Second reading of Bill S-210, An Act to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Youth in Canada

By: The Hon. Margaret Dawn Anderson

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Ceremonial Guard drum, Ottawa

Hon. Margaret Dawn Anderson: Honourable senators, I rise in the Senate today to speak to Bill S-210, An Act to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Youth in Canada.

I want to acknowledge that today I speak from my home community of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, on the settled land claim territory of the Inuvialuit.

To begin with, I wish to acknowledge Senator Moodie’s efforts and work on this bill.

I rise today to give voice to the Indigenous peoples and groups in my territory who, both historically and in the present, are disproportionately impacted, impaired, restricted and denied our inherent right to self-determination by federal colonial legislation. Additionally, I wish to make clear that I have engaged in discussions with land claim holders, Indigenous stakeholders, representatives and elected ministers within the Government of the Northwest Territories, or the GNWT, as well as federal government representatives on this specific bill.

However, these discussions should not be conflated with meaningful consultation.

Honourable senators, before I delve into the specifics, it is important to understand the complex governance landscape of the Northwest Territories when looking at legislation with a national impact. Indigenous self-determination and self-government in the N.W.T. are complicated, complex and, more than ever, demanded by Indigenous peoples, groups and governments within the Northwest Territories.

For example, Inuvik is the capital of the Beaufort Delta Region, an administrative region of the Government of the Northwest Territories that encompasses both Gwich’in and Inuvialuit traditional territory. Inuvik is home to both the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and to the Gwich’in Tribal Council, which administers the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement. However, the community itself lies on Gwtch’in-owned land; Inuvialuit land begins at the town boundary.

The Inuvialuit are negotiating a regional Aboriginal self-government agreement for all six Inuvialuit communities. The Nihtat Gwich’in of Inuvik are negotiating a form of community government. The Gwich’in Tribal Council is negotiating a regional government for the three other Gwich’in communities in the Beaufort Delta. And this is just one administrative region of the territory.

Currently, the N.W.T. has four modern treaties: the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement and the Tlicho Land Claims and Self-Government Agreement.

Since the Sahtu land claim agreement was finalized, the community of Déline has also finalized a self-government agreement. In addition to this, there are 13 open negotiation tables. The tables deal with lands, resources and self-government agreements as well as transboundary negotiations. As I alluded to earlier, some self-government negotiations are laying out the framework for a community public government with municipal powers; others are laying the foundations for a regional Aboriginal government that would, due to the importance of economies of scale, provide services to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of its territory through program- and service-delivery arrangements.

Indigenous peoples in the N.W.T. are also negotiating for jurisdictional authorities around program and service delivery that have historically been held by the federal and territorial governments. While Canada, the GNWT and the Indigenous rights holders are all party to self-government negotiations, because of devolution there are times when the negotiations, particularly those for programs and services portfolios, take place between the GNWT and Indigenous rights holders.

One of these key areas is child and family services.

Honourable senators, Bill S-210 would directly affect negotiations of Indigenous rights holders in the Northwest Territories. This is of concern not just for the rights holders, but also the GNWT Because of the lack of consultation at the national, provincial, territorial, municipal and Indigenous levels of government, this bill fails to consider the implications to the inherent rights, including the right to self-determination and the ongoing negotiations for devolution of programs and services to Indigenous governments.

The demographics of the N.W.T. is also relevant. While approximately 50% of the population in the N.W.T. is Indigenous, 98% of children receiving services in the N.W.T. are Indigenous — a hugely disproportionate number. This means that this bill could have profound impacts not just to Indigenous children, youth and families, but also the governments who are responsible for their care. In addition, we have 11 official languages that are integral to our identity, culture and kinship. Language must be a factor when considering any legislation.

In 2019, two bills that recognized the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples passed: Bill C-92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families; and Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages. Both bills were government bills.

When speaking to Bill C-92 in June 2019, Minister Seamus O’Regan emphasized the extent of his department’s engagement on the proposed legislation, stating:

This legislation is an accumulation of intensive engagement, including nearly 2,000 participants across 65 sessions, from elders, youth, women, grandmothers, aunties and from those with lived experience in a broken child and family services system. We heard what needed to be included in the bill to make successful the exercise of jurisdiction that is already an inherent right of first nations, Inuit and Métis people.

In relation to Bill C-91, the Honourable Pablo Rodriguez also outlined the extent of meaningful engagement, stating:

In over eight months, the Department of Canadian Heritage led more than 20 round tables across the country with a wide range of experts, practitioners and academics of indigenous languages. The feedback from those sessions, as well as those conducted by each of our partners, was used as the basis of the 12 fundamental principles that set the foundation for this legislation.

My officials also conducted some 30 intensive engagement sessions across Canada with first nations, Inuit and Métis participants. Our online portal collected some 200 questionnaires and electronic submissions. Sessions were held, and presentations were made, as requested, with self-governing and modern treaty groups.

When I spoke with GNWT officials about Bill S-210, they raised with me the issue of the cost of implementing new legislation. While Canada has an overall responsibility to children and youth in Canada, the responsibility for child and family services lies with provinces and territories. In terms of this bill, those costs would include additional N.W.T. data collection and increased reporting to the office of the Commissioner. In a written statement submitted to my office, the N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services, which is responsible for providing child and family services across the territory, noted:

Our most significant concern with Bill S-210 is that it appears to be a step back in Canada’s distinctions-based approach to ensuring the rights, interests, and circumstances of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children and youth are properly acknowledged and implemented.

