Mr. Speaker, since its inception, the Indian Act has accorded privilege to male Indians and their descendants and disregarded female Indians as second class. While piecemeal changes to this discriminatory act have been made over time, there is still a sex-based hierarchy of the status categories.
To sum up where we are right now, despite unprecedented government promises of indigenous reconciliation and respect, Liberals are trading off human rights based on budget lines. Indigenous women, who have been fighting 40 years in court for equality, watched in dismay last week as Liberals gutted reforms that would have made the Indian Act less vile. Canada's laws still say that indigenous people with a university degree, with military service, or with a white husband lose their Indian status. Would one not think that a government pledged to a new nation-to-nation relationship built on respect would want to fix this?
Indigenous women who lost their legal status after marrying white men convinced the Senate this month to adopt Indian Act changes to overturn these long-standing injustices. However, last week Liberal MPs stripped those changes out after the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs threatened “dire unintended consequences” from what looks to me like a fundamental human right. Is there any other group in Canada the government would discriminate against in this way?
“[I]ndigenous women deserve the equality the charter is intended to ensure and protect”, so said litigant Lynn Gehl in Ottawa this month at a press conference.
Courts ordered that the government end discrimination in the Indian Act once and for all. This bill, gutted by Liberal MPs last week, could have done that.
To honour National Aboriginal Day tomorrow and to validate the Prime Minister's feminist rhetoric, the Prime Minister should do the right thing in this week's vote, maybe even in tonight's vote, and that would be to adopt the amendments proposed by my colleague in the New Democrat caucus and by the Green Party leader to restore the elements of the Senate bill that were cut by Liberal MPs at committee last week. Let us end this session of Parliament on a just note and send Canada on a good path for its 150th.
There is much support for the government ending sex discrimination in the Indian Act. Canada has endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which clarifies state obligations to respect self-determination, including the right to determine membership. Canada must get out of the business of deciding who is and is not an Indian under Canadian law.
The United Nations commission to end discrimination against women, just in November, called out the government for the need to act on this file. It said:
...the Committee remains concerned about continued discrimination against indigenous women, in particular regarding the transmission of Indian status, preventing them and their descendants from enjoying all the benefits relating to such status.
The Committee recommends that the State party remove all remaining discriminatory provisions of the Indian Act that affect indigenous women and their descendants, and ensure that indigenous women enjoy the same rights as men to transmit their status to their children and grandchildren.
The government has failed. It has given this House a flawed bill, uninformed by any indigenous woman's input. After 40 years of litigation by indigenous women, many of whom are still alive, and indigenous lawyers who have been fighting alongside them, the government failed to ask them what they thought and have them inform this vital legislation before us.
The government has stalled for 18 months, knowing that it had a court-ordered requirement to do this work. It is scrambling at the end of this session to meet that court deadline. Having been given 18 months by the court to make this right, they had testimony from witnesses that could have made it right. The Liberals are now asking Parliament to pass a bill that is being heavily criticized by the majority of indigenous people.
I will quote from the Ontario Native Women's Association. It said,
By rejecting the “6(1)(a) All The Way” amendment to Bill S-3 the federal government has betrayed its promise to Indigenous women. The amendment would have reinstated our sisters and removed all sex based discrimination from the Indian Act.
The Senate did repair that flaw. The Senate amendment, which came to this House, has support from indigenous women. That repaired bill, given to the government, was really a gift to a government that is struggling to deliver on its first nations promises.
On the eve of National Aboriginal Day and the celebration of Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation, this would have been a real gift to the country to actually move forward and end gender discrimination under the Indian Act. Instead, the Liberal members of the committee gutted the bill, bringing us back to what we are debating today. It could be repaired by accepting the amendments that are on the floor right now.
This has left indigenous women out again. There is strong criticism, repeated again and again, by almost every indigenous women's organization we have heard from.
This has left us, then, scrambling in the final days of Parliament, disrespecting the advice of indigenous women and disrespecting Canada's deep need for reconciliation. This is breaking trust. It is a dangerous game. We have cynicism from the women most affected, and their children, when we have the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs saying that there will be “dire unanticipated consequences” of this bill. Indigenous women say repeatedly that this is a human right, that gender equality is a human right already and that we do not need to consult on it.
This is a government that consults on everything, endlessly, things we did not think needed to be consulted on, such as restoring habitat protection to the Fisheries Act. In that case, we are consulted in the absence of action.
In this case, we have the government's failure to consult with the indigenous women most deeply affected. It brought a bill twice to the Senate on which there was no consultation, and now it is saying that we can only bring a half-measure bill, because we have to consult with indigenous people on the unintended and dire consequences the minister cites.
The government cannot have it both ways, not without breaking a great deal of goodwill and breaking a great deal of faith with indigenous women in this country.
As Sharon McIvor, litigant and now defence lawyer, asked at a press conference last week, why would they consult on whether they can continue to be discriminated against? Lynn Gehl, also a long-time challenger of this discrimination in court, said that the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs is using consultation as a weapon. That is no way to move forward.
We have strong indigenous women leading in this country already. I want to pay my respects to Shania Pruden, from the Pinaymootang First Nation in Manitoba, and Teanna Ducharme, whose Nisga'a name is Aygadim Majagalee. Both of these young women, in association with the Daughters of the Vote program, came to this House and testified at the status of women committee. They are articulate, strong, brilliant leaders.
I also want to honour the late Shannen Koostachin, who initiated Shannen's dream and was at the root of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal challenge on equality of treatment in child welfare. There are three rulings now the Canadian government has not honoured.
There is also Helen Knott, Treaty 8 leader, who is advocating and saying strongly that violence against the land is the same as violence against women. We need to move forward in a good way.
I ask the government to please either adopt the Senate amendments or ask the court for an extension so that it can really do this right. We cannot afford half measures in this country. Gender equality and first nations respect is a solemn promise of the government that I am going to keep working to have it keep.