Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill S-3, an act to amend the Indian Act, elimination of sex-based inequities in registration. Right off, I should acknowledge that perhaps the title is in error. I am not totally convinced that everything in the bill performs that function.
I want to make a special note. The court decision was a long time ago. We have a deadline of July 3, and this is the first hour of debate in the House. We know this sitting is coming to an end, we have a court deadline, and, to be frank, the opportunity to give this very important matter the due diligence it deserves is lacking. We have less than a month to ensure the bill responds to the Descheneaux decision.
I will put a personal face to this. I want to share my story with Canadians. Many Canadians may not understand the very complicated issue of registration and membership. I beg the indulgence of the House to go back into my history.
I grew up in an urban community, graduated as a registered nurse, and was asked to go to a semi-remote first nations community to be its nurse. That was in 1983. It was quite a large community, an interior Salish community, and I had an opportunity to work in it.
One day a community a health representative told me that everyone wanted me to visit one of the elders. I was not supposed to visit her because she did not have status anymore because the government had said so. I will call her Margaret as I do not want to share her real name.
Margaret was 80-plus years old. When she was young, she had fallen in love with someone who lived in a nearby community, married him, and her husband was tragically killed. Not only did she lose her status as an Indian, but she lost her husband and was left in complete limbo. In this case, the community welcomed her home, but that was not always the case. The people brought her back to their community and provided her with housing. This elder spoke the language beautifully, she wove beautiful baskets, and was an incredible person and support. She was very respected and looked up to, but she always had the issue of not being part of the community because of her decision to marry someone from another community.
It was not just her feeling of not being part of the community. I was told that although I should not visit her because she was not officially part of the community, they really wanted me to she her. In their hearts, everyone knew she was part of them and their community. Her benefits, her ability to get medication, to travel were affected by her status. She had health issues and at times would have to go to a larger centre. She was excluded from those simple measures. At the time, it seemed terribly unfair that this well-respected elder was stripped of her status.
For people to understand, it takes a bit of a history lesson.
I am going quote a Canadian lawyer, Alison Gray, who talked about the changes over time. She said, “Throughout the history of the Indian Act, the provisions governing entitlement to and transmission of Indian status have favoured men and discriminated against indigenous women.” That goes back to 1869.
She goes on to say:
Beginning in 1869, indigenous women who married non-indigenous men lost their status and entitlement to all benefits of status, including the ability to pass status on to their children. However, if an indigenous man married a non-indigenous woman, he not only preserved his status but he was able to confer that status on his spouse and children.
Some changes came along in 1951 called the “Double Mother rule”. I will not get into the details of that because this becomes a technical and complicated issue as we made the changes and made things more and more complex.
In 1985, Parliament amended the registration provisions in the act to ensure compliance with s. 15 of the Charter. The intent was to remove restrictions relating to marriage and remove any sex-based discrimination. However, the result was to create a two-tiered system of status that continued to unfairly discriminate against indigenous women and their descendants.
This continued discrimination was first successfully challenged in McIvor, which resulted in amendments to the act in 2010. However, the 2010 amendments did not eliminate all the sex-based discrimination in registration, which led to the successful challenge in Descheneaux.
Both McIvor and Descheneaux involved challenges to the two-tiered status set out in s. 6. Despite being enacted for the express purpose of eliminating sex-based discrimination, s. 6 continued to discriminate against indigenous women and their descendants by limiting their ability to pass on Indian status, as compared to indigenous men and their descendants.
Almost concurrently with Descheneaux was a case the Gehl challenge. She says:
In Gehl, the challenge involves the registration provision and the government’s Proof of Paternity Policy, which sets out the evidentiary requirements for proving a child’s paternity. The claim is that the act and the policy impose a burden on registered indigenous women only, and also prevent many from passing on their Indian status to their children and grandchildren.
Of importance to this case is the two-tiered status...is available to those with two parents entitled to be registered and allows Indian status to be passed on to their children regardless of the status of the other parent. Where only one parent is entitled to be registered, a lesser form of status is granted...
I bet that most members and anyone listening to this debate are confused. We get into sections 6(1), 6(2). We have created a complexity that is a real challenge.
We have one earlier court case and the Descheneaux case. After Bill S-3 was introduced, we finally had a response to that case. I do not think anyone would argue it was a paternal system that predated 1985. An attempt was made by the government to create a system that was fairer, but it was maintained as discriminatory legislation.
Bill S-3 is the government's response. I am going to talk about the process of the response. I have some real concerns and I will take it back to my own riding where I have a number of communities.
