Mr. Speaker, I rise today to continue debate on a bill from the Senate, Bill S-3, an act to amend the Indian Act with the elimination of sex-based inequities in registration.
Prior to doing so, I would like to translate for those watching at home on CPAC what happened just prior to this debate, in which the House was engaged in a three-hour conversation about the problems facing immigrants to Canada, and the consultants that sometimes prey on them. It was debate on a report that came out of our committee in which there was unanimous support for the recommendations. At the end of that three-hour debate, we watched the Liberals express their opposition to a unanimously accepted report proposing a crackdown on bad immigration consultants, and then force a vote later next week to vote against it. Does anyone watching actually understand the Liberal motivation behind that particular manoeuvre? I am sure that many of my Liberal colleagues cannot explain it, but maybe somebody else out there can.
Returning to the bill, because this has been some time in coming, I want to first acknowledge the incredible and heroic work of my colleague from Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou. I do not use the word “heroic” often or lightly. However my colleague, for much of his life, being a first nations person by his very birthright but more so by his decision and inclination, has tirelessly fought for the rights of indigenous peoples in this country, in Quebec, at the United Nations, and around the world. He is one of the leading voices in this country speaking about the rights, the responsibilities of the government, the tragedy, the multitude of errors, and the racist legislation and policies that have emanated from this exact place, this room, for generations against the first peoples of this country.
My colleague has been determined. He has been incredibly articulate, and it is his opinion, along with those of the people who first brought this case, upon which I will rely this afternoon, in terms of my concerns for this bill, Bill S-3.
Not only my colleague from Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou is opposed to this legislation. So are the proponents, the lady warriors who litigated this case for four decades, who remain opposed to this legislation. Their letter to the Minister of Justice states that:
Our reading of the motion introduced by Senator Peter Harder in the Senate on November 8, 2017 is that we, and the many Indigenous women who are similarly situated, will not be accorded 6(1)(a) status when Bill S-3 passes.
I will get into what “accorded 6(1)(a) status” means, but suffice it to say that the intention of this bill to remedy a racist and sexist policy of the federal Government of Canada will not be carried out in full by the passage of this legislation. Nor has the consultation, which was promised by this government in arriving here today, been done. The minister herself admitted embarrassment and shame at the lack of consultation that she and her government promised and failed to do.
We can understand why it would be difficult for first nations peoples, having had many experiences of their hopes being raised and false promises being made, to return back to the same old saga again, where the federal government in Ottawa says it will get things right and talk to them to make sure they are right, and the next thing the government does is nothing. The government did not talk to the first nations, include them, or bring in their wisdom. Rather, at the eleventh hour in this case, the government brought forward a piece of legislation and admitted it did not consult anybody, admitted it was bad, but said we are out of time and we need to pass the bill now, and it will do the trick.
It is not going to fix the problem, in whole. That is according to the people who first litigated the case. I trust them more than anybody else.
Let us start with first principles, the Indian Act, a colonial, racist piece of legislation that was created at the founding of this country, which the Prime Minister himself admits is colonial, racist, and sexist in design. That is what we are amending here today.
We are amending a racist piece of legislation, a sexist piece of legislation, a colonial piece of legislation to make it slightly better, not entirely better, not even better for all of the women and their descendants who are affected by its sexism, but just for some of them and only going back to 1951. People who were affected prior to 1951 and their descendants are not touched by Bill S-3 at all. They will not be deemed into new status. They will not be deemed to be aboriginal, when they are.
Only a federal government that says it believes in nation-to-nation dialogue, only a federal government that says that self-determination is important but then when it comes down to the question of who one is, what identity one is, remains in control of that decision and says that Ottawa knows best, that it will decide who are and who are not first nations, which is a continuation here in this bill.
Let us walk back, because it is important how we arrived here. It was not some great government benevolence that said this terrible piece of legislation discriminates against first nations women, which it did and does. Let us find out how.
