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Conservative senators obstructing Indigenous rights bill

MP Romeo Saganash at 2017 teach in on Bill C-262. Dennis Gruending photo.

A group of Conservative senators are attempting to prevent an important piece of legislation from becoming law. Bill C-262 would ensure Canadian laws are consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This bill passed resoundingly the House of Commons on May 30 by a vote of 206-79, with only the Conservatives voting against. It was then sent to the Senate for ratification.

Now Conservative senators on the standing committee on Aboriginal peoples are trying to run out the clock by using amendments and proposing to call more witnesses. They know that if they can delay for even a week or two, Bill C-262 will die on the order paper when Parliament rises in June prior to the federal election in October.

Dignity and self-determination

When the UN declaration was passed in 2007, it represented over 23 years of effort by the world's Indigenous peoples to have their inherent rights recognized and upheld at an international level. A common and recurring theme in that declaration is that Indigenous peoples have the right to dignity and self-determination, and that no actions regarding their persons or lands should be taken without their "free, prior and informed consent."

In its report in 2015, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was led by Justice Murray Sinclair of Manitoba, specifically called on the federal government to "fully adopt and implement" the UN declaration. Sinclair has since been appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and sits as an Independent.

Under the previous Harper government, Canada was one of only four countries to vote against the adoption of the declaration at the United Nations, and only endorsed it in 2010 as an "aspirational" document. Harper's opposition was due in large part to a belief that accepting the declaration might put in jeopardy various proposed pipelines and resource extraction projects involving Indigenous lands. The Trudeau government fully approved the declaration in 2016 but did not put forward legislation which would provide a framework for implementing it.

Enter Bill C-262

In turn, Roméo Saganash, an Indigenous NDP MP from northern Quebec, introduced private member's Bill C-262 into the House of Commons. It would attempt to ensure that Canadian laws will be consistent with the UN declaration, and would require annual reporting to Parliament on progress made toward implementation.

It is unusual for a private member's bill to pass, but this one was an exception. One reason may be that Bill C-262 has support from organizations that represent over 90 per cent of Indigenous peoples in Canada, including the Assembly of First Nations, who have said that they won't settle for anything less than a legislative framework.

Conservative senators obstruct

But that does not appear to matter to Conservative senators such as Don Plett. He claimed on his Twitter account that "many Indigenous people" have asked him not to pass Bill-C262. As evidence, Plett posted one unsigned letter from someone who claimed to be an Indigenous person. Apparently Senator Plett prefers the advice of an unnamed letter writer to that of Indigenous leaders who, unlike Plett, were actually elected. Another Conservative, Senator Linda Frum, used a common conspiracy trope claiming that "ceding legislative authority to the corrupt UN solves nothing."

Murray Sinclair responds

When Murray Sinclair appeared before the Senate's Aboriginal peoples committee on May 28, he debunked the claims made about the UN. "A lot is being made of the possibility that the UN declaration itself is going to become the law of Canada by virtue of this bill, and that is not the case," Sinclair said. "People need to stop suggesting that . . ."

Another claim being made is that if the declaration is adopted Indigenous peoples will have a veto over resource and other development. Cree Senator Mary Jane McCallum, testifying before the same Senate committee, said those concerns amount to "fear mongering."

Pressure on senators

Everyone from faith leaders to Amnesty International has called upon the senators to support Bill C-262. The ecumenical justice group KAIROS has organized a campaign of letter writing, telephone calls and social media activity to convince Senators to approve the bill. You can use this link to KAIROS to see how to join the campaign -- but there are only a few days remaining to do so.

Dennis Gruendng is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former MP. This piece appeared on Dennis Gruendng's Pulpit and Politics blog.

Image: Dennis Gruending

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