Thank you, Madam Chair. Good afternoon to you, to your vice-chairs, and to all honourable members at this table.
A special welcome goes to Ms. Yvonne Jones, with whom I'm very familiar as my member of Parliament, and who is also a distant relative. We know each other, being indigenous in this country. We know who each other's families are, their histories, their loves, their wants, their needs. It's a peculiarity about indigenous peoples that is sometimes missed that our nations are very close. It's an important fact when we talk about the issues that are important to us.
My name is Todd Russell, and I am a proud lnuk. I am here today on behalf of the NunatuKavut Community Council and I represent the southern Inuit.
Let's begin by acknowledging that we are on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin people. I hear this a lot. For some these may be mere words, but it is a profound fact, and that fact comes with meaning. Some of that meaning is embedded in Bill C-262.
It is important to understand not only this fact but who it is you're speaking with. When I speak, I speak on behalf of the southern Inuit, and I look at Bill C-262 through our lens. NunatuKavut means "Our ancient land." It is the territory of the southern Inuit who reside primarily in southern and central Labrador. Our people have lived in their traditional territories since long before Europeans set foot on our soil. As it was in times of old, and despite centuries of colonialization, we remain deeply connected to the land, sea, and ice that make up NunatuKavut, our home.
While we have never surrendered our rights or title to our land, the Government of Canada has never fully respected our rights and has not lived up to its constitutional obligations to recognize and protect who we are and the lands we occupy. Our concerns have often been ignored when it comes to resource development in our territory, and after decades of work we are still waiting for Canada to finally accept our claim for negotiation.
Bill C-262 provides us an opportunity to move past this colonial relationship and to enshrine our rights to our lands and to have them recognized and protected.
Let's look at the intent of Bill C-262.
I want to thank Mr. Romeo Saganash, MP for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, for introducing this bill. Its intent is to ensure that all federal laws are consistent with principles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as described in clause 4 of the bill.
What does this actually mean? In December 2017, Mr. Saganash provided some clarity around the intention of the bill when he recommended that it be referred to this committee. He said:
Bill C-262 would also allow us to begin to redress the past wrongs, the past injustices that were inflicted on indigenous people. This is the main objective of Bill C-262, to recognize that on one hand they are human rights but on the other hand that we begin to redress the past injustices that were inflicted on the first peoples of this country.
One of the things that we can do in the name of reconciliation is to adopt this framework that I am proposing through Bill C-262. I do not need to remind members that the world is watching.
While we are supportive of the bill and the intentions behind it, there is still much uncertainty as to what this legislation will actually do and how implementing it will affect the Inuit I represent. We also have concerns about whether the bill goes far enough for the recognition, protection, and implementation of the rights of indigenous peoples. We are, however, encouraged by the Government of Canada's support for the bill.
We note the following words from Ms. Yvonne Jones, parliamentary secretary to the minister of INAC, in support of the bill during second reading. Ms. Jones said:
Bill C-262 proposes a process of dialogue and the development of an action plan aimed at ensuring consistency between federal law and the declaration. Such an approach would be consistent with other ongoing processes, including the review of laws, policies, operational practices, and the permanent bilateral mechanisms that are in place.
Clearly the government's intention is to facilitate that dialogue, that process, and an action plan aimed at ensuring that Canadian laws are consistent with the United Nations declaration, and indeed that Canadian laws are aligned with Canada's commitments under the declaration.
In this regard there is much to be done, and it cannot be done in isolation. Comprehensive legislation and policy changes affecting indigenous peoples must be done in partnership with indigenous nations across Canada. The Inuit of NunatuKavut must be part of that process in a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.
This bill must also be viewed through the lens of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action, which speak directly to this declaration. In fact, this bill is a direct response to call to action number 43. The federal government has clearly indicated its commitment to implementing these calls to action, and implementation of the declaration is a critical part of this work.
The TRC specifically addresses reconciliation as relationship. As the first of its 10 principles states, “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.”
I also believe that this bill will only be effective when there is a clear plan around its implementation. To paraphrase Grand Chief Willie Littlechild—one of the architects of the declaration and the TRC report—there must be a clear vision and a clear path and plan for how it will be achieved.
What will Bill C-262 do? It is important to note that Bill C-262 is not creating any new rights for indigenous peoples. The rights of indigenous peoples as outlined in UNDRIP already exist in Canadian law; they are our inherent rights and are already recognized and affirmed in section 35 of the Constitution.
What Bill C-262 will do is create a positive obligation to ensure that existing and new legislation is consistent with our indigenous rights and clarify the circumstances in which those rights must be honoured in government decision-making. In other words, the bill will require the federal government, and indeed the provinces, to meet the promise of section 35 of our Constitution.
The ability of indigenous groups to oppose legislation or projects that adversely affect their rights operates on a spectrum. Indigenous peoples and the Inuit whom I represent specifically can and must have the ability to exercise self-governance and to make decisions affecting their lands.
This has already been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada. In the Tsilhqot'in decision the court granted aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of territory. However, the court also stated that the indigenous groups' interests must be reconciled with the greater public interest. Bill C-262 will not necessarily change this principle, but it strengthens it.
Free, prior, and informed consent, as contained in articles 19 and 32 of UNDRIP, is about self-governance. It is not in our view, as some would argue, about whether indigenous peoples have a veto. Members should ask themselves why certain people, in speaking about FPIC, use such pejorative words to describe indigenous decision-making and self-governance. Rather, these articles reaffirm the requirement for Canada to adhere to its already-existing obligations to consult, cooperate with, and accommodate indigenous peoples, and to do so with a view to obtaining our consent to activities that affect our lands and resources or to legislation that affects us.
In addition to clarifying when the requirement to seek consent applies, UNDRIP clarifies the nature of that consent: that it is to be obtained without coercion, that it be given prior to project decisions being made, and that it be based on the best available information.
What constitutes free, prior, and informed consent may vary depending on the circumstances and will be the subject of ongoing nation-to-nation negotiations and dialogue. Recent history demonstrates how the failure to implement and update laws to conform with UNDRIP can have quite negative impacts. The Muskrat Falls project, located in our territory, provides a prime example.
The passing of Bill C-262 cannot result in government simply continuing to follow existing policies and procedures with respect to the recognition of rights.
I just need one more minute to finish.
The federal government has recognized that its comprehensive claims policy does not adequately address the needs and realities of all indigenous groups. While I am optimistic about the newly announced recognition and implementation of rights framework, we will be watching closely to see how it will be put into action.
One concrete and meaningful step has been our engagement with the federal government on the acceptance of our claim for negotiation. As a further demonstration of the government's commitment to the principles of UNDRIP, we anticipate that this work to accept and negotiate our land claim will continue in a manner that facilitates the unique needs and positions of our people.