While the federal government is not opposed to amending the UNDRIP legislation “in principle,” it’s operating under an urgent timeline to pass Bill C-15 within the waning days of the session, Justice Minister David Lametti told Senators Monday.
Speaking to the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee, Mr. Lametti (LaSalle—Émard—Verdun, Que.) implored members of the Upper Chamber to greenlight the bill, which aims to align federal laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), without delay.
“There are constraints caused by the political system in a minority government that I can’t control, so I have done my best within those constraints to move this bill forward,” said Mr. Lametti, in response to a question from Independent Senator Mary Jane McCallum (Manitoba).
“While I’m never completely closed to amendments, there is a time dimension this time around and also, because it’s a bill that has an impact on Indigenous people across Canada, there has to be some consideration of their views with respect to amendments.”
Sen. McCallum, a Cree Parliamentarian who has served since December 2017, said it appeared her colleagues were receiving the bill in the dying days of the session, with “inadequate time” to study it “in a fulsome and responsible way.” Introduced by Mr. Lametti on Dec. 3, 2020, for first reading, it is now at second reading in the Senate, with the committee continuing its pre-study of the bill. Mr. Lametti was joined by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) to testify to the committee on Monday.
According to the Senate calendar, there are some 11 fixed sitting days left until it adjourns for the summer break, with an additional seven possible sitting days.
Sen. McCallum signalled her intent to bring forward an amendment last week to the bill, before being asked by Independent Senator Mary Coyle (Antigonish, N.S.) why she would support a “possible delay and possibly not even getting this bill passed.” Sen. McCallum called that “a very unfair question to put on my shoulders,” as Senators’ duty to offer sober second thought “is a valuable and necessary part of the study.”
The Liberals have faced heat over their pace on introducing the legislation after committing to bring the principles into law over the last two election campaigns.
— David Lametti (@DavidLametti) May 25, 2021
Bill C-15 draws on a private member’s bill, Bill C-262, from former NDP MP Romeo Saganash that was passed by the House in the last Parliament, but which died on the order paper in the Senate when the 2019 election was called. At the time, some Conservative Senators used procedural tactics to delay debate on some private member’s bills in the Upper Chamber.
Noting it is not an “unknown bill” with contents “very similar” to the previous legislation, Mr. Lametti argued Senators have already had enough time to mull the legislation. “It is getting late in the game, and we think this is an important piece of legislation that we would like to get to the next step, the next positive step,” he said. That includes the formation of an action plan, which was to be completed and tabled in Parliament within a three-year timeframe under Mr. Saganash’s bill, but has since been shortened to two years. (Mr. Lametti also hinted that even though he tabled the bill, it was unclear who in the cabinet would be the “lead” on the file in future months. )
Mr. Lametti’s remarks come amid a minority Parliament and the COVID-19 pandemic that derailed much of the government’s agenda last year. Under a high-stakes minority Parliament, the government can fall at any time if opposition parties band together and vote against it on a confidence vote, which would trigger an election.
In February last year, shortly before the virus was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, CBC reported that UNDRIP was set to be tabled sometime that month. But, that plan was shelved amid ongoing country-wide solidarity demonstrations in support of some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs at the time, who opposed the construction of the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline running through its traditional hereditary territory. As of last summer, the feds said it was possible the pandemic could further delay UNDRIP’s introduction.
Other experts, meanwhile, have said the new legislation lacks teeth and has unclear wording around “free, prior, and informed consent,” which has proven a sticking point for the Conservatives, who say it signals Indigenous communities will be able to “veto” development projects on its lands. Mr. Lametti, who appeared before the committee once before this month, has tried to put those concerns to bed, saying defining it is a “process.” Still, with concerns persisting, Canadian Senators Group Leader Scott Tannas (Alberta) asked what the government would be doing to “bring some sort of clarity to [free, prior, and informed consent] rather than seeing everybody run to court to have it [defined] over the next 10 years.”
“It can’t be defined at the outset. That’s impossible, because there’s so many different contexts in which Indigenous people find themselves and in the context of whatever is being proposed to be done,” said Mr. Lametti. “It’s my firm view this will actually avoid a lot of conflict, a lot of court cases, because if you’re there from the beginning, that’s the best way to avoid litigation.” The text of the bill as currently drafted prohibits Indigenous people from being “forcibly removed from their lands or territories” and relocation “without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Indigenous peoples concerned.”
The feds have also faced heat from some First Nations who say the consultation process for the bill was limited in scope and relied more on national Indigenous organizations like the Assembly of First Nations, which they consider a lobby group that does not have inherent rights. Defending the consultation process, Mr. Lametti said such efforts are ongoing. “We said that we would table the legislation and continue consulting which is what we did, and I’m still consulting,” he said. “We continue to push and try to speak to as many as we can, and we will deal with those gaps in the action plan.”
The Hill Times