The department also noted that different regions, histories and cultures present many unique needs and challenges and acknowledged the necessary involvement of First Nations, Inuit and Métis governing bodies in the implementation of Bill S-210, stating:

This participation cannot succeed without proper funding, which needs to be identified and established in collaboration with Indigenous governments.

Additionally, the department completed a clause-by-clause consideration of Bill S-210 with 16 key observations and issues contained within the bill that they have shared with me. This clause-by-clause analysis further supports the need for greater consultation at a provincial and territorial level.

What I have learned through discussions with stakeholders across the territory speaks to a glaring weakness of this bill: namely, the lack of consultations. I would submit that this is a fundamental flaw of proceeding with this issue as a Senate public bill as opposed to a government bill. As we all know, government bills deal with matters of national interest whereas Senate public bills are used to grant special powers, benefits or exemptions to a person or persons, including corporations. It is safe to say that Bill S-210 deals with matters of national interest.

If the Government of Canada is truly committed to reconciliation, this bill must proceed by way of a government bill. This would allow for the commitment of necessary resources, personnel and the time to engage in respectful and meaningful consultations that are absent in this current process. It would also allow for a comparative review of how this bill would work alongside, and complement, Bill C-91 and Bill C-92 as well as other existing legislation that impacts Indigenous children, youth and families.

We often speak of the importance of hearing from those who are affected by the bills we debate and pass in Ottawa. I would like to relay the gracious and thoughtful words of those I have spoken with about this bill.

Before I do, I would like to convey that there is support for the intent of this bill and recognition that the safety, protection and well-being of all children is paramount. However, those I have spoken with agree Bill S-210 in its current form and the process as a Senate public bill is problematic and troublesome.

Dene National and AFN Regional Chief Norman Yakeleya stated of this bill, “This is a step backwards in the process.” Chief Yakeleya spoke to the importance of adequate and thorough consultation with the Dene Nation that includes chiefs, elders, communities and Indigenous leaders. He noted that they have plenty to say and it is best done in their traditional Dene language.

Chief Yakeleya agreed that Canada has an obligation to children, and their rights, well-being and protection is paramount. However, he noted that federal legislation does not coincide with tradition teachings and current laws do not encourage, recognize and reflect traditional Dene values and beliefs of child rearing. Chief Yakeleya described this as an important bill with huge implications for the Dene if it proceeds without adequate consultations.

Acho Dene Koe First Nation Chief Gene Hope also identified the need for proper consultation with Indigenous groups. Chief Hope sees consultation as a multi-tiered reciprocal process that includes the provision of information, adequate time to review and consider implications, taking feedback and concerns, and meeting face to face. He noted that a failure to consult would have devastating effects. The Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik also expressed concern with this bill and the lack of consultation.

As Indigenous people in the North, we have for over a century been the subject of various legislation and policies which have impacted and continue to impact our children. This includes residential school, Indian day school, child welfare legislation, Eskimo Identification and the Sixties Scoop. We know what the challenges are. We continue to speak up about our challenges, perpetuated and exacerbated by Canadian legislation and policies.

This leads me to the question I initially had upon reading this legislation: Why do we need another layer of the government to speak on our behalf? Are our voices not strong enough? We know the price of being silenced. As Indigenous people, our grandparents, parents, children and communities continue to pay an immeasurable price.

In the supplementary mandate letters released in January of this year, the Prime Minister reiterated the importance of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples, stating that he expects all ministers to work “in full partnership” with Indigenous people. He also emphasized the important role that ministers play in helping to advance self-determination, closing socio-economic gaps and eliminating systemic barriers facing First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

If reconciliation is to be achieved, it must happen at all levels of government. This requires meaningful consultation on Bill S-210. It is unfathomable to think that we would support a bill that clearly fails to meet the duty to consult. In doing so, this chamber would be maintaining and propagating the historical wrongdoings that we as Indigenous people have suffered and that continue to impact us today. We as legislators, who are constitutionally responsible to give voice to minorities, cannot continue to operate as if all Canadians, provinces and territories, communities and individuals are equal. I can attest as an Indigenous person and as a resident of the N.W.T. that we are not equal. Inequality and disparity are alive and well.

Legislation such as Bill S-210, that continues to treat all Canadians, especially Indigenous and minorities, as equal and equitable, will continue to exacerbate the divide, further placing individuals, communities and families at risk, challenging our inherent right as Indigenous people to self-determination and Canada’s promise of reconciliation. Substantive equality should not only be considered in this bill but all legislation that affirms that we are equal and equitable in Canada.

I leave you with the words of U.S. President William H. Taft:

My observation of new reform legislation of meritorious character is that Congress and its members must be educated up to its value by those who have studied and become convinced of its wisdom.

The world is not going to be saved by legislation . . . .

I would add that those who study and are convinced of its wisdom listen to those of us who have lived, continue to live and are directly impacted by legislation we as senators pass.

Quyanainni, Mahsi, thank you.

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