Commons welcomed back amid Idle No More protest

MPs are back in the House of Commons today as Idle No More protesters march to Parliament Hill for a world day of action amid growing anger within aboriginal communities over treaty rights issues.

New NDP private member's bill aims to force government to respect indigenous rights

Neecha Dupuis of the Ojibwa Nation of Saugeen Indian Tribe 258 takes part in a rally during an 'Idle No More' gathering on Parliament Hill Monday as MPs returned to work following their winter break. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

MPs returned to the House of Commons Monday as Idle No More protesters marched on Parliament Hill as part of a "world day of action."

The protesters are opposed to environmental law changes adopted after the House of Commons and Senate passed Bill C-45, the second omnibus budget implementation bill, but Government House Leader Peter Van Loan told reporters Monday morning that the government is "firmly committed" to its budget law, because its changes are "critical for long-term growth and prosperity."

"This is what Canadians have come to expect from our government, and we will continue that," Van Loan said.

The protesters met on Victoria Island, where Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and Manitoba elder Raymond Robinson spent six weeks limiting their food intake to fish broth, herbal tea and water, and then began their march the kilometre or so to Parliament Hill for an afternoon rally.

On the heels of the end of Spence and Robinson's headline-grabbing protest, New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash is introducing a private member's bill intended to keep the rights of aboriginal people on the government's agenda.

The focus of the bill is making sure federal laws going forward are consistent with the United Nations 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people.

Canada's support for UN declaration 'empty'

Saganash, a veteran Cree leader and lawyer from the northern James Bay region of Quebec, helped negotiate the UN declaration.

Speaking to reporters on Monday morning, he said that although the Harper government announced its support for the declaration "behind closed doors" in 2010, "this support has proven empty and once again failed to respect commitments to First Nations."

NDP MP Romeo Saganash is introducing a private member's bill that calls on the federal government to ensure that legislation is compatible with the principles contained in the 2007 United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

He called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take all necessary measures to ensure the compatibility of federal laws with the UN declaration, noting that the recent budget legislation did not respect the federal government's "constitutional obligation to consult and accomodate First Nations."

Saganash rejected the suggestion that his bill could make it difficult for the government to proceed with its agenda in areas like resource development, noting that there are aspects of the UN declaration that address the rights of other third parties and he argued that it includes the appropriate checks and balances.

The NDP MP said the UN declaration could be a "document of reconciliation for this country," suggesting that respecting its principles could mean "everybody can feel safe" in terms of resource development, because it would provide for a balance between economic development, environmental stewardship and social benefits.

"There's a reason why an overwhelming number of countries accepted the declaration," Saganash said.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who helped mediate last week's end of the hunger strikes, also met with reporters on Monday morning. He said that he thinks Saganash's bill is "on the right track."

Rae also suggested that if the Harper government is serious about aboriginal issues, it must be at the centre of the upcoming federal budget.

Economy still Conservatives' focus

Van Loan, however, says the government plans to continue focusing on Canada's economy over the next few months.

The first piece of legislation on the order paper will be a technical tax bill, to update legislation based on changes made more than 10 years ago, he said. The next bill to be dealt with is the Fair Rail Freight Service Act, dealing with railway contracts.

In a morning news conference with reporters, he also highlighted the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act and the Enhancing Royal Canadian Mounted Police Accountability Act as priority bills in the government's eyes.

Van Loan also previewed new legislation to be introduced shortly that he said would enhance public safety by bringing in new measures for dealing with high-risk offenders who are found not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder.

When asked about C-30, the government's languishing online surveillance bill, Van Loan said "don't foresee that being debated in the next couple of weeks," adding that the government needs to "strike the right balance to deal with changing technology and privacy" issues.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan says that despite the attention paid to aboriginal issues in the last few weeks, the government's agenda as the House of Commons returns is focused on economic and public safety measures. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As for complaints by Idle No More that the last budget implementation bill infringes on indigenous sovereignty, Van Loan says it's got Royal Assent and become law, and it won't be revisited. First Nations are working on court challenges in an attempt to block it by other means.

The house leader also noted that the government's First Nations Financial Transparency Act is currently before the Senate and should be passed soon. The Northern Jobs and Growth Act, which is intended to boost resource development in the North, is also a priority for the government during this sitting, he said. 

Van Loan said that one of the major beneficiaries from the government's resource development agenda could be First Nations who could see new economic opportunities for their people.

The meeting between aboriginal leaders, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was constructive, Van Loan told CBC News earlier.

"I think that process that [Harper] got underway will continue, particularly the key commitments for a high-level process on the treaty relationship and a high-level process on comprehensive claims resolution," Van Loan said.

"That does not necessarily require legislation. The dialogue will continue, and occasionally we need legislation to move ahead particular settlements."

New Democrats seek civility

New Democrat House Leader Nathan Cullen says the Official Opposition wants to take another crack at instilling more decorum and civility in the House of Commons. Cullen says he's been consulting with some former parliamentarians from both the government and opposition sides of the aisle and in other legislatures.

"We've gone pretty broad on this to find out what works," Cullen said. "We don't think there's a need to reinvent the wheel, but we want to be more bold. I don't think this is a subtle shift that we need, I think that we need things that are more impactful on the working lives of MPs so that they know that we're working on this."

Idle No More protesters, seen here in December, are marching on Parliament Hill again today for a world day of action. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The New Democrats also have plans, he says, "around resolving some of the longstanding First Nations issues and bringing this government around to creating a path forward for Canadians.

"There's been a lot of protest, and now is the time for solutions," Cullen said.

The government is now more than four months late on its commitment to strengthen the powers of Elections Canada, following a unanimous vote in the House last March.

Cullen says he thinks the delay is due to more Conservative MPs facing alleged election scandals.

"It seems they have hit the pause button," Cullen said. "The government makes these commitments to [do things], shortly and soon, and I don't know how they define those terms.

"I don't know if their plan is to rag the puck until the next election so they can cheat and steal another few seats again, but I think Canadians will be watching."

Budget approach flawed, Rae said

Rae told reporters he's sent a letter to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to object to his direction that any budget proposals put forward by the opposition must not cost anything.

"We cannot accept the limitations imposed by this government," Rae said, saying Liberals continue to find the government's approach to employment insurance reform and municipal infrastructure lacking.

In addition to criticizing the government's approach to resource development — "it's clear Mr. Van Loan doesn't get it," he said — Rae also said he's concerned the government hasn't acted to prepare for the end of Kevin Page's term as the parliamentary budget officer.

"The attacks on Page have been unwarranted and disgraceful," Rae said. "Accountability in government continues to be a concern."

Rae, who will continue to serve as interim party leader until a new Liberal leader is chosen in April, faces a challenge in the coming weeks with several strong caucus members tied up with their own campaigning. 

"I'm still here," he joked with reporters. "I haven't disappeared yet. My job is to keep the party in the game."

with files from CBC News