Madam Speaker, I am rising to speak to Bill S-3 because it is a very important bill and one that, with these amendments and changes, will foster tremendous progress for many indigenous people in Canada. It is an act to amend the Indian Act, and it focuses on the elimination of sex-based inequities in registration. This is something that has been ongoing for many years. Both the current Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and the current Minister of Justice have fought very hard over the years to ensure that sex-based inequities in registration would be eliminated. Today, we are bringing forward amendments that would allow that to happen. They have also both said they remain committed to ensuring we correct all discrimination contained within the Indian Act. That will be done in a stage-two process.
Members are asking today that several amendments be added. We need to understand that the bill today is about removing the discriminatory aspects that are related to sex-based discrimination and that the amendments that are currently being proposed by the members are outside the scope of the intended bill. It is important to note that, as a government, we recognize that changes within the Indian Act need to go much further than where this legislation is bringing us today. We have said that time and again. The government and the minister have committed very clearly, both in the House of Commons and in committee, that they would have a stage-two process to deal with those discriminatory pieces that have to be removed from the act.
They also said that charter compliance will be the floor of that stage-two process, and not the ceiling. In other words, the government has been clear that consensus will not be a prerequisite for action, but in the absence of consensus, it is more important that decisions are based on the foundation of meaningful consultation and credible evidence about the potential impacts of reform.
We are here today with Bill S-3 because of the Descheneaux decision. It was a case filed by the Descheneaux family, in which the court put upon the government several conditions for change that had to occur within the Indian Act. The former government was appealing those decisions. Our government said we would not appeal those decisions of the court because we need to correct those discriminatory clauses within the bill. We were the first government in the seven-year process that has been going on that has stepped up and said we are going to remove it. We are prepared to act on it. We will meet the conditions of the Descheneaux ruling. That is what we are doing today with Bill S-3.
Members opposite asked why the government does not go to the judge and ask for an extension. We did go and ask for an extension, and we were granted an extension, one that allowed us to look at other aspects of the bill, consult with a number of people, and further define within the scope of the ruling some of the changes that needed to be made. We were happy to do that. We know the other groups went to the judge and asked for a further extension, and today, although there was a caveat in the decision, I understand the judge denied that extension.
We are in the House today debating Bill S-3. It is a bill that would help us progress a step further in ending sex-based discrimination against indigenous women who are registering with the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and registering for benefits. This bill alone would allow 35,000 more indigenous people to claim the benefits to which they are entitled.
For the last two years, they have been waiting to access the benefits and the services they are entitled to as indigenous people in Canada, but have not been able to because we have not defined those changes in law.
Today, we are making those changes in law. We are allowing the entitlements and benefits for these thousands of indigenous people who have been neglected for a very long time. Many of them have been waiting for years. As we know, the Descheneaux decision went on in the courts for many years and was fought by the Harper government. It would not accept any changes within the Indian Act as it was relative to discrimination.
When this bill went to the Senate, some amendments were proposed. Those amendments were struck down at the committee stage of the House of Commons. Despite supporting a number of the amendments proposed by the Senate, the government made it clear that it could not support one amendment that was put forward by Senator McPhedran and accepted by the committee. The intent of Senator McPhedran's amendment to clause one of Bill S-3 was to implement the approach commonly referred to as “6(1)(a) all the way”.
While there is no question that this amendment was put forward with the best of intentions, and I know it was, the way this clause is drafted creates ambiguity as to whether it will do what it apparently intends to do.
When the bar association testified before the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and I was at committee that day, its representative cautioned against simply inserting that proposed amendment in its current form into the legislation. In fact, the members of the Indigenous Bar Association who testified went on to say, “You run into technical problems with the language by simply inserting that into a bill because you run the risk of inconsistencies or some unintended consequences with that.”
If the clause is interpreted in a way to implement the “6(1)(a) all the way” approach, then it could potentially extend status to a broad range of individuals impacted by a wide range of alleged inequities, well beyond those that are sex-based. That approach seeks to address non-sex based issues, of which we realize some need to be addressed, but it is well outside of the scope of what Bill S-3 is intended to do.
The approach was explicitly rejected by the British Columbia Court of Appeal in the McIvor decision, where it was clear that under the current state of law, this remedy was not required to make the Indian Act registration provisions charter compliant. That is very important to note in this debate.
The Supreme Court of Canada refused leave to appeal, but this does not mean the government will not consider this as a potential approach in the context of a policy decision to address the broader registration and membership reform. When the minister testified before the Senate committee, she said:
I think it could be 6(1)(a) all the way. But we don’t have enough information to make that decision, the scholarly approach that it would take to look at the impacts and make sure that it didn’t impact others accidentally in a different way.
Our government is taking a responsible approach. We have agreed to go through a stage two approach. We do not currently have all the demographic information to understand the practical implications of such a decision at this time, but it is our job to ensure we do. We know what we are doing today is going to have profound and positive impacts on indigenous communities across Canada and many people. We also know our commitment to stage two will also have very profound and positive impacts for indigenous people.
The amendments proposed today are outside the scope of the government's agenda and its intention. We ask all members to support the bill as it is and support the direction of the government to bring justice to indigenous people.