More than 2,000 aboriginal protesters took a “dire” call for change to the nation’s capital on Friday in a bid to pressure the government to meet and discuss treaty rights and “crises” plaguing First Nations communities.
The demonstrators, who were taking part in a growing grassroots First Nations movement called “Idle No More,” met at Ottawa’s Victoria Island on Friday before marching to Parliament Hill.
The march, which remained peaceful, shut down a major downtown Ottawa street. The RCMP was hand to close the road and direct traffic.
Idle No More organizers say the root of frustration for many aboriginal Canadians has been growing for years, but the government’s recent omnibus budget bill is major sticking point. Bill C-45 removes certain environmental protections including the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which means companies can build dams and bridges without consulting the feds.
The federal government has indicated it will not agree to a meeting with First Nations.
Spokespeople for Harper sent out the same statement to media that it produced before the Ottawa protest.
“Our government hosted an historic gathering of the Crown and First Nations this past January,” said spokesman Carl Valle on Thursday by e-mail. “The Prime Minister and (Aboriginal Affairs) Minister (John) Duncan met as recently as Nov. 28 with National Chief (Shawn) Atleo to review the progress to date.”
But Atleo said this isn’t just about one meeting, and that First Nations are constitutionally entitled to substantive consultation.
“We are calling on the government and the Crown to respond to a call to engage in meaningful dialogue and to work with First Nations to jointly implement our title and rights and our treaty rights,” Atleo said. “That means not just a meeting with myself.”
Atleo said the movement is “united.”
“We are not going to back down,” he said.
There have been a number of recent protests and blockades across Canada as part of this push for a meeting between First Nations and the Crown. Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence has also launched a personal protest in Ottawa and claims to have been on a hunger strike for 11 days.
Spence’s northern Ontario reserve was the centre of international news coverage last year, when members of her community were living in unheated tents and shacks.
The government agreed to send 22 modular homes to Attawapiskat, but Spence says there is still a state of emergency in effect.