Mr. Speaker, I want to take a moment to express my support for Bill C-3, which we call the gender equity in Indian registration act. The legislation now before us represents an effective response to a ruling of the Court of Appeal for British Columbia. The court ruled that certain registration sections of the Indian Act are discriminatory under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Rather than declare these provisions of the Indian Act to be immediately null and void, the court temporarily suspended the effect of its decision to allow Parliament to amend them. Should Parliament fail to amend these sections of the Indian Act before the suspension expires, which is now set to happen in January 2011, the court's ruling would take full effect. This would mean individuals residing in British Columbia or affiliated with B.C. bands could not be registered. As parliamentarians, we can play a central role in preventing this from occurring.
As I said, rather than declare these provisions of the Indian Act to be immediately null and void, the court temporarily suspended the effect of its decision to allow for Parliament to amend them. Should Parliament fail to amend these sections of the Indian Act before the suspension expires, which is now set to happen in January 2011, the court's ruling would take full effect. This would mean that individuals residing in British Columbia or affiliated with B.C. bands could not be registered. As parliamentarians, we can play a central role in preventing this from occurring.
To fully appreciate the advantages of Bill C-3, one must have at least a basic grasp of previous revisions of the Indian Act. I would like to take just a few minutes to remind my hon. colleagues of this historical context.
As my hon. colleagues recognize, the Indian Act provides the main framework for the relationship between registered Indians and Canada. Now more than 130 years old, the Indian Act has been amended many times. The heart of the ruling by the Court of Appeal for British Columbia touches on a series of amendments dating from the mid-1980s. The inspiration for these amendments was the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, along with a commitment by the Government of Canada to eliminate discriminatory aspects of federal legislation.
To accomplish this goal, the government of the day launched a comprehensive effort to amend the Indian Act. The discriminatory nature of the Indian Act was never in doubt. At the time, the legislation stipulated that a woman with Indian status would automatically lose her status if she married a man without status. A man with status, however, would retain status regardless of whom he married.
After considerable research, analysis, engagement, discussion and debate, Parliament endorsed a series of amendments in 1985, popularly known as Bill C-31. In its ruling, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia focused on the 1985 amendments and their effects on issues of status, entitlement and registration.
At issue are subsections 6(1) and 6(2) of the Indian Act. Subsection 6(1) includes a provision whereby Indian women who lost their status through marriage before 1985 can regain it, while the children of these women became entitled to first-time registration under subsection 6(2).
The new subsections significantly improved the Indian Act, and Bill C-31 soon became law.
At issue are subsections 6(1) and 6(2) of the Indian Act. The former includes a provision for Indian women who lost status through marriage before 1985 to regain it, while the children of these women became entitled to first-time registration in accordance with subsection 6(2).
The new subsections significantly improved the Indian Act and Bill C-31 soon became law. Although the amended Indian Act eliminated gender discrimination for the future, it did not solve the lingering effects of certain past gender discrimination. The descendants of an Indian brother and sister who had each married non-Indian spouses were still treated differently. Even though an Indian woman who had married a non-Indian could regain her status after 1985, her children would be eligible for registration under subsection 6(2), not under subsection 6(1), while their cousins, the children of an Indian man who had married an non-Indian woman before 1985, would be eligible for registration under subsection 6(1).
This also affects subsequent generations, because someone with subsection 6(2) status must parent with another person with Indian status in order to have a child who will be eligible for registration.
If a child has a parent with subsection 6(2) status and the other parent does not have status, the child will not be eligible for registration. So the grandchildren of women who regain status through subsection 6(1) would not be eligible for registration unless both their parents were registered Indians.
In contrast to this, the grandchildren of the Indian man and his non-Indian wife would be eligible for Indian registration even if they did not have two status Indian parents.
The Court of Appeal for British Columbia acknowledged that the 1985 legislation was a bona fide attempt to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex. At the same time it concluded that there was unequal treatment that needed to be rectified by Parliament through amendments to the Indian Act.
Rather than immediately striking down the offending sections of the Indian Act, the court called on the Government of Canada to implement a solution within a specified period, which has been extended to January 2011.
As soon as the Court rendered a decision in the McIvor case, the Government of Canada took action to identify and implement an effective solution, which became Bill C-3. The legislation now before us is the product of comprehensive study and engagement with first nations and other aboriginal groups.
Led by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the process began with the publication of a discussion paper outlining the issue and describing potential amendments to the Indian Act. The next step of the process involved a series of 12 engagement sessions staged across Canada. Three national aboriginal organizations, being the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Native Women's Association of Canada and the National Association of Friendship Centres, also co-sponsored one session each. A total of approximately 900 people participated in the sessions and INAC officials received more than 150 written submissions.
Based on the views expressed, federal legislation was drafted and introduced as Bill C-3 in March of this year. The House referred Bill C-3 to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development for further study. The committee amended the bill, including a very broad amendment that significantly altered the bill and a corresponding amendment to the short title. Both of these amendments were subsequently struck from the bill as a result of a ruling that they were outside the scope of the bill.
