Mr. Speaker, I was going to say that I am honoured to rise to speak to the Indian Act, but that is not the case. Usually, when I rise in the House, I do it with honour and I consider it a privilege, but that is not the case today.
Earlier, I explained just how deeply opposed I am to this legislation, which has been in place for a very long time and, I would point out, was imposed unilaterally on indigenous peoples across this country. It is a shame that in 2017 we must still rise in the House to talk about something so racist, colonial, and discriminatory as the Indian Act.
We are supposedly one of the most progressive and generous countries on the planet, but the first peoples of this country are subjected to legislation such as the Indian Act. It is really unfortunate. Given the country’s international reputation, this legislation should be done away with as quickly as possible, especially given the promises that this new government made on a number of things, including the new relationship that it wants to establish with indigenous peoples.
The adoption and implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should now be the basis for any discussion in the House. I would like to point out that this was one of the most significant promises made by several parties, including my own, but also by this government.
Regarding this declaration, let us not forget that two of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s main calls to action are calls to action nos. 43 and 44. Call to action no. 44 calls on the government and its indigenous partners to develop a national action plan to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Call to action no. 43 is also important for us in the House. It calls on the federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.
That is important. We cannot say that we support all of the Commission’s calls to action except for call no. 43, because it calls on us to fully adopt and implement the declaration.
It is therefore important to remember the context in which we come to this debate on the Indian Act and the status of indigenous people in this country.
Something that has always fascinated me is that the first peoples of this country are the only people in Canada subject to a law in this way. It is mind-boggling how discriminatory this law is, come to think of it. Indigenous peoples and all other peoples on the planet are equal. Like all other peoples, indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination under international law. Article 9 of the declaration recognizes that indigenous peoples have a right to determine who should be members of their communities and nations.
However, this is not the case, and it is unfortunate that in 2017 we still have this racist, discriminatory, and also sexist legislation.
Whenever I talk about the Indian Act, I am almost tempted at times, very seriously, to rise in the House and propose a Caucasian act. Please excuse my use of a typological understanding of human biology when I limit people to racial terms, especially since the term Caucasian describes people from the geographic regions of Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and most members in the chamber are from western Europe. Self-identity is not what is important here.
My proposition would be nothing new, as a matter of fact. Five hundred years ago when Caucasian ships began arriving on the shores of this continent, indigenous peoples began devising all sorts of appropriate responses to the invasion. Maybe, at least in the north, invasion is too strong of a word to describe the first contact, but when farmers, entrepreneurs, and business people began to be displaced by foreign investment, when doctors spoke out in alarm of undocumented immigrants bringing high levels of infectious disease onto this continent, and when community leaders began noticing the erosion of the indigenous social fabric, our warriors became our homeland security, and our knowledge keepers became our policy-makers on this continent.
For a while, official policy was to send all Caucasians back to where they came from. I will not lie, that argument still pops up from time to time in discussions with my people, but then mixed marriages, economic interdependence, and the sheer numbers became a reality, and we realized that a more nuanced solution was needed for the Caucasian problem. If I were proposing that act today, I would paraphrase John A. Macdonald and say that the great aim of this legislation is to do away with the European system, and assimilate the Caucasian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of this land as speedily as they are fit to change. I am of course paraphrasing John A. Macdonald.
I can almost hear some of the other members objecting, but will this proposal not deny my fundamental rights contained within the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and violate universal human rights standards? However, I can assure everyone that rights are not important when we consider the creation of a Caucasian act. Power is the most important factor when we consider pieces of legislation designed to control and assimilate one demographic group to the exclusion of all others. Who holds power over the lives of others?
Today, the government has brought to the House Bill S-3, a Senate bill that purports to remove gender discrimination from the Indian Act. The only piece of legislation in this country, I will repeat, that exclusively governs the lives of one demographic group, namely, the indigenous people of this country. When considering this bill, it must be recognized that the colonial system is always about gaining control over another people for the sake of what the colonial power has determined to be the common good.
That is the system that is prescribed by colonial values, priorities, and objectives. Senators, MPs and expert witnesses have repeatedly told the Liberal government that Bill S-3 must go beyond the limited understanding of what legislative review of the Indian Act means, an understanding limited by colonial prescriptions.
In fact, the minister has already told the Senate that her government will reject one of the senators' amendments to the bill, and members heard, as I did, and as all of us did in this House this evening, that is what she repeated tonight.
