First Nations advocates maintain pressure on Harper - Macleans.ca

First Nations advocates maintain pressure on Harper

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OTTAWA – First Nations advocates are hoping to keep up the pressure on the federal Conservatives, taking to the streets as MPs return to the House of Commons after a six-week break.

The Idle No More movement is holding protests across the country, joining other activists to oppose Stephen Harper’s changes to environmental oversight and urge action on native rights. In Ottawa, they plan to flood Parliament Hill with protesters, dancers and a long list of speakers.

At the same time, NDP critic Romeo Saganash is tabling a private member’s bill which would require that all federal legislation be compatible with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Saganash was a key architect of the declaration.

“The prime minister still hasn’t honoured his commitments from last year to restore a respectful dialogue with First Nations,” Saganash said in a news release. “By harmonizing federal laws with the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights, he would be taking an important step towards reconciliation.”

The Conservatives have endorsed the declaration but see it as a non-binding “aspirational” document that has no impact on Canadian legislation.

Behind the scenes, the Assembly of First Nations officials are talking to government officials about meetings between Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo that would deal with modernizing ancient treaties and speeding up land claims.

That process is “off to a good start,” said Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan.

He said the government envisions two separate processes: one for modernizing treaties and the other for speeding up land claims.

But he said there is no way the Harper government will back down from changes to environmental oversight contained in two budget omnibus bills that were passed last year.

The budget bills were designed to encourage natural resource extraction, but critics say they weakened environmental stewardship. It’s the one area that unites First Nations grassroots activists, chiefs and environmentalists alike.

“Among the greatest beneficiaries of those changes will be First Nations,” Van Loan said. “We are firmly committed to the changes that we have made. It’s part of ensuring Canada’s long-term economic prosperity.”

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