Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to stand in the House today and speak to Bill C-3, An Act to promote gender equity in Indian registration by responding to the Court of Appeal for British Columbia decision in McIvor v. Canada (Registrar of Indian and Northern Affairs).
The bill is in response to a long-running battle in the courts spearheaded by Sharon McIvor. This action is being taken because the courts have said that the government must take action on this particular case. I congratulate Sharon McIvor and the others who have walked with her on the journey to heal the wounds of inequality and injustice.
It is pertinent for the House to know that it has taken 20 years. The court case was launched in 1989 and it took 17 years, until 2006, for it to be heard. Every obstacle was thrown in the way. I will not get into a debate about what government was in power when. The case was launched under the Mulroney government, carried on under the Chrétien and Martin governments, and continued on under the present Prime Minister's government.
However, there is something wrong with the system when it takes 20 years in the courts to resolve an issue of inequity. It takes time and resources and eats up people's lives, and we are talking about people's lives. I really do not care what government was in power. There must be a better way. There are smart lawyers in the Department of Justice. Someone must have sat back and thought that this really was an issue of inequity. They must have wondered if there was a better way to deal with it, such as through discussion or negotiation.
I note as well that, when it comes to resources, Sharon McIvor used the court challenges program, as have many other women, to try to advance their particular cause of equity. It was in 2006 that the current government killed the court challenges program that promoted the cause of equity. That added further to Sharon's struggle for money to see this case through to its successful conclusion, at least in some people's minds.
Does the title of this bill accurately reflect the intent of the bill, which is to provide equity? Many would argue that it tries to achieve that particular objective but it would be wrong for the House to think that this legislation would resolve all of the issues of inequity based on sex or on one's maternal line. Many other issues have not been addressed.
Let us take a quick look at what Bill C-3 is about and put it into context.
The McIvor case was the first of many cases to reach a decision under section 6 of the Indian Act. The case is about Indian status. It does not talk about band membership, citizenship or section 35 rights.
Sharon McIvor challenged the constitutionality of the Indian Act under section 6 as a violation of section 15 of the charter. The argument was that there was preferential treatment for descendants who traced their Indian ancestry along the paternal line over those who traced their ancestry along the maternal line, and that there was preferential treatment for male Indians who married non-Indians and their descendants over female Indians who married non-Indians and their descendants.
The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in favour of Sharon McIvor. It said that there was discrimination on the basis of sex and matrimonial descendance and ordered that section 6 was of no force and effect only with respect to the conferral of Indian status. The order resulted in inequality, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled, regarding the passage of status.
However, even though Sharon McIvor had won, Canada appealed the decision to the B.C. Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal found discrimination in section 6 as well but on a much narrower basis. The court said that Bill C-31 created a new inequality because it enhanced the position of those affected by the double mother rule. Children of non-Indian mothers and non-Indian paternal grandmothers lost status at age 21 but restoring their status in section 6(1) meant that they could pass status regardless of the status of one parent.
The court only struck down sections that gave this enhanced status, and that is sections 6(1)(a) and 6(1)(c), so the ruling was in relation to a more limited category of people affected, which is why the government did not appeal because there were protected vested rights. The court gave the federal government one year to amend this provision.
Sharon McIvor in fact felt that even though she had won, the ruling was not what she wanted or felt she needed to resolve the issue of inequity. She filed for a leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. The appeal was denied on November 5, 2009.
The B.C. Court of Appeal's decision does not result in those who are already registered under the impugn provisions being struck off the registry, which basically means nobody will lose the rights they now have under the Indian Act, as this would result in a charter challenge itself.
What was the government's response? The government had a deadline to meet of April 6 of this year. The court said that it would give the government one year to bring in the legislation to deal with the inequity under section 6 of the Indian Act. The government released a discussion paper outlining what some of the options might be, some of the processes that it would go through. It then went through an engagement process. Engagement is an important word. It is not a consultation process because the government felt it had no legal requirement to consult, but only to engage the opinions of people to listen.
People had problems with that. People felt the engagement process was limited. Only about 150 individual submissions were made to the department. There were some regional and national meetings, but people, as a whole, felt it was very limited, that they did not get the full range of views they should have on this important legislation.
After the engagement process, the government gave notice that it would table a bill back in December. We were informed that the bill would be narrowly scoped to only deal with the equality as set out by the B.C. Court of Appeal. The government did admit that it would only deal with the B.C. Court of Appeal decision, that it would not deal with other issues arising out of the Indian Act, other issues of inequality or discrimination that exist.
