Protesters with the Idle No More movement block traffic on Highway 63 in early January 2013. Vincent McDermott/Today Staff
A federal court has ruled that Ottawa should have consulted First Nations before introducing the two omnibus bills that served as the catalyst for the 2012 Idle No More protests, after a Fort Chipewyan band challenged the bills in court.
The omnibus bills, C-38 and C-45, included alterations of several environmental acts. They also reduced federal protection of hundreds of streams, rivers and tributaries across the country, including ones the Mikisew Cree First Nation argued were culturally significant.
Within Wood Buffalo, only Lake Athabasca, and the Athabasca and Peace rivers, remained protected once the bill was passed.
Chief Steve Courtoreille of the MCFN said Friday’s ruling was a victory for Canadians, not just his band.
“It is not responsible to ram these bills through Parliament without consulting us and thinking that is alright,” he said. “It is pretty sad for all of us that we had to remind a government that we are having trouble trusting of that.”
In a 64-page ruling, Justice Roger Hughes ruled the MCFN should have been consulted prior to the passing of the two bills, but stopped short of granting an injunction.
“No notice was given and no opportunity to make submissions was provided,” Hughes wrote in his ruling. “The Crown ought to have given the Mikisew notice when each of the Bills were introduced into Parliament.”
Courtoreille said he did not expect an injunction, but is hoping Ottawa will amend the acts to their previous wording.
“To me, the omnibus bills are invalid because the court has said so and our treaty says so. The duty to consult is clear,” he said.
Prior to the bill’s passing in the House of Commons, the federal government said it would be transferring responsibility to local governments, arguing the move would remove red tape for industrial development and streamline regulation.
Environmentalists and opposition parties accused the Harper government of absolving itself of their environmental responsibilities.
The omnibus bills were condemned by every First Nation and Metis group in Wood Buffalo.
While the objectives behind the nation-wide Idle No More protests differed for many aboriginal communities, the majority of Alberta’s indigenous community opposed the omnibus bills.
On two occasions, protesters blocked Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray. One roadblock had traffic in both directions backed up for nearly two kilometres. Traffic was allowed to flow in short bursts.
Courtoreille said the ruling should serve as a warning to governments, and that First Nations will defend themselves in court if they feel their treaty rights have been violated. His band has successfully done so in the past.
In 2005, MCFN successfully argued in front of the Supreme Court of Canada that Ottawa had failed to adequately consult with them over plans to add traditional territory to Wood Buffalo National Park.
The band is currently lobbying UNESCO to list the park as an endangered ecosystem due to encroaching industrial development.
The pace of industrial expansion should also slow down, he argued, blaming a rush to hastily extract resources as the reason behind the omnibus bills.
“We don’t want to ignore government or have them be afraid of us. And nobody wants to keep dragging the government to court,” he said. “The First Nations have valuable contributions and knowledge on these important issues.”
Representatives from aboriginal affairs and Environment Canada could not be reached on Friday or Saturday for comment. Ottawa has 30 days to appeal the ruling.