About 60 Whitehorse protesters joined thousands of others across the country on Monday to speak out against what they say are disrespectful unilateral changes to the Indian Act by the federal government.
The Yukoners gathered outside MP Ryan Leef’s office at noon on Monday as part of the Idle No More movement, which saw 20 other protests take place across the country and coincided with the International Day for Human Rights.
Idle No More sprang up in response to a slew of federal government bills, including the 400-page omnibus budget bill C-45. Together, six pieces of legislation propose changes to a range of issues affecting Canada’s First Nations; changes that First Nations people say they were never consulted on.
“There’s legislation that’s being paternalistically imposed on our people. Never in history have there been so many pieces of legislation entered into Parliament dealing with First Nations people, ever,” said protest organizer Cherish Clarke, co-chair of the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission, an arm of the federal Liberal party.
She said proposals in the litany of legislation are proof that the government is still pursuing an agenda of assimilation similar to the White Paper of 1969, which advocated the total repeal of the Indian Act.
“If you look at the White Paper … that’s exactly what the Conservative government wants to do,” said Clarke.
Of particular concern are changes in bill C-45 that drastically reduce protections for waterways under the Navigable Waters Act and Indian Act and a private members bill that seeks to amend and ultimately repeal the Indian Act.
“Let me be clear: the Indian Act is the embodiment of failed colonial and paternalistic policies. We all know it has to go, but it has to be done on our terms. (The federal government is) following through on their plans to fully assimilate First Nations people into the existing federal and territorial political orders of Canada,” said Clarke, adding that neither territorial nor federal governments respect First Nations as a third equally powerful level of government, despite that being laid out in the treaties.
Mike Smith, the Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief, was also at the rally. The biggest problem, he said, stems from a misguided perspective on Indian people.
“There are no Indians. There are Tlingit, Tagish Kwan, Kaska, Gwich’in, Han, North and South Tutchone. We are the people of this land and what we have to say to the governments of Canada and the Yukon is: this land is not for sale,” said Smith.
With Yukon First Nations fighting battles on a number of fronts including the Peel watershed and oil and gas development in the southeast, Smith said the issues go far beyond one bill or one government.
“The Harper government is out there looking for investment. If we show the world that Canada is not a safe place to put your money, Harper is going down the tube. For all of us, for our future and our government, let’s fight Harper and the Yukon government,” said Smith.
Clarke said when she was first approached about organizing a rally, she said she was too busy. But after nearly 200 First Nations chiefs marched on Parliament and were barred from entering the House of Commons in Ottawa last week, she couldn’t be silent anymore.
At the protest, Clarke circulated a petition asking Yukon MP Ryan Leef to vote against any pieces of the legislation which have yet to pass. So far, that includes Bill S-6; the First Nations Election Act, Bill S-8; the Safe Drinking Water Act and Bill S-2; the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act.
Leef has already voted in favour of the three most contentious bills. He said he has yet to see the petition himself, but said he wouldn’t be inclined to vote against the remaining bills.
He also drew a distinction between First Nations people being his constituents and members of a separate government.
“If a chief were to come to me with a tax or immigration issue … I would open a case file and they become my constituent who I would work for directly on their behalf. When it’s a government concern and they’re trying to move something forward on a political level, it becomes my responsibility to deal with them on a government-to-government basis,” said Leef.
“They should be delivering their message and not needing an MP as a spokesperson on their behalf,” Leef continued.
“I prefer to look at this as a partnership in government. We’re looking across the table, not down chains of hierarchy here.”
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