Conservative budget levies frontal assault on environment, First Nations

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Photo: Ben Powless

Only a week after record-breaking temperatures in the National Capital Region, a chill blew through Ottawa streets as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty prepared to deliver the federal budget. After five years of a minority Conservative government, all signs pointed to a strict austerity budget on March 29.

Social justice activists and concerned citizens have been organizing around the anticipated announcement of pension reform, job losses and social spending cuts. During the speech, about 17 concerned Canadians stood up in the House of Commons gallery and chanted, "This is not our budget! Where are we in your budget?" The group was detained by Hill security but later released without charges.

"We chanted for a solid 60 seconds before they moved to kick us out," said Taylor Eby, one of the participants in the demonstration. "The reason I took part in this action is because, like many Canadians, I'm frustrated with this government's lack of accountability and their unwillingness to listen to the majority who did not elect them."

Canadians opposed to the Harper government's austerity measures are rallying around the slogan Not Our Budget, and issued a press release coinciding with the action on Parliament Hill. The group expressed concern with the "gutting of environmental legislation" and cutting "services for First Nations education and health."

Shortly after taking power in 2006, the government scrapped the highly anticipated Kelowna Accord which would have invested $5 billion into Aboriginal education, health care, housing and clean water. In the 2012 budget, the government sought to appease its critics by offering $45 million towards education and job training this year, totalling $275 million over three years, as well as $330.8 million over two years to upgrade water systems on reserves.

Native protests surrounding the education crisis on reserves have been on the rise, as detailed in Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada's (AANDC) "hot spot" surveillance system, a collaborative effort with Canada's security agencies aimed at identifying and mitigating Aboriginal protest. The protests shed light on the stark inequality in the federal/provincial education funding structure which sees less than half the amount of dollars delivered to Native students on reserve. In the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative's (CCPA) Alternative Federal Budget, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) demands a more equitable funding structure, which would include $800 million per year to "slowly bridge the $3 billion gap built up since 1996" and funding for 40 new schools immediately needed on reserves.

The federal budget emphasizes that extractive, resource-based projects are hugely beneficial to the Canadian economy and the prosperity of First Nations communities. According to the budget document, "[i]ncreased resource development activities can also offer new opportunities for Aboriginal businesses and can generate well-paying jobs for Aboriginal peoples near their communities." It uses positive language that sugarcoats oil and gas, offshore drilling and uranium mining as the perfect solutions for a prosperous future and focuses on short-term economic gains while considering proper environmental assessments as unnecessary obstacles that only delay progress.

The budget also states that important steps will be taken to ensure that the affected communities are properly consulted while simultaneously proposing to accelerate already faulty environmental assessment procedures to streamline industrial projects such as pipeline expansion, projects that many Indigenous communities from Manitoba to British Columbia have been actively resisting for years. Last week in Vancouver, hundreds rallied around a protest led by the central coast Heiltsuk Nation to oppose Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline and oil tankers on the coast. The rally coincided with the 23rd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.

"We will streamline the review process for such projects, according to the following principle: one project, one review, completed in a clearly defined time period. We will ensure that Canada has the infrastructure we need to move our exports to new markets," Flaherty announced in the budget speech. This underestimates the destructive implications such projects can have on the environment and communities.

This announcement is not surprising, especially given the government's actions defending the tar sands at home and internationally. Whether by stating support for the industry in the UN climate negotiations, or by lobbying the U.S. and European Union to keep the tar sands from being listed as unconventional and a more polluting source of energy, this government has clearly shown where its priorities lie.

"In a budget that seems to have been written for, and even by, big oil interests, the Harper government is gutting the environmental protections that Canadians have depended on for decades to safeguard our families and nature from pollution, toxic contamination and other environmental problems," said Steven Guilbeault of Équiterre, in a statement.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Harper has been meeting with nations such as China and Japan in trade negotiations to diversify the markets for the sale of Canada's natural resources, especially after the Keystone XL pipeline project, planned to transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to Texas, was rejected. This ensures that bigger markets with fewer environmental standards are open to export products from destructive mining industries that, conveniently, no longer have to go through proper consultation and assessment.

In recent years, growing opposition from Indigenous communities against tar sands and pipeline expansion has the government searching for alternative methods to facilitate industrial expansion in the energy sector. The 2012 budget makes explicit that the Conservatives will either duck or cut any "red tape" that stands in the way of ambitions in the oil and gas industry.

The budget represents a further emboldening of the Harper government and the oil industry to try and sidestep the environmental review process. "The battle lines have been drawn and Aboriginal communities will not be deterred by this announcement," said Clayton Thomas-Muller, with the Indigenous Environmental Network. "There hasn't been a major environmental victory in this country without First Nations at the helm asserting Aboriginal title and treaty rights and we will continue in the face of Harper's attempt to gut democracy."

Andy Crosby is an indy media activist, writer, and musician in the Ottawa/Gatineau region.

Crystel Hajjar is an Ottawa-based organizer and activist in the climate justice movement. She is a writer with the Leveller newspaper and working to expand the presence of alternative media in Ottawa.

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