An estimated 300 Idle No More demonstrators gathered under a heavy snowfall on Parliament Hill today as part of a planned global day of action that's expected to involve more than 30 cities in Canada.
The march on the Hill came on the day that MPs returned from their winter break to sit in the House of Commons.
The crowd of Ottawa activists — many chanting to a drum beat — assembled in a show of solidarity for indigenous people's land and rights, and a push for reform on federal government policy toward aboriginal people.
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Among the speakers on Monday afternoon on the steps of Parliament was Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, who said, “This is a moment in history when change arrives. You are the change that we’ve been waiting for.… We will not rest until we achieve it.”
Others who spoke included NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Roméo Saganash, an NDP MP for the Quebec riding of Abitibi and a prominent Cree figure in federal politics.
Mulcair addressed the crowd on the steps of Parliament Hill. “You cannot destroy thousands of lakes and rivers and pretend to be respecting First Nations territorial fishing and hunting rights,” he said, referring to the changes to laws affecting navigable waters and fisheries.
The Opposition leader said the NDP would work on a nation to nation basis with aboriginal peoples, respecting the Royal Proclamation of 1763. "That's a promise we will keep."
Saganash tabled a private member's bill that would require federal legislation to be compatible with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In the House of Commons, Mulcair challenged Prime Minister Stephen Harper over his pledge earlier this month to conduct "meaningful consultations" with First Nations.
"Gutting environmental protection for thousands of lakes and rivers on aboriginal territory is not meaningful consultation," Mulcair said, referring to recent legislative changes contained in the government's budget bills.
"Will the prime minister finally agree to consult, and to listen, on the environmental protection of First Nations lands and waters?"
Harper defended the government's record on treaty rights and argued the Conservatives have made "unprecedented investments" in housing, water and schools on reserves, as well as protection of the rights of women and the resolution of land claims.
"We will continue to work with those positive partners who seek to make progress," Harper said.
Government House leader Peter Van Loan said outside the House that the government has no intention of changing or scrapping its controversial legislation, which he said would create jobs for aboriginal people.
“Among the greatest beneficiaries will actually be the First Nations that stand to enjoy the economic prosperity that will flow from some of those changes, particularly in the resource development area,” Van Loan said.
In response, Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said, “It is clear that Mr. Van Loan doesn’t get it. We’re only going to get major resource development in this country if we have a better working relationship with the First Nations peoples.”
Omnibus bills sparked protests
The grassroots Idle No More movement grew as an expression of concern over the Conservative government's passage of the C-45 omnibus budget implementation bill, which will affect the Indian and Environmental Assessment Acts, among other things.
In Halifax, more than 200 people waved flags and chanted as they marched across the Macdonald Bridge today as part of the Idle No More movement. One lane of the three-lane bridge, which connects Halifax to the suburb of Dartmouth, was shut down to accommodate the activists.
Other protests were scheduled for Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square, and a round dance flash mob is also scheduled to take place in the Jackson Square Mall food court in Hamilton. Winnipeg will also have a similar round dance flash mob at the legislative grounds.
Idle No More activities in Saskatoon will include opening prayers, a round dance and guest speakers at Station 20 West. In Calgary, there will be an evening gathering at Olympic Plaza, and in Edmonton, an afternoon media conference held by Idle No More organizers at the Stanley Milner Library will be followed by a tea dance.