-Native interests by progressively eliminating communal control over lands that were intended to be preserved in perpetuity for future generations.
It’s important to note that a related bill now before Parliament explicitly sets out the core Conservative mindset toward Aboriginal sovereignty, much as it was expressed by the right-wing ideologue Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his book First Nations, Second Thoughts. In it, Flanagan argued reserves should essentially be reduced to the political equivalent of a municipality.
And sure enough, Saskatchewan Tory MP Rob Clarke, the sponsor of Bill C-428, the Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act, echoed this goal in defending his proposal. “It will provide these First Nations with the same rights and responsibilities that rural and urban municipalities have today,” he said.
In other words, the vital and constitutionally recognized principle of nation-to-nation relations between Ottawa and First Nations will be eliminated. And this, at the same time many impoverished Aboriginal communities may be tempted by a pot of cash to surrender their most important asset: their lands. Future generations be damned.
That’s the actual language in Bill C-45, by the way. A single vote at a band meeting called by the federal minister will be enough to trigger the “absolute surrender” of band territory. It would be an absolute surrender in more ways than one: the cultural and territorial integrity of a distinct people would be forever compromised.
Keep in mind that these foundational changes to the political structure of First Nations governance are being made without any consultation or cooperation of the elected representatives of Canada’s Native communities.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo denounced the unilateralism in his reaction to the omnibus bill.
“When our people see no movement from the government to work with us, when they see backsliding, undermining and continuing threats and pressures on an already burdened population, the flames only grow stronger,” Atleo said. “Our people will not stand for it. Rightly so, there is growing anger and frustration.”
Another section of the bill represents a clear and present danger for Native communities, especially in Northern British Columbia, where the giant petroleum corporation Enbridge wants to build a pipeline to ship Alberta oil to a shipping terminal at Kitimat on the BC coast. Unanimously opposed by First Nations governments, the Northern Gateway pipeline would follow and bisect many crucial salmon habitats that are the economic and cultural foundation of the region’s original inhabitants. Enbridge has a long and sorry record of devastating oil spills along its existing pipeline network, especially in the United States.
None of these concerns will merit attention should Bill C-45 pass through Parliament as it is currently written. Amendments to the Navigable Waters Act will exempt pipeline construction from the law’s existing protection for oceans, lakes and rivers, while drastically limiting the number of waterways protected under the law.
It also gives corporations a legal avenue to reduce or eliminate existing requirements to protect fish habitats, and even allows them to renege on previously negotiated commitments to compensate stakeholders for habitats that were damaged or destroyed by their industrial activities.
Particularly for the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, this omnibus bill is an ominous portent for the future. The obvious intent is to remove obstacles to the Enbridge pipeline through some of this country’s most productive yet fragile natural environments. But all First Nations that depend on water-borne resources will eventually suffer.
Far fewer federal environmental assessments will be conducted on industrial projects. Provincial governments with widely differing environmental regulations and standards will often be left with the sole responsibility to assess their impact and sustainability.
“The net effect is that Canada’s environment is less protected by the federal government than it ever has been before. They are piece by piece getting out of the business,” commented Will Amos, director of the Ecojustice environmental law clinic at the University of Ottawa.
And the Conservative majority will bulldoze all this, and much more, through Parliament with a minimum of scrutiny and study, as was a previous omnibus bill last spring. First Nations and all other Canadians who value the environment, essential human rights and a transparent democracy will be the losers.