There are two classifications for status. Through the course of this discussion I am loath to use the word, but the word is applied in law, and this is the word we have to use, because we are talking about the Indian Act. Indian status is described in the “Indian” Act. This name and this word was applied by Europeans to the first peoples here because they thought they were in India, because they thought that when they left Europe and arrived on our shores, they were in India. They were looking for the secret passage to India to enable the spice trade and other things that Europeans at the time were interested in, 350 to 400 years ago.
In 2017, we still use the term in our legislation to describe the first nations people of this country as Indians. Imagine how offensive this is to first nations people listening to this debate, the first nations people who continue to live under the Indian Act in the prescription of basic government services that the rest of the country enjoys without the racist terminology being applied.
Imagine if non-first nations Canadians had legislation using racist terminology to describe them, like immigrants from my home country of Ireland and all the racist epithets that were used against my people for years. If that were written into law and I went to apply for medical or dental or education benefits, I would have to apply under a terminology of law that was inherently racist against my people. We continue with this public secret. We continue to walk with this and say that we have evolved and acts like this will make it better.
When we ask the government if it wants to do nation-to-nation relationships, if it wants to do reconciliation, that when it listens to the current chief of the Assembly of First Nations say time and time again that the Indian Act is a colonial, race-based piece of legislation that we must end, that we need an exit strategy, as he calls it, the government replies by saying “there go the first nations leaders and the NDP again saying to get rid of the legislation”. Of course we should get rid of the legislation.
Who else would survive under this legislation happily? What other ethnic group, particularly a group that was here first, since time immemorial, would happily live under legislation that was inherently racist in its design, in its application, and in its use? Would Polish Canadians happily suffer under that? Would Canadians from Caribbean communities happily suffer under racist legislation in name and application?
Under the Indian Act, section 6(1) determines that if both parents are of first nations status, the child will be first nations. Section 6(2) says that if one person has status and has a child by another person who is not first nations, that child will only continue to be first nations if the male parent was first nations, but if it was a first nations woman who had a child with a non-first nations man, that child is no longer first nations. That is what we are attempting to address today.
This was true up until the 1970s and 1980s. Children of first nation parentage were denied their status under the law because their mom had the audacity to choose who would be her partner. A woman in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s had to make a decision. If she fell in love with someone who happened to be non-native and had children with that person, her children could never be first nation. They could not be a member of their local first nation in voting. They could not be a member of their local first nation in celebration. They could not be a member of their local first nation in terms of government programs that were applied to them and their parents. This is sexism, if one's progeny are determined by whether one is a woman or a man. It is discriminatory.
However, it was not the government that decided to make a change, but the courts. In this case, the Quebec Superior Court said to the Government of Canada in 2015, all those many years ago, this is discriminatory. This is against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of Canada where we cannot discriminate against someone based on their sex. It took until 2015 for this to be resolved in court. However, it was not resolved. All the court can do is say that this part of the law is wrong, that it infringes on the rights of Canadians, and that it must be struck down and replaced with something, which happened in August 2015.
What did the then federal government do under former Prime Minister Harper? He appealed and said that he disagreed with the court's findings. He disagreed with the idea that we cannot make a determination about someone in this country based on their sex, disagreed that it is unconstitutional, and said he would appeal it. We were going to spend more taxpayer money, and hundreds of millions have been spent over the years fighting aboriginal rights and title in court, to fight for the principle, according to the former government, that the children of first nation people should be first nation or not depending on the sex of the parent.
The Quebec court said that we must change the law, Canada appealed under the former government, and then a new government came in and dropped the appeal. The courts do not care which party is running the Government of Canada, and it uses the term “crown”. These terms come back from our past. We are a colonial offshoot. The court said that the crown must remedy this and had 18 months to do so. It seems reasonable to me to have 18 months to consult with people, and if changes would be made to the Indian Act, they could be made in the most fulsome and proper way possible. It may be a good idea, in those 18 months, if the government of the day consulted with the women who first brought forward the case 40 years ago and who are still active.
