OTTAWA — An NDP MP’s private member’s bill proposing the government review federal laws to align with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) faced some resistance by Conservative senators Tuesday.
“I find it kind of troubling that there are still people in 2019 in this place called Canada that oppose the human rights of the First Peoples of this country,” NDP MP Romeo Saganash told the Senate’s standing committee on Aboriginal peoples.
“I trust that you will get to the finish line together on this bill.”
Watch: Romeo Saganash says UNDRIP bill will reduce Indigenous court cases
Saganash introduced Bill C-262 in the House of Commons in April 2016. It seeks to require that the government check its laws to ensure that they respect the “minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being” of Indigenous peoples.
Its inaugural discussion at the Senate committee stage was delayed by 20 minutes after Conservative Sen. Don Plett suggested the “spirit” of a deal he made with another senator wasn’t being honoured.
Plett said he struck an agreement with Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair that the bill could proceed to committee study only if Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Caroyln Bennett and Justice Minister David Lametti would be called as witnesses.
“That is in no way trying to block anything. It is in no way trying to stretch this out,” Plett said, defending his condition. His colleague, Conservative Sen. Dennis Patterson, flagged concerns about proceeding without reviewing a work plan — an official document outlining how many meetings the committee will devote to study on the bill.
Committee chair Sen. Lillian Dyck told Plett that while Bennett and Lametti were invited, “we cannot force the ministers to come.”
The committee will study the bill over four meetings ending on June 5, Dyck said.
Eight members of the committee voted to proceed with the day’s testimonies, while five Conservative members wanted to delay to first sort out the number of meetings needed for adequate review of the bill.
Bill C-262 needs to clear the Senate committee stage and pass third reading before getting royal assent. But with just more than three weeks to go before Parliament breaks for summer and the unofficial start of the election campaign, any amendments proposed by senators at this stage will likely ensure it won’t pass into law in time.
Sinclair sits on the committee, but changed seats for part of the meeting to be a witness to answer questions his colleagues had about the bill.
Watch: Murray Sinclair explains the significance of Indigenous rights
The former chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called concerns that the bill will force the adoption of the UN declaration into Canadian law baseless.
He said Bill C-262 is about requiring the federal government to “do a review of its legislation to see the extent to which it is inconsistent” with UNDRIP — and to bring incompatible laws in line with its principles.
A lot has been made that UNDRIP will become the law itself in Canada, Sinclair said. “And people need to stop suggesting that.” He said challenges and problems Indigenous people face today are because their human rights were denied by federal legislation from the onset.
“The reason why people can’t speak their language; the reason why people don’t know their culture; the reason why the medical conditions of Indigenous peoples are so bad; and incarceration rates are so high is because it’s an impact of this 150 years of mistreatment.”
Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould raised her own concerns about adopting UNDRIP’s principles during a speech to an Assembly of First Nations in 2016. She called it a “simplistic” and “unworkable” idea that would be “respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work required to actually implement it.”
The “hard work” refers to other time-sensitive legislative work needed to improve circumstances for Indigenous peoples such as the protection of languages and reforms to child welfare laws.
Initial government scrutiny over the bill eventually turned into full support. The Liberal government announced in November 2017 that it would back the bill, months after pledging to review laws and policies related to Indigenous peoples.
On Tuesday, Wilson-Raybould called Saganash’s bill “only one step in the legislative change that is needed” to advance reconciliation and urged its passage.
Saganash was part of the so-called “orange wave” of NDP MPs elected in the 2011 federal election. The Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou MP announced last year that he will not run for re-election in the upcoming fall vote.
He put politics aside and told senators on the committee that his bill is partly driven by a promise he made to himself after spending a decade in residential school. Saganash and his 13 siblings were split apart and sent to schools in Quebec and Ontario.
Saganash was seven when he was registered at a residential school in La Tuque, Que. He told the Senate committee that he set out to do two things after he got out: one was to return to the bush and live off the land. “Which I did for two years,” he said.
“But more importantly, perhaps, was the promise to reconcile with the people that have put me away for ten years. And Bill C-262 represents that reconciliation for me.”
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The Senate committee continues its study of the bill Wednesday.