July 29, 2016, the chief in Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc received a letter from the minister in which she said she would start an engagement process with first nations and other indigenous groups across the country. It would take place in the late summer, early fall. It would consist of information-sharing and looking at a path forward.
This is critical to communities across the country. When they get a letter from the minister, knowing they have a court decision and something that is as significant as looking at the registration process, they are very interested and want to be involved. This was supposed to happen late summer.
In August, we wrote the minister's office, stating that a local band wanted to participate in the engagement process, asking where and when the meetings would take place. We did not get a response.
In September, we followed up. The Kamloops Indian Band had reached out to us again regarding the letter it received back in July. It was eager to be part of the minister's proposed meetings, but it was very worried that it had missed them. It thought that it was too late and that it had missed something critical.
Finally, on September 20, the minister's office emailed us to say that INAC had reached out to the band, but there were no details. Less than a month later, members of the band could travel to a meeting in Vancouver to tell the government what they thought. It might have been an hour or so long. Then the actual legislation was tabled October 25.
That is one community. If we look at the hundreds of bands across the country and if they feel the same frustration on such an important matter that impacts registration and members, imagine how concerned they would be.
The legislation was tabled in the Senate. In the House, we were encouragement to do a pre-study so we could move forward and meet the court deadline. During our pre-study, department officials were specifically asked if the bill would eliminate all known sex-based inequities. I asked the officials if they were confident the bill would do that. The official said, “In terms of your specific question for sex-based discrimination, yes, this bill is addressing everything that is wrong.” This was back in December.
We were told by the officials that the bill would take care of the issues, as the title states. Clearly, what happened was the Senate continued its study and things started to go astray.
Department officials appeared first. Then we heard from the litigants who told us they had not been contacted by the department on Bill S-3. Again, despite lofty promises about the need to improve the relationship with indigenous people, there was clearly an inadequate consultation with those most directly impacted.
We were absolutely stunned when Mr. Descheneaux indicated that he had not had any contact, and it was his case that had been brought forward.
Essentially, flaws were noted. With respect to consultation, it became apparent that the bill did not eliminate all known sex-based inequities. It was taken back to the drawing board, and it was put in abeyance at committee. Then it was brought back to the Senate.
In the meantime, we now have a new deadline, and that is July 3. A number of amendments were put forward.
What would the bill do? It is complicated and technical. We have had diagram after diagram to try to understand it.
Apparently, we are dealing with inequities with a cousin issue, a sibling issue, omitted or removed minors issue, children born out of wedlock, the great-grandchildren pre-1985, the great-grandchildren pre-1985 affected by sibling loss, the issue of great-grandchildren born pre-1985 whose great-grandmother parented out of wedlock phase two. We can clearly see there are a number of things done. We fixed a bunch of the problems. There were some fixed in the original bill. Clearly, it did not fix everything. There were some more fixes made in the reintroduction, and we now have the issue the minister referred to as 6(1)(a) all the way.
There is not time to even understand paragraph 6(1)(a). It was something the Liberals proposed way back with the McIvor case when they were in opposition. Clearly, at one point they thought 6(1)(a) all the way was a very adequate solution, but now they believe it is an inadequate solution. From everything we are understanding, this was perhaps a hastily developed amendment that an opposition put forward. Then the senator put it forward. They put some language around it, but from what we can see, it is almost identical.
We now have concerns by the minister about 6(1)(a) all in. We have the Indigenous Bar Association with concerns. Senator Sinclair originally had concerns, but then he voted for it when it went to report stage and third reading. We have groups advocating for this being the final solution and a committee that does not have any more time to really understand what 6(1)(a) all in would do and what it means, because it has been left so late. Is it going to solve the problems?
To be frank, we are hearing very conflicting testimony, and because the Liberals have left it for so long, we do not have the ability to actually do due diligence, which is what a committee should really do. There are no more sessions planned for the committee to look at this legislation to understand the impact of the 6(1)(a) all in.
In summary, what we have before us with Bill S-3 is certainly a fix for many of the problems. We have an incredibly botched process from start to now, and we have a problem with a Superior Court deadline that may or may not have any flexibility. Therefore, on this side of the House we are mostly incredibly disappointed that we did not have adequate time to do important due diligence to an incredibly important piece of legislation.
I go back to my original comment, my personal story that these decisions impact real people. They impact Margaret and who she was in her community. She was a lovely woman, a beautiful, articulate, talented elder who gave so much to her community; and we, the Government of Canada, made her lesser for that, and we need to make sure we get this fixed.