Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2017 (224 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — Senators have rubber-stamped government changes to the Indian Act, after a push by Manitoban parliamentarians to eliminate sex discrimination in its lineage provisions.
Bill S-3 will head to the House of Commons as early as Nov. 20, after senators rejected a move Thursday to tighten the bill’s time frame for the government to consult with First Nations groups.
This spring, the bill caused a dramatic, months-long standoff led by Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran and supported by Sen. Murray Sinclair.
Ottawa introduced the bill a year ago, to restore Indian Act status to women who lost it by marrying non-Indigenous men, as well as their descendants. The bill came in response to an August 2015 court ruling, saying the Indian register would have to shut down if it didn’t stop such discrimination.
The Liberals wrote the original version of Bill S-3 to deal with those who lost their Indian status from 1951 onward. But in May, McPhedran amended the bill at the request of First Nations activists. Dubbed the "all-the-way" amendment, the change would restore status to all cases dating to 1869.
Proponents claimed it would rectify discrimination against women, and possibly extend federal mental-health and dental benefits to numerous Manitobans. McPhedran and two Indigenous senators convinced most of their colleagues to support that change.
But the Liberals gutted those changes, claiming as many as two million Canadians could flood First Nations band rolls and exhaust their services. They said their original bill would make 35,000 people eligible for status.
This summer, there was a dramatic showdown involving sobbing MPs, rare procedural moves and a stinging court rebuke, before a judge gave Parliament until Dec. 22 to pass the bill.
On Tuesday, the government’s representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, introduced multiple changes, which would bring the original bill into force, but prescribe deadlines to report on talks with First Nations people, to find a way to restore status to those who lost it prior to 1951.
As it now stands, Bill S-3 would have the government consult with First Nations groups on how to bridge the gap, and report to Parliament on that process within five months, a year and then three years of the bill becoming law.
Sinclair supported the bill, but others like Sen. Serge Joyal panned the lack of deadlines to actually expand its scope.
On Thursday, Sen. Patrick Brazeau unsuccessfully moved to have an 18-month deadline to finish consultations with Indigenous groups, noting the government already has hundreds of consultations listed online.
"I've seen consultation with no fixed end date go on for decades. Why should this time be any different?" said Brazeau, a member of Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec. "How is the government harmed by attaching a fixed end date? Is it because it's difficult?"
Brazeau also expressed cynicism over the Liberals letting the bill sit for four months in the Senate, "yet are suddenly in such a rush" to pass the bill this week.
"I feel we are under threat," he said, saying it was akin to substandard treaties his ancestors signed.
Senators voted against his amendment, in a voice vote that noted a slight majority of nays. They accepted Tuesday’s proposal, which means the bill only needs one more Commons vote to pass.
David Taylor, an Ottawa lawyer focusing on minority rights, has followed Bill S-3 closely. He said there’s nothing in the bill that forces the government to actually widen the bill, only to inform Parliament of who they’ve consulted.
"Parliament doesn't have a means to force the executive to proclaim legislation," he said, speaking on his own behalf. "They would actually have to pass another bill, through both houses, if they wanted to force the government to do it by a particular time."
This week’s changes have attracted mixed reactions from Indigenous groups, though mostly positive.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde wrote the changes to the bill were "an essential step" that "will help remove federal policy barriers for First Nations women and girls in the short term" while advocates work towards ending the Indian Act.
But prominent First Nations activist and lawyer Pam Palmater said a promise for future equality doesn’t reach the Charter guarantee of equality.
Winnipeg MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who is Cree, had been one of the strongest advocates for a wider bill, breaking into tears in the Commons when he recounted going to First Nations events and hearing about people denied their birthright.
"It's certainly a bigger change than I'd expected," he said of the current bill. "It's a good indication the government is taking it seriously."
He believes even without a firm deadline, reporting to Parliament holds governments to account and would bolster any court case if Ottawa failed to follow through.
It remains unclear how many people would actually be eligible for status under the bill.
A government-commissioned demographer relied on census data to suggest the "all-the-way" bill would make 86,917 people eligible for Indian status, in addition to the current 1.02 million. But that would include Canadians who falsely claimed First Nations roots, and likely Métis people, neither of whom qualify for Indian status.
For the third day in the row, the federal government was unable to provide someone to explain the $28,000 research. Ottawa has also forbidden the demographer from speaking with media.
McPhedran has not been available for interviews, as she is in Bangladesh on parliamentary business.
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"
Updated on Friday, November 10, 2017 at 6:49 AM CST: Photo added.