Third reading of Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—Amendment by Senator McCallum

By: The Hon. Brian Francis

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Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Quebec

Hon. Brian Francis: Honourable senators, I want to first thank Senator McCallum for her speech.

As an Indigenous man and an eagle staff carrier, I am personally offended and appalled by the earlier point of order. In my opinion, to refer to an eagle feather, which is accorded the highest respect by all First Nations, as a prop speaks to the need for immediate education of all parliamentarians on the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, histories and philosophies of First Nations, Métis and Inuit in Canada.

I also think it speaks to the critical importance of this bill, which seeks to ensure that Canada meets the minimum — not the maximum — standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous people who, for generations, have been subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of our culture, language and our very existence.

We have the right, like any other Canadian, to have our beliefs and practices respected and accommodated, both inside and outside of this chamber. It shows leadership to apologize, and for that I thank Senator Plett. However, what we need now is change so that these situations do not continue to repeat themselves inside or outside of this chamber. One time is too many.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, we are here today to speak to the amendment brought forward by Senator McCallum, for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration. I commend her for all the tremendous work she has done on this bill and on behalf of Indigenous people.

Like her, I share the feelings of distrust, skepticism and even fear of consecutive federal governments, both Liberal and Conservative, that have let us down time and time again. It is hard for so many to trust that Canada and parliamentarians will act honourably towards Indigenous people, but I am hopeful that we have begun a national reckoning and that Canada and Canadians will do better. Like Senator Klyne said earlier, it is time to become the Canada we want to be.

In determining the authority and scope of Bill C-15 and whether it is, in fact, implementing the UN declaration, courts will look to the actual wording of the statute to consider its purpose and intention. As contained in clause 4, the purposes of Bill C-15 are to:

(a) affirm the Declaration as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law; and

(b) provide a framework for the Government of Canada’s implementation of the Declaration.

Many of the amendments by Senator McCallum revolve around concerns with implementation of the declaration, including that the purpose of the bill be amended by replacing the word “affirm” with “implementation” to provide greater clarity. However, clause 4(b) does make it clear that the purpose of the bill is to implement the declaration. As a result, I maintain that this amendment is not needed.

The language contained in clause 4(b) indicates that the legislation serves the purpose of providing a framework for how Canada will implement the UN declaration. This position was supported by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada in their testimony before committee on May 7, where they indicated that Bill C-15 will be used in the interpretation of Canadian law. This legislation serves the purpose of providing a framework for how that would happen in ways that can and include its use in interpreting Canadian law.

As well, Minister Bennett also confirmed that the introduction of Bill C-15 fulfills our government’s commitment to introduce legislation and to implement the declaration, establishing Bill C-262 as the floor rather than the ceiling.

In addition to language contained in the purpose section, clause 4(a) is an affirmation by Canada that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has application in Canadian law. However, this statement is not new because, as we know, the UN declaration does have application in Canada. Presently, it is used as an interpretation tool by the courts, but the courts have lots of discretion to decide how they will apply the UN declaration. That has resulted in rulings that are not in line with the minimum rights of Indigenous people.

This bill will help us begin to correct that. The ratification of the statute provides further weight to the UN declaration and how the courts can use it, not only for interpretation but also to find substantive obligations and rights.

If we consider the language of clause 4(b), this wording would be very persuasive to a court to find that Canada intends to implement the UN declaration through Bill C-15. The court will then look at other clauses of Bill C-15 to determine what that implementation will look like. This is the action plan. It is thus important that the action plan, as contained in Bill C-15, is carefully reviewed, as it will be relied upon by the courts to interpret Canada’s commitment to the implementation of the UN declaration.

This bill is not perfect. None ever is. However, I am convinced that we need to adopt Bill C-15 without delay. It would be shameful for this institution to repeat what happened with Bill C-262.

The Aboriginal Peoples Committee heard from numerous witnesses during our pre-study of Bill C-15 who urged us to pass the bill without amendments because of the fear that it would be defeated. Among them were Indigenous leaders and rights holders, such as the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, ITK, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Grand Council of the Crees, the Dene Nation, the First Nations Leadership Council of British Columbia, and Indigenous academics such as Brenda Gunn, Val Napoleon, Pamela Palmater, Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot, Naiomi Mettalic and former TRC commissioner, Dr. Wilton Littlechild. As a rights holder, I stand in support of this view. This is an historic opportunity to move forward in the right direction. It will not be without problems, but it is long overdue.

I will not go any further into why I am not supportive of the amendments. Indigenous people, like non-Indigenous people, do not always agree on policy or other matters. This is one example. There is a diversity of opinions. We can respectfully agree to disagree on the amendment. Thank you. Wela’lioq.

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