As Idle No More protests continue across the country, Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault said he doesn't blame First Nations people for speaking out against Bill C-45.
The 440-page omnibus bill, passed in Parliament in early December, is one of the main issues cited by those participating in the rallies. Protesters say regulatory changes contained in the bill trample on aboriginal rights.
“This is the latest expression of their frustration, about how they're feeling about the Conservatives' refusal to respect many First Nations' rights,” Thibeault, the NDP's consumer protection critic, said.
“Despite paying lip service, the Conservatives are consistently refusing to consult, and ramming through legislation that ignores legitimate First Nations' concerns, and that's wrong.”
There's been several Idle No More rallies in Sudbury over the last few weeks, including one on Dec. 21, which Thibeault said he attended.
Thibeault said Bill C-45 was supposed to contain the budget bill, but actually contains a host of other regulatory changes.
In protest, he said his party tried to slow down the bill's passage by presenting amendments. However, the NDP was ultimately unable to do much, as the Conservatives have a majority government.
Thibeault said his party would have done things much differently, consulting with First Nations people on a nation-to-nation basis before making any changes affecting their communities.
“It's important to have that consultation, especially if you're going to have those changes we're seeing in C-45,” he said.
Thibeault said there's several aspects of Bill C-45 which aboriginal people are finding unpalatable.
These include changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act which remove environmental protection from many of the country's lakes and rivers, including those on First Nations land.
“We had over three million protected, and that's now down to under 100 that are protected,” he said.
“I think that's one of the things that First Nations are also worried about, because Bill C-45 affects their land and their waters when it come to environmental protections.”
Thibeault said changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act also make it easier for oil pipelines to be built.
There's also changes to the Fisheries Act which affect First Nations lands and waters, he said. “The way they've changed it, it makes it easier to obstruct passage of fish in fish-bearing waters, for example.”
Bill C-45 also contains changes to the Indian Act related to the voting and approval procedures regarding how First Nations people can lease reserve land, Thibeault said.
He said the Idle No More movement may become quite a problem for the Conservatives, as there's “a whole people that are quite upset” about the way they're doing things.
“If you're the government, you need to respect every single citizen, every single constituent within your country, and try to address their needs.”
One of the rallying points in the Idle No More movement has been Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 11, surviving on water and fish broth.
She's been demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston. Attawapiskat has garnered national headlines in recent years for the poor living conditions of some of its citizens.
Although Harper has now agreed to attend a “working meeting” with Spence and other First Nations chiefs Jan. 11, Spence has stated she'll continue with her hunger strike until the meeting takes place.
Nickel Belt MP Claude Gravelle said he'll be meeting with Spence Jan. 6. He said a number of MPs met with Spence last weekend, but he was unable to do so because of other commitments, so he requested a meeting this weekend.
Gravelle said he's not sure what exactly he'll say to Spence, but he plans to pay his respects and provide encouragement.
“I've met Chief Spence previously on a couple of different occasions,” he said. “She's a very soft-spoken and charming lady.”
Gravelle, though, said he wishes Spence didn't have reason to be on a hunger strike in the first place.
“I'd like the prime minister to have met with her prior (to this),” he said. “I know that she has met with the minister of Indian Affairs before, with very little or no results, so she wants to talk to the man in charge.”
Thibeault said he hasn't yet been able to meet with Spence, but hopes to do so when he returns to Ottawa. He said he hopes she'll have ended her hunger strike by that point, as the meeting with Harper will have already occurred.
The Idle No More movement isn't surprising, given the sweeping changes to environmental legislation contained in Bill C-45, Gravelle said.
“The First Nations people have always been concerned about the environment,” he said.
“With the omnibus bill that has gutted the environmental protection act, and the fisheries act, and a whole bunch of other acts that have absolutely nothing to do with the budget bill, I'm not surprised they're taking action.”