However, 17 months later, with a month to go, the government pops up with Bill S-3. Amazingly, as the Liberals brought forward this legislation, they were challenged on it, because any fixes to this act are important, particularly to the people who might be affected. When the minister in charge of this was first commenting on it, this is what she said:
The Government is also exploring various opportunities and approaches for engagement with First Nations and other Indigenous groups on necessary legislative changes, and more information on this will be forthcoming
That sounds good: we are going to consult. However, a year later at committee she is asked how the consultations went. Here is what she said:
My department's failure to directly engage with the plaintiffs was not only unacceptable but embarrassing for me as minister.
There was a promise that they were going to consult to fix this, but a year later, the Liberals are embarrassed and call it unacceptable. To my mind, “unacceptable” means that one does not accept something. However, clearly it is acceptable, because here is the legislation.
Imagine the personal sacrifice of the plaintiffs, the women who fought for this over four decades. For 40 years, without money and political support, they fought for a principle, for the right not to be treated unfairly under a racist piece of legislation. The government did not bother to talk to the women who were involved, but those women have come forward and said, as I noted at the start of my speech with, that Bill S-3 did not remedy the problem they had first fought for in court.
What is going to happen with this legislation? I suspect that the Liberals will vote for it. It will get challenged and go back to court. It will start at the lower court, work its way up, probably to the Quebec Superior Court or the Supreme Court, with the government of the day spending more taxpayer dollars challenging its version of events, that this change should only go back to 1951, that that is good enough and we should accept it. We are going to repeat the errors of history.
I recall the apology to first nations in this place on behalf of the Government of Canada by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It is important to remember that with any of the apologies, even the one recently to the LGBTQ community, it is not the Prime Minister himself who is making the apology; it is the Government of Canada. It is the Parliament of Canada expressing regret and begging forgiveness in some cases for the mistakes made by previous governments, whatever their political stripe. It really does not matter who was in charge at the time.
The apology for the residential school travesty was warmly accepted by first nations people in the riding I represent in northwestern British Columbia. Despite years of oppression and oppressive legislation, there was an opening of the hearts of the people whom I represent, to say that in the face of all the harm done to them over the many years, they understood that the government now recognized that it was wrong, and they accepted our apology. I thought that was true until the government at the time that had made the apology cancelled the Aboriginal Healing Foundation two months later, which had been established to help the survivors of residential schools deal with the trauma of residential schools. What does an apology mean if one's next act is to continue the same thing one was apologizing for?
I was recently in a remarkable community in my riding, a place called Bella Coola. The Heiltsuk people have lived in Bella Coola forever. It is an incredible valley. It has glaciers and mountains and a massive river that is causing all sorts of concerns given climate change. The Heiltsuk had been living there and growing an incredible culture. On the way to the local school with the local chief councillor and another councillor, there was this beautiful plaque with a great first nation symbol on the front and beside it, many names. The names are of all the residential school survivors from that community, all of the children who were taken from their parents over decades. Their names are enshrined in the wall to remind the children who were not taken from their parents of what happened before.
The chief councillor went to the wall, pointed to his own name, and said he was taken when he was five. He pointed to the name right above his and said it was his mother's name, who was taken when she was six. He said he only found out that she had even been to a residential school when this plaque was unveiled. I asked what he meant, and he said she never talked about it and the community never talked about it. The shame was so incredibly great that only during the ceremony honouring the victims did he find out that his mom had been through the same horror he had been through. I asked when he had told his kids that, and he said it was when he was 53, when he was right enough to be able to talk to them. It is hard to understand of impact of it, as a father, of having my kids taken by another culture and government and then beaten, raped, and oppressed. The emotions are powerful.
When we look at opportunities like this to do away with the continued practice of racists and oppressive legislation, the bare minimum of decency requires that we talk to the people who have been oppressed. The bare minimum of intelligence is to use the wisdom and understanding of those most affected. Bill S-3 does not do that. The government chose not to do that. It admits embarrassment and shame now, but it is not good enough. If it is going to do something and wants to rebuild a relationship, then it should do it. It should do it with integrity and not keep issuing apologies and continuing to do things that it will have to apologize for again in the future. First nations deserve better. This country deserves better.