Prime Minister Stephen Harper defends the supports offered by his government to Canada's first nations, and his House Leader says there will be no changes to omnibus budget legislation that is prompting native people to take to the streets in protest.
Demonstrators affiliated with the grassroots movement Idle No More rallied on the snowy plaza outside Parliament's Centre Block on Monday, the first day politicians returned to Ottawa following a Christmas break in which the outcry of first nations dominated the news.
Inside the Commons, members of the opposition demanded to know what changes Mr. Harper would make to include indigenous people in discussions about the laws that affect their communities.
"Protection of aboriginal treaty rights and also consultations in these various processes are in fact enshrined in the very laws that this government has passed through the Parliament of Canada," Mr. Harper replied when asked by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair if the government will talk to the first nations about the protection of their lands and waters.
"We have made, on top of that, unprecedented investments in things that will make a concrete difference in the lives of people – in skills training, in housing on reserves, in potable water, in schools, in treaty rights, in the protection of the rights of women and, of course, also as well in the resolution of many land claims."
When asked to name legislation passed by the government that obligates consultations with the first nations on environmental issues, a spokesman for Mr. Harper pointed to the $13.6-million over two years that was committed in last year's budget "to support consultations with aboriginal peoples related to projects assessed under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act."
But one of the two omnibus budget bills that are key targets of the first-nations protests repealed that act and replaced it with a new law that significantly reduces the number of environmental assessments conducted by the federal government.
When asked Monday if the government would give any thought to modifying those bills, both of which have been passed into law, government House Leader Peter Van Loan replied: "No, those are very important economic legislative initiatives."
The government is instead trying to convince the first nations that resource development will be positive for their communities, both because of the employment it creates and the possibilities for native-run companies.
"As I have said many times before, aboriginal people, based on the areas they live in the country, will have unprecedented opportunity in the generation to come," Mr. Harper said.
But the speakers who addressed the protest on Parliament Hill talked instead about the environmental problems that could follow resource extraction – and about the need for a more respectful relationship with the government.
"Over 50 per cent, the majority, now say indigenous issues are a top priority, are urgent, in this country right now," Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told the crowd of a few hundred people after taking part in a round dance in the snow with other demonstrators. Mr. Atleo attributed that sense of urgency to the demonstrations organized by Idle No More. "You are the change that we've been waiting for," he said.
The movement began in early December as a reaction to omnibus legislation and other bills that will affect the first nations. It has featured demonstrations across Canada and in other countries – especially the United States.
Jess Gordon is one of three of the movement's founders who attended the Ottawa rally. When asked what will propel the movement forward, Ms. Gordon said: "Instilling pride in our people, showing the importance of protecting the environment – the lands and the water."