The committee also removed one of the clauses of the bill and added a provision requiring the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to review and report on the impacts of Bill C-3 within two years following passage of the bill.
I was pleased to see that clause 9 was restored at report stage. Clause 9 is an important provision that protects not only the Crown, but also first nations from claims for compensation based on previous decisions regarding registration that were made in good faith.
Another government amendment at report stage made technical changes to clarify language in the provision requiring a report to Parliament.
With these changes, Bill C-3 fully deserves the support of the House.
We must do our utmost to ensure that the laws of Canada are charter compliant. This was reinforced by the Court of Appeal for British Columbia when granting an extension to provide more time for this important legislation to be passed by Parliament. The court stated:
We would also observe that while efforts of Members of Parliament to improve provisions of the Indian Act not touched by our decision are laudable, those efforts should not be allowed to unduly delay the passage of legislation that deals with the specific issues that this Court has identified as violating the Charter.
As individuals elected to represent Canadians and to uphold the law, it is our duty to act in the interest of justice. Concerns for equality and justice lie at the core of Bill C-3. In a tangible sense, a vote for the proposed legislation is also an expression of support for the notion that all Canadians are equal before the law.
The McIvor decision, along with the engagement sessions held last year, has touched off a healthy debate in this country about the Indian Act and a host of topics related to Indian identity. While this debate illustrates that our democracy is alive and well, this is a broader discussion about registration, membership and citizenship. That is why an exploratory process will be launched to explore outstanding issues not addressed in Bill C-3 once the bill is passed.
The legislation now before us aims to address a specific problem identified by the Court of Appeal for British Columbia. Rather than discuss how well Bill C-3 would resolve this problem, however, many commentators have chosen to propose ways to overhaul the Indian registration regime or to replace the Indian Act in its entirety. The free exchange of ideas is always welcome, of course, but I encourage members of the House to focus on the specific merits of Bill C-3 as they respond directly to the court's decision.
The Government of Canada recognizes that opportunities exist to develop solutions to ongoing problems related to status, registration and citizenship. However, progress on these complex issues cannot be achieved in isolation or overnight without first passing Bill C-3.
As my hon. colleague no doubt recall, when Bill C-3 was introduced in this House, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development announced that an exploratory process would be launched to explore broader issues related to the Indian Act.
The process will feature close collaboration with national aboriginal organizations and various first nations groups. In fact, the government has already invited proposals from the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women's Association of Canada, the National Association of Friendship Centres, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Métis National Council on the exploratory process.
Given the number of groups involved and the complex nature of topics, such as band membership, Indian registration and concepts of citizenship, a thorough discussion and analysis of these issues will take time. Given the importance of these topics, the process must not be rushed.
In the meantime, the court's January deadline draws steadily closer. The exploration of the broader issues of registration, membership and citizenship is important, however, this must not come at the expense of passing legislation that will eliminate the specific cause of gender discrimination as identified by the court of appeal for British Columbia.
Bill C-3 focuses solely on this purpose. From the outset, the goal has been to respond effectively to the court's ruling prior to the deadline. While this objective remains of primary importance, the proposed legislation would also have a number of other positive impacts.
As the members of this House are aware, discrimination is one of the barriers that prevents many first nations peoples from participating fully in Canada's prosperity. And Canada will never achieve its full potential until all Canadians, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, can contribute to this country's social, cultural and economic fabric. The only way to eliminate the barrier of discrimination is to systematically address underlying causes, for example, by amending the sections of the Indian Act specifically identified by the Court of Appeal for British Columbia.
As the members of the House recognize, discrimination is one of the barriers that prevents many first nations peoples from participating fully in Canada's prosperity. Canada will never realize its full potential until all Canadians, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, can contribute to the social, cultural and economic fabric of our country. The only way to eliminate the barrier of discrimination is to systematically address underlying causes, such as by amending the sections of the Indian Act specifically identified by the Court of Appeal for British Columbia.
Support for Bill C-3 would also strengthen the relationship between Canada and first nations peoples. In recent years the Government of Canada has worked alongside national aboriginal organizations and first nations groups to address a long list of issues, such as drinking water, education and child and family services, among others.
This collaborative, open and honest approach has fostered mutual respect and trust. It has also fostered significant progress on each one of these issues.
Bill C-3 offers an opportunity to further this momentum. Support for Bill C-3 sends a simple, explicit message: Canada will not tolerate unjust discrimination against first nations peoples.
More than 20 years ago our country enacted a landmark piece of legislation that speaks volumes about Canadian values. The Canadian of Rights and Freedoms has since become a cornerstone of our democracy, a practical instrument that protects even the most vulnerable of our citizens.
As the court has reminded us, Bill C-3 deals with the specific issues that violate the Charter, according to the court. That is why I encourage all of my hon. colleagues to join me in supporting Bill C-3.
As the court has reminded us, Bill C-3 deals with the specific issues that it has identified as violating the charter. On that basis, I encourage all of my hon. colleagues to join me in supporting Bill C-3.