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This article was published 10/8/2017 (316 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — The federal Liberals might yield to a Manitoba-led Senate standoff over who qualifies for Indian status.
In a Montreal court Wednesday, the government sought another six months to respond to an August 2015 court decision, which ruled the Indian Act discriminates by withholding Indian status from women who marry non-Indigenous men, as well as their descendants.
The court had already extended a deadline to fix the law, at which point Indian Act registration would shut down in Quebec.
David Schulze, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said Wednesday the judge will decide on the request "in a matter of days or weeks" and has granted a safeguard order, extending Indian-status registry until the judgment.
The proceedings come as more senators join two of their Manitoba colleagues in pushing for a more robust bill, one that Ottawa has spent months opposing but is now studying, the Free Press has learned.
In November 2016, the Liberals tabled Bill S-3, which would fix the lineage provisions of the Indian Act for those who lost their status from 1951 onward, as well as their descendants.
But Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran amended the bill in May so it would apply to cases dating to 1876, as First Nations activists have long demanded.
The Liberals have strongly opposed the so-called "all the way" amendment, arguing it would lead to a sudden onslaught of First Nations members with voting rights.
They proposed offering status to roughly 35,000 Canadians under the original bill and then start a consultation process to look at expanding the bill later.
The government gutted the Senate amendment amid outcry from Winnipeg Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette and opposition from Manitoba Sen. Murray Sinclair.
At first, the government insisted the Senate help pass Bill S-3 by the court’s July 3 deadline, right up until the last day before Parliament’s summer break. The Liberals then pushed the bill to the Senate’s fall schedule and started pleading for more time from the court.
But, Ottawa seems to be entertaining the idea of the amended bill passing.
Winnipeg demographer Stewart Clatworthy, who served as an expert witness for both sides in the case, told the Free Press that bureaucrats have asked him to conduct more research on how various amendments could shape Indian status.
Clatworthy said the research request includes the "all the way" amendment as well as the Liberals’ proposed consultation process.
"The mill is turning, though it’s turning slowly," he said.
James Fitzmorris, a spokesman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, confirmed the department is looking at the implications of the "all the way" amendment.
"Over the summer, INAC has been working diligently to ensure parliamentarians, First Nations and impacted individuals have the information necessary to support a meaningful discussion," he wrote, adding the government will prioritize Bill S-3 when the Senate resumes sitting Sept. 18.
INAC expects to have Clatworthy’s research in the fall. With more recent census data, that could finally provide an estimate of how many Manitobans would be eligible for Indian status under the bill’s various iterations.
That’s encouraging news to Sen. Lillian Dyck, who says Bill S-3 is especially important for people on the Prairies, where thousands could be eligible for Indian-status benefits such as dental, eye care and mental-health counselling.
"Manitoba and Saskatchewan have been leaders in pushing for equality. Because of our numbers, we see the need."
Dyck’s unswayed by Ottawa’s idea of gradually solving sex discrimination because past governments promised the same thing.
"The two-phase thing has been tried before. It’s insulting and offensive," she said. "How can you consult on basic human rights. It’s just not right."
Dyck said she’s "very optimistic" a majority of senators will support the amended bill, as more voice their support.
Last month, New Brunswick Sen. Sandra Lovelace Nicholas wrote an angry letter to Trudeau, noting she was appointed as a Liberal senator because of her activism around Indian Act sex-discrimination, which culminated in a 1979 United Nations Human Rights Committee.
"I am losing faith in the Liberal party and my admiration for the politicians that I have supported for years because now I have to experience history repeating itself," Nicholas wrote.
Quebec Sen. Patrick Brazeau challenged Trudeau last week, saying on Twitter that "true reconciliation" means accepting the wider amendment.
Brazeau blamed the dispute for his own eight-year-old son facing a one- to two-year delay in registering for Indian status — though such delays were common before the bill was tabled.
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"