Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Saskatoon—Grasswood.
I will attempt to build on some of the comments that my colleague just made in his question and answer period.
I think that anyone in this place would be hard pressed to argue that the Indian Act is anything other than deeply flawed. Passed in 1867, among its many flaws is that it is based upon archaic gender systems. Further, it could be argued that the act was, in its design, never meant to be anything more than a way to entrench paternalism and to assimilate first nations while simultaneously reducing the number of people who could claim status.
The Indian Act paternalistically lumped together a diverse population of people and forbade first nation people and communities from expressing their identities through governance and culture. Subsequent amendments to the act made things worse, not better, for first nations by more deeply entrenching colonial practices into law.
Amendments made in 1884 required first nation children to attend residential schools and made it illegal for first nation people to practise religious ceremonies, such as the potlatch. An amendment in 1914 outlawed dancing off-reserve, and in 1925, dancing was outlawed entirely. Amendments to the Act in 1927 made it illegal for first nations people and communities to hire lawyers or bring about land claims against the government without the government's consent.
Putting it mildly, these issues demonstrate a dark past in terms of the actions of legislators and Canadian officials against first nations people.
The 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated that “...Recognition as 'Indian' in Canadian law often had nothing to do with whether a person was actually of Indian ancestry.” Instead “status” was used as a tool of assimilation and cultural destruction. For example, a first nation person could lose status if he or she graduated university, became a Christian minister, or achieved professional designation as a doctor or lawyer.
In 1961, the government finally removed section 112, the so-called “compulsory enfranchisement” section, to end this and other assimilatory practices, but the damage had been done. For nearly a century, first nation people were given an impossible choice: try to live traditionally in spite of the outlawing of many cultural and religious practices, or attempt to interact with non-indigenous society and risk losing status. All of this is in addition to the patriarchal system that the Indian Act imposed.
The patriarchal system of the Indian Act is the crux of our debate today.
Bill S-3 was tabled in response to a Superior Court of Quebec decision, Descheneaux c. Canada and other clearly identified issues. The court found that several aspects of Indian registration under the Indian Act violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, because there were differences between how status was passed down from first nation women compared to first nation men. These provisions were struck down by the courts, and Parliament was given a limited time to pass alternatives. The new deadline to pass legislative changes, after two extensions, is December 22, a date that is quickly approaching.
Aspects of the bill that directly respond to the Descheneaux decision should come into effect upon the bill receiving royal assent. Essentially, these amendments seek to remedy gender inequity in the Indian Act for those born after 1951.
The Liberal government added new amendments to Bill S-3 on November 7. Now embedded in the legislation is a consultation period to discern how to best remedy gender inequity for those born between 1869 and 1951. No date has yet been given of when these consultations will begin or when changes will come into force. There have been two court extensions and three different deadlines to get this passed. I note the court has indicated it has no interest in giving the Liberal government another extension. The clock has run out, and it is unfortunate to see that this was not properly planned to encompass consultations ahead of the passing of the legislation.
In a failed attempt to meet the original court-imposed deadline of February 3, the government engaged in very little consultation prior to tabling. In November 2016, members of the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs heard from numerous witnesses that consultation was inadequate, and that indigenous organizations had little time or opportunity to submit their reflections. Additionally, the plaintiffs were not even consulted or contacted in any way by the department or the minister's office. The litigant said that the first time he knew about the bill was when he was called to committee to testify.
Mr. Stéphane Descheneaux said, “we've never been called or asked which way we saw that stuff...I was thinking that they would come to the band and meet us, and say that they're going to go that way, or they're looking to go this way.”
Chief Rick O'Bomsawin said:
[They] told us that we were consulted, that they consulted with chiefs last summer. I have not found one chief that they consulted. They've never consulted me, and it was our case. They never even called us.
This is problematic, and while I agree with the spirit of the bill and its attempts to correct its wrongs, Lord knows that across political stripes and different governments we have tried to correct wrongs. It is clear that the Liberal government needs to own up to the fact that its consultations with first nations on this legislation have been poorly planned. Furthermore, the Indigenous Bar Association testified that the bill was riddled with technical flaws and in no way would do what the title suggested to “eliminate all sex-based inequities in registration.”
After a great deal of pressure from opposition, senators, and indigenous organizations across the country, including the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the Liberals withdrew the legislation from consideration by the Senate aboriginal peoples committee, went back to the court to ask for an extension, and returned the bill to the drawing board. The bill we are debating today is the end result of this process. As I have noted with past examples, there is a real human cost to getting this wrong. That said, the legacy of getting this wrong would have future costs as well.
Lalana Paul, a consultant with the Native Council of Prince Edward Island, says that in the Indian Act, “You see so much sexual discrimination, it's appalling that it's still in there.”
Lisa Cooper, president and chief of the native Council of Prince Edward Island, said, “I have the right to live a traditional and cultural life that I should be able to pass on to my kids.”
Lynn Gehl, a 55-year-old writer whose grandmother belonged to a first nation, fought a 22-year-long legal battle and was finally able to win partial status. However, thanks to the Indian Act, she remained unable to pass her status down to her children. This meant that she was deprived of the chance to vote for her indigenous government and live on land reserves, as well as access to tax breaks and expanded health coverage that she would have otherwise been entitled to receive. She said, “I should be able to pass on my status but I can’t because of gender discrimination.”
Sharon McIvor said that because of the Indian Act, “Aboriginal women and their descendants have been separated from their families and communities, treated as less worthy, less human, less Indian, and not full members of their cultures and communities.”
These stories tell of the deep human impact on first nations of the choices that Canada's legislators make. Given the history of ongoing discrimination, it is imperative that we get this one right.
I know the government has made a commitment to restore relationships with first nations. I could read the list of accomplishments our previous government attempted to do in this regard. However, we need to do better. I have not spoken to this topic very often in the House of Commons, but it is the quiet meetings that I have in my office with chiefs, leaders, and members of first nations communities that really impart to me that all of us in this place need to have a different look at how we approach these relationships. When I look at the process on how the bill has gone back and forth and the consultation process going forward, it is concerning.
Again, I know my colleagues in my party have made it clear that we support the spirit of the bill, and I want to commend the work of my colleague who is the opposition critic in this area. It does build upon previous attempts to clarify and remedy some of the wrongs in this regard. However, I would implore the government members to be clear on what this consultation process means. They need to be transparent with affected members of first nations communities so we can get this relationship thing right.
I want to acknowledge the comments of my colleague from Winnipeg. We are going somewhere. I would like to be going in the right direction. I encourage all members of the House that perhaps we can do a bit better than this.