As the Indian Act is currently written, indigenous men who married non-indigenous women before April 17, 1985, when the act was re-written to comply with the charter of rights, will always pass their Indian status to at least their grandchildren and, in many cases, to their great-grandchildren. This is the case, even if their children and grandchildren parent with non-Indians. However, indigenous women who married non-status men before 1985 only pass on status up to their grandchildren, unless those grandchildren parent with other status Indians.
Senator McPhedran's amendment to Bill S-3 is intended to eliminate any remaining distinctions between the descendants of men and women who married non-Indians before the charter. It would go back to the creation of the Indian Act in the 1800s, while the government wants to stop at those born after the Indian register was created in 1951.
We are left with the question, why is the government refusing to recognize the indigenous identity of potentially hundreds of thousands of people? Remember, self-identity is not seen as important, human rights are not seen as important. What is important is gaining and maintaining power over a subjugated group of people, meaning the indigenous people of this country.
As Dr. Lynn Gehl has explained, “They don't want to end this discrimination. The ultimate goal is to get rid of status Indians and get rid of treaty rights—so much so, that they'll target women and babies.”
I want to quote what Deborah Serafinchon said to our committee when she appeared not too long ago. She said:
I'm not a lawyer, I'm not into any of this, all I know is that I don't understand the different status of 6(1)(a), 6(1), 6(2), whatever it is. Simply, as far as I'm concerned, an Indian is an Indian. I don't understand why there's different levels of status...I'm Indian enough to be discriminated against, but I'm not Indian enough to get status.
Whenever I hear testimony like that, it bothers me a lot, because this legislation has been around for so long. I remember the day after this Prime Minister got elected, and he reiterated a lot of the promises he made to indigenous peoples. I remember the day, across the river, in December 2015 when he spoke before the chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations. One of the promises he made that day in December 2015, before the chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations, was to review and rescind any legislation that was unilaterally imposed on indigenous peoples by previous governments. He used the word governments, not the previous government, but previous governments. It would have been very logical if he started with the Indian Act 20 months ago. Now we are caught with this, and bound by a deadline set by the Quebec Superior Court.
It is also worthwhile to read into the record what Senator Daniel Christmas said with respect to the Indian Act:
The point I'm making is a very stark one: Life under the Indian Act is a horrible and unproductive existence whose ultimate destiny is insolvency and ruin, both economically and emotionally.
A lot of first nations are in the same boat now that Membertou was in the mid-1990s.
Senator Christmas went on:
I recall the awful feeling of seeing people in my community walking with their heads down. Their community was poor and without any prospects, any hope for improvement, for us or for our children.
That is what he said in the Senate. It is important to remind ourselves that those are important considerations that we need to take into account in any revision that we make to the Indian Act, whether it be to status or to any of the other elements that are contained in the earlier Indian Act.
I also want to remind members that the new government has committed to adopting and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the minister has repeated that commitment and promise on a couple of occasions since the election.
Article 9 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reads as follows:
Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right to belong to an indigenous community or nation, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the community or nation concerned. No discrimination of any kind may arise from the exercise of such a right.
I made an earlier point about the UN declaration. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recommended that we fully adopt and implement the UN declaration as the framework for reconciliation in this country.
There is a bill before this House, Bill C-262, that would implement the TRC's calls to action 43 and 44. I am hopeful that once that bill is adopted, it will be the framework for any proposed legislation in this country, in this chamber, as we move forward, because although a declaration is not the same as a convention or an international treaty, a declaration does have a legal effect in this country. The Supreme Court has confirmed on a couple of occasions now that declarations do have legal effects. Declarations are “relevant and persuasive sources” to interpret domestic human rights law in this country.
My suggestion here is that the UN declaration already has application in Canadian law. That should be the basis of any legislation that stems from this House from now on, or any policy review that we do as a government in this country. It does have application, and that is what Bill C-262 would confirm as well.
I was going to go into a whole list of the effects of the Indian Act, and it is quite a long list. However, I do want to remind this House that one of the things that is still in the Indian Act—and not too many Canadians know this—is the fact that the minister still has the authority to accept or refuse my will when I pass away. It is still in the Indian Act. That is pretty outrageous. It is only for indigenous peoples.
That is why I say the Indian Act needs to go away. There are enough people in this House to make suggestions as to what to replace it with. I think it is grand time that we do it. It is 2017 in this country called Canada.