01/08/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 03/09/2013 05:12 EST

Two Alberta First Nations Take Federal Government To Court Over Omnibus Budget Bills


OTTAWA - Another day, another set of new aboriginal challenges for the Harper government.

Two First Nations from Alberta filed court documents Tuesday seeking a judicial review of controversial Conservative omnibus budget legislation that makes significant changes to environmental protection and assessment.

The Federal Court challenge from the Mikisew Cree and Frog Lake First Nations came amid a politically charged atmosphere in Ottawa, where a showdown is brewing between the government and the country's aggrieved Aboriginal Peoples.

The bands want the Federal Court to review parts of Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, focusing particularly on changes to the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

"They can't ram bills down our throats and expect us to roll over and accept it," Mikisew Chief Steve Courtoreille told a news conference.

"This is going to affect our future, affect the future of all of Canada."

First Nations frustration has manifested itself across Canada in the form of the Idle No More protest movement, which seeks to push back against the Conservatives for threatening their treaty rights as set out in the Constitution.

The protests, ranging from temporary rail blockades and border closures to shopping-mall flash mobs, have drawn inspiration from Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and her efforts to secure a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Spence — who has been on a liquid diet since Dec. 11 — is camped out on an island in the Ottawa River, where she has kept a low profile since a scathing audit was released earlier this week showing a lack of documentation for tens of millions of dollars in spending on her remote northern Ontario reserve.

Indeed, there were signs Tuesday that the Spence camp's patience was wearing thin.

A Toronto Star reporter tweeted that she was ordered off the Victoria Island site by a group of Spence supporters, while a Global News crew in Attawapiskat was reportedly escorted to the airport by band police after trying to interview residents.

Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, denounced the leaked audit as a show of "bad faith" and "malicious tactics" on the part of the federal government aimed at inciting divisions and undermining public support.

"This divisiveness ... is fuelling the racism and hatred that is contributing to the violence we see against our people every day in the social media and the streets of the cities and towns across this country," Nepinak said in a statement.

Harper agreed last week to meet Friday with aboriginal leaders. Spence had also been requesting a meeting with Gov. Gen. David Johnston, but Rideau Hall said Tuesday that Johnston would not be there.

Harper acknowledged the challenges facing many First Nations communities, but he said they also represent great opportunities.

"I know that in many aboriginal communities ... the challenges are very great, but the potential is very great as well," Harper said.

"We do have, for the first time in our history, economic development on a large scale occurring near where many aboriginal people live. We have a shortage of labour and lots of opportunity, and we want to make sure that those opportunities are available for aboriginal people and prosperity is available for them as we move forward."

The government will continue to push forward with "legislation and other means," he added.

That's precisely the problem, said Courtoreille: it's the federal government's job to protect aboriginal land, but its budget implementation bills suggest Ottawa has no intention of living up to that responsibility.

Instead, the government is off-loading environmental oversight to the provinces, which will not allow concerns from First Nations communities to be adequately addressed, he added.

Mike Winterburn, a spokesman for Transport Minister Denis Lebel, defended the government's approach.

"The government examines the constitutionality of all legislation before it is introduced," Winterburn said in an email. "Mayors and city councils across the country asked for these changes and have been overwhelmingly supportive."

The court challenge, indeed, appeared to be the lesser of the government's two First Nations headaches Tuesday.

In a long-awaited written decision, the Federal Court declared Metis and non-status Indians to indeed be "Indians" under a section of the Constitution Act, which places them under federal jurisdiction.

The decision places added pressure on Harper to rethink the way in which Ottawa deals with the more than 600,000 aboriginal people who are not affiliated with specific reserves and have no access to First Nations programs, services and rights.

The government is expected to appeal the ruling.

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