Up against this April 6 timeline set by the Court of Appeal, the government has now brought forth legislation at the eleventh hour. The timing constraint is certainly compounded, and was compounded, by the prorogation of Parliament, which removed many days from the parliamentary calendar. I know the government says it is serious, but if it is serious about getting the legislation through, then annual prorogations are not the way to do it.
In examining this bill, we want to be diligent, we want to be expeditious, but we should not be rushed.
When we look at some of the content of the bill, people have written to me and to the department. They have indicated there are certain provisions of the proposed legislation that are still very problematic, and that they may raise other potentially new cases of discrimination.
I refer to a briefing note, a submission that was made by Dr. Pamela Palmater, who did her doctoral thesis on the Indian Act and the whole issue of status and the conferral of status. I will only refer to one section, just to give members and those who are listening a sense of where some other issues of discrimination may arise.
She says that section 6(c.1)(iv) of the proposed Bill C-3 provides that a person:
—had or adopted a child, on or after September 4, 1951, with a person who was not entitled to be registered on the day on which the child was born or adopted;
This section has the effect of creating a new way to determine entitlement to registration and, as a result, creates a new form of discrimination as between the siblings of the Indian women who married out. What this additional criterion does is determine entitlement to registration based on the status or lack thereof of the applicant's children. Status has always been determined based on the entitlement of one's parents, i.e. parents transmit their status to their children - not vice versa.
I mention this because the committee will have to take the time to understand what the implications are of this legislation. We do not want to make the situation worse. We want to improve the situation. We want to respond effectively and efficiently to the B.C. Court of Appeal's decision.
Neither does the legislation address the second generation product rule or situations of undeclared or unknown paternity. Again, these are matters that the committee will seriously have to consider.
The case is also shrouded in other fundamental rights issues, which the Government of Canada says this bill does not raise. I tend to agree that the bill does not raise these issues, the issues of jurisdiction, who determines citizenship, who determines membership. Why do we have a very paternalistic piece of legislation, one of the greatest examples of colonial infrastructure left in the western world that determines who is Indian and who is not. It is not determined by birth, by culture or by descendancy. It is determined by a statute in the House. There is definitely something wrong with the legislation, for which there are many descriptions. We are only dealing with one part of it now, but this whole bill raises other fundamental issues.
People ask this question. Why should Canada interfere in the determination of who can be registered as an Indian under the Indian Act? They say that it contravenes international conventions like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which states that indigenous people have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the state in which they live.
Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or their own membership. I believe all members of the House would agree. Hopefully in the future we will be able to deal with these matters. The government acknowledged that by announcing an exploratory process to deal with these more substantive and fundamental questions.
The government should not delay or prolong that process. National aboriginal groups, regional aboriginal groups and individuals want to see this go forward in an expeditious manner. We want to ensure that it is done in a proper way and properly resourced, and let us call it a consultation process as opposed to an exploratory process.
We also have to be cognizant of questions around implementation. Is the department ready? Is the Office of the Indian Registrar ready? Are people being notified of possible changes that are coming? It will not be automatic that one gets status. The fact is people will have to apply and provide documentation, so there will be an onus on individuals to provide, in some cases, some very personal information. That in itself can be problematic, but is the system ready to take on new registrants?
Also, what are the impacts? There is a possibility that there could be up to 45,000 new registrants. That is what a noted demographer, Mr. Clatworthy, has indicated in his study commissioned for the department. He also gives a breakdown of how many people would likely register on reserve as opposed to off reserve, and what the implications would be then in terms of program and service implications and cost. We have asked the government this question. The government says that while it is looking at it, it does not know what the impact will be on programs such as non-insured health benefits, post-secondary education and if there is an influx of people on a reserve and what happens to the existing housing prices and the need for other services, other types of infrastructure.
While we ask all these questions, we believe the intent of the bill is to try to meet the test or dictates of the B.C. Court of Appeal. We believe it is worthy of support at second reading. We hope it will close one gap in the law, even if it does not address others that remain. It definitely requires full examination in committee.
Despite the shortened time frame due to the court decision and the government's prorogation, we hope there will be a full and fair hearing with a broad cross-section of witnesses. I look forward to hearing those witnesses and, if possible, to making the bill a better one.