Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill S-3, an act to amend the Indian Act.
This Senate bill is in response to the superior court of Quebec's decision in Descheneaux v. Canada and has undergone several iterations. I am pleased to support this set of amendments, which will effectively eliminate sex discrimination under the Indian Act.
I want to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered here on the traditional unceded lands of the Algonquin peoples.
It is hard to believe that we are having this debate today, in 2017, on sex equality. It is even more disturbing that those making the decision on such a fundamental issue of Indian status for first nations peoples are not members of any first nations communities themselves but are primarily from settler communities. The irony is not lost on me. What is equally absurd is that it has been primarily men making these decisions. Our Indian Act, unfortunately, makes this absurd debate necessary.
The renewed relationship our government seeks to establish with first nations communities on a nation-to-nation basis will untangle first nations peoples from the shackles of colonialism and the Indian Act and will set our country towards a path of true reconciliation.
The Indian Act is deeply rooted in racism and has for generations resulted in uneven and racialized outcomes for our first nations peoples. The Indian Act essentially controls the lives of our first nations peoples. It defines who is and who is not an Indian, where they live, whom they should live with, and so on. It separates first nations peoples from the rest of Canada, physically, through reserves, but also in virtually every aspect of life.
The numbers speak for themselves. I am just going to give some examples. In 2011, 26.2% of first nations people on reserve lived in overcrowded housing, compared to 4% of non-aboriginal people. In education, 39.8% of first nations people do not have high school or a post-secondary degree. Only 12.1% of non-indigenous people do not have a high school diploma or a post-secondary degree. We could go on with life expectancy, suicide, and income.
On virtually every measure available to assess social well-being, Canada's first nations people rank lower in comparison to their settler counterparts. None of the constraints of the Indian Act, however, have been more scrutinized and more painful than the definition of who is and who is not an Indian.
Notably, this Indian Act discriminates against women in a systemic and structural way, leading to inequities in membership and having an effect on their daily lives. Discrimination based on sex has affected the children, grandchildren, and their generations of kin by excluding them under the Indian Act. The amendments to Bill S-3 we are debating today aim to correct that trajectory and ensure that sex discrimination is eliminated from the Indian Act once and for all.
I want to walk members through the history. The issue of sex discrimination has been dealt with by Parliament on several occasions. However, in each round, the amendments made in the House did not go far enough to ensure that sex discrimination was eliminated altogether.
The amendments initially considered under Bill S-3 were in response to a superior court of Quebec decision in Descheneaux v. Canada, rendered in 2015. The Quebec court deemed the provisions of the Indian Act to be in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as it treated grandchildren descended from a status Indian man and a status Indian women differently by providing status to the former and denying it to the latter.
Madam Justice Chantal Masse cautioned the government to ensure that any legislation that stemmed from the decision ought to have an expansive view of the issue of sex-based discrimination under the Indian Act. I would like to quote paragraph 239 of her decision:
When Parliament chooses not to consider the broader implications of judicial decisions by limiting their scope to the bare minimum, a certain abdication of legislative power in favour of the judiciary will likely take place. In such cases, it appears that the holders of legislative power prefer to wait for the courts to rule on a case-by-case basis before acting, and for their judgments to gradually force statutory amendments to finally bring them in line with the Constitution.
After considerable back and forth with the other place, we are here today to eliminate sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act altogether.
During debate this summer, we heard from many witnesses, including women whose lifetime of work advanced the issue of gender equality in the Indian Act. It was a very painful experience for most of them. We also heard from many bands and communities that they alone have the right to define the citizenship of their people. I believe that both seemingly divergent views are not incompatible. Ultimately, first nations people should have the say as to who their citizens are, but in a manner that does not discriminate against one particular gender.
I want to take a couple of minutes to outline previous attempts to remove sex-based discrimination from the Indian Act. The sex-based inequities in the law we are grappling with today have their roots in the patrilineal transfer of Indian status that existed in the Indian Act prior to 1985, and the subsequent imperfect attempts to end discrimination in the act.
With the introduction of the Constitution Act, 1982, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, explicit discrimination in the Indian Act finally had to be changed to comply with section 15 charter rights.
Bill C-31 was introduced to make the Indian Act charter compliant. It unfortunately did not go far enough. In fact, it is Bill C-31, including the introduction of the second generation cut-off and the subsection 6(1) and 6(2) categories of Indian status that inevitably opened new sex-based inequities and the inability of individuals to pass on status to their children and grandchildren. The residual sex-based inequities that remained in the act resulted in a rise in registration-related legal challenges.
One such challenge was launched by Sharon McIvor. Dr. McIvor's case centred on her ability to transfer status to her children. Since Dr. McIvor married a non-Indian, she was only able to transfer section 6(2) status to her son, Mr. Grismer. As Mr. Grismer also married a non-Indian, he was not able to transfer status to his children. However, had Sharon McIvor had a brother who was also married to a non-Indian, prior to 1985 their child would have been entitled to status under 6(1). Because of this discrimination, the B.C. Court of Appeal struck down paragraphs 6(1)(a) and 6(1)(c) of the Indian Act and gave Parliament one year to respond.
Bill C-3 was introduced by the previous Conservative government in response to the McIvor decision. However, the government decided that it would interpret the decision as narrowly as possible and that it would not address other obvious examples of sex-based discrimination in the act.
At the time, Marc Lemay, a former Bloc MP, rightly pointed out, “As we speak, a dozen or so of these complaints are before the courts in various jurisdictions across Canada, including one or two similar cases currently before Quebec courts.” I have no doubt that the cases in Quebec he was referring to were those of Stéphane Descheneaux and Susan and Tammy Yantha.
It only took six years for us to arrive back here again to pass amendments to the Indian Act to address discrimination, which should never have existed, with Bill S-3. Like Bill C-3, Bill S-3 did not initially take an expansive approach to addressing discrimination in the Indian Act. Initially, Bill S-3 addressed only the cases ruled by the Superior Court of Québec: the cousins and siblings issue and the issue of omitted minors.
I can continue to give more examples of where we have failed, but it is very clear that today, as we stand, we have the right balance to ensure that we eliminate sex-based discrimination from the Indian Act once and for all.
There would be a process of consultation that would ensure that people, particularly women, would not have to go to court to assert their rights. It is embedded in the legislation today. The bill would ensure that any discrimination based on sex, dating back to 1869, would be addressed once and for all. This is an important amendment we need to make to the Indian Act.
As my colleagues have previously said, as we walk toward elimination of the Indian Act, this is a necessary evil that will ensure that we do not continue to discriminate on the basis of sex.