It’s Monday. Inside Parliament, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs (SCAA) is examining Bill C-7, the First Nations Governance Act. Outside on “the hill,” 1,500 Native demonstrators and supporters are gathered to support First Nations’ rights and to oppose the proposed changes to the Indian Act. The symbolism is priceless.

The proposed legislation under dispute would have 600 Native communities across Canada draft election and hiring codes, expand fiscal reporting and assume bylaw-making powers. It would require Native bands to develop codes to spell out how they choose their leaders, run their governments and spend their money. Bands would be allowed to develop their own laws in these three areas so long as they meet certain minimum standards set out by the federal government. If, after two years, bands fail to develop their own codes, the federal government could impose default rules.

It’s a plan that the federal government’s been backing in one form or another for decades, and that Native leaders have been fighting. Russell Diabo of the Assembly of First Nations’ Implementation Committee (set up to organize the opposition of any legislation that threatens treaties and inherent rights) said the protesters’ “message is that there should not be federal legislation without consent. The government is trying to manipulate — [make it seem] that there is consent. But, we’re trying to make it clear that this is not the case.”

Diabo said that of the 201 people who went before the SCAA, “a hundred-and-ninety-one witnesses opposed C-7 and ten were in support, the Minister being one of them.”

The recently tabled Bill C-6 (the Specific Claims Resolution Act), Bill C-7 (the First Nations Governance Act) and Bill C- 19 (First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act) covers land claims, fiscal management and taxation schemes for Aboriginal people. The latter establish four institutions to regulate the financial management systems ofAboriginal communities and to collect statistical information.

Together, this legislation proposes some of the most comprehensive changes to the Indian Act since 1969, when Jean Chrétien, then Minister of Indian Affairs, introduced the White Paper.

Monday’s protest was the latest in a series that has drawn thousands of marchers from across Canada who came out to attend events and ceremonies held across the country as protesters caravanned from the coasts of Canada to meet up in Ottawa. What was expected to be a low-key event with a few hundred people took offin the last week, said Joanna Anaquod, an Ottawa-based rally organizer. And that may have been in part due to the Minister of Indian Affairs himself.

Minister Nault’s reaction to the planned protest, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen, was, “I know that peoplebelieve protests work. We see so many of those these days, as politicians. I think we’re almost becoming immune to them.”

The comment outraged Native leaders. Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said, “Once again Minister Nault is demonstrating his ignorant, arrogant and insensitive attitude towards First Nations’ legal rights. The Government of Canada and Ministers of the Crown must understand that they have a legal duty and obligation to respect our rights.”

Chief Phillip led the segment of the caravan departing from Vancouver on April 22. An eastern caravan left on April 26 from Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. The Southern Ontario caravan, led by Chief Roberta Jamieson, set outfrom Six Nations on April 27.

By Sunday night, the caravan of thirty cars reached Victoria Island on theOttawa River where an all-night vigil was held.

Chief Phillip told me in an interview, “It’s been an incredibly exciting experience and the way we were received indicates to us the grassroots people value what we’re doing and they understand the need for our communities to mobilize…thiscaravan symbolizes the re-awakening of the spirit of our People.”

He wants to remind Canadians that “once again we’re forced to take our message toParliament Hill because the government of Canada is violating our inherentAboriginal treaty rights and attempting to ‘municipalize’ our communitieswhich we find totally unacceptable.”

His message to First Nations citizens is this: “We all need to understand that thefuture of our children and our grandchildren is in jeopardy and we need togive physical expression to our opposition to this legislation that seeks toterminate and extinguish our rights… It’s time for our people to rise upand take political action such as rallies and caravans to show we arevehemently opposed to what the government of Canada is attempting to do to our people.”

Mr. Nault has often said that resistance comes mainly from Chiefs eager toretain power. But the size of Monday’s demonstration explodes that myth,said Matthew Coon Come, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

“Are we going to turn around and go home?” he asked the crowd, referring toMr. Nault’s comments about politicians’ alleged immunity to protests.

“No!” came the resounding response.