Posted on June 14, 2019

‘Undemocratic and Unfair’: Liberals Accused of Rushing to Pass UN Indigenous Rights Declaration Bill

Maura Forrest, National Post, June 11, 2019

A bill aiming to ensure that Canadian laws are in line with an international declaration on Indigenous rights has cleared another legislative hurdle after an unruly committee meeting Tuesday morning that saw Conservative senators claim repeatedly they were being denied freedom of speech.

Bill C-262, a private member’s bill tabled by NDP MP Romeo Saganash in December 2015 that received government support last year, was passed without amendment by the Senate Aboriginal peoples committee on Tuesday. The bill requires the government to “take all measures necessary” to align Canadian laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a document that affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and to be free of discrimination. UNDRIP also demands “free, prior and informed consent” for activity on Indigenous land, which Conservatives worry could be interpreted as a veto over natural resource development.

The bill has faced opposition from Conservative senators who say it’s being rushed through Parliament without adequate scrutiny, while proponents of the legislation have accused the Tories of using procedural tactics to delay its passage in the final days before Parliament rises for the summer.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Conservative Sen. Dennis Patterson proposed a number of amendments to the bill, including a requirement that the government refer a question to the Supreme Court of Canada about whether the legislation gives Indigenous peoples veto power. Early on, Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair, the bill’s Senate sponsor, interrupted Patterson’s lengthy explanation of his first amendment to call a vote on the proposed change. “He’s spoken a great deal now, and I think he’s just running out the clock,” Sinclair said. The meeting grew heated after that, with both sides accusing the other of abusing the process to serve their own ends. “The right to speak is a fundamental right,” Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk told Independent Sen. Lillian Dyck, the committee’s chair. “If members here cannot speak, then that is a dangerous thing you’re doing.”

The Conservative senators referred frequently to a recent letter from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging the government to pause Bill C-262 and conduct formal consultations with the provinces.

In the letter, dated June 4, Kenney argues that the legislation “could inject serious uncertainty into our Confederation,” given that “many of the potential legal and policy implications of Bill C-262 will affect areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.”

Kenney said there remain many unanswered questions about the bill, and it’s unclear “how the proposed legislation will be applied in the Canadian context.”

At one point during Tuesday’s committee meeting, Tkachuk began reading Kenney’s letter aloud, even as Dyck was trying to call a vote on one of the Conservative amendments. When another senator accused him of disrupting the meeting, Tkachuk lashed out. “My grandparents came here so I could speak!” he said. “And I’m going to speak.” He then went back to reading Kenney’s letter as the vote took place around him.

Soon after, the committee passed a motion to limit debate on each amendment to five minutes, which led to more outrage from the Conservatives. “I prepared my remarks carefully,” Patterson said after he was cut off during his explanation of an amendment. “And I strongly object to not being allowed to complete my remarks. I think it’s undemocratic and unfair and unbalanced.”

The Conservatives unsuccessfully tried several times to adjourn the meeting. All of their amendments were eventually defeated and the bill was sent back to the Senate chamber, unchanged, for a final debate and vote.

Tuesday’s consideration of Bill C-262 follows the cancellation of a meeting scheduled for last Wednesday, after Conservative senators defeated an attempt by Dyck to hold the meeting while the Senate was in session. The cancellation left witnesses standing outside the Senate building waiting to testify, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who accused the Conservative senators of “outrageous, shameful and undemocratic procedural tactics.”

In a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday, Bellegarde commended the committee for a “quick conclusion” of the clause-by-clause review of the bill. “In particular, I want to recognize Senator Lillian Dyck for her strong, principled, and tenacious leadership when dealing with legislation as important as this.”

After the vote on Tuesday, Amnesty International Canada released a statement urging the Senate to pass the bill and accusing the Conservative senators of “hyperbole and misrepresentation.” The organization pointed out that 71 witnesses spoke to the bill during a House of Commons committee study last year. “Bill C-262 is itself modest in scope,” the statement says. “Critically, the Bill does NOT have the effect of codifying the declaration into Canadian law. Bill C-262 calls for a process by which federal laws can be reviewed in a systematic and collaborative way to ensure that Canada’s commitment to uphold the UN declaration is being met.”