Third reading of Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

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Centennial flame, Ottawa

Hon. Marty Klyne: Honourable senators, I’m speaking from Regina, Saskatchewan within the Treaty 4 territory in the Métis homeland.

Colleagues, I was recently watching CTV’s “Your Morning” show interviewing Randell Adjei, whom this spring became Ontario’s first poet laureate. This renowned artist and poet released his first book of poetry in 2018 entitled, I Am Not My Struggles.

During the interview, Mr. Adjei referred to a line in one of his poems, “Brokenness:”

There’s a line in there that says, ‘If you’ve never known brokenness, how would you know when you were whole? If you’ve never been broken, then how would you measure your growth?’

I searched out the poem and read it in its entirety, and I was moved by it. It made me think about Bill C-15 and upholding Indigenous people’s rights. During the interview I referenced earlier, Mr. Adjei said the poem is:

. . . really a reminder to all of us that no matter what we go through in life, that . . . hardships are meant to really define us. I think they’re meant to design and prepare us for what’s to come in the future, and build our resilience.

Senators, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples uplifts many oppressed peoples around the world. People have experienced similar injustices of colonialism and racism and their intergenerational consequences. To me, Mr. Adjei’s words speak to the plight of too many Indigenous people living in Canada and to why things must change.

The poem also reminds me that Bill C-15 did not originate as a benevolent proposal of government. Rather, this legislation is the product of decades of Indigenous grassroots struggle and advocacy, political organization, litigation, demonstrations, commissions, inquiries, survivor testimonials and incremental wins.

From this legacy, Bill C-15 embodies a long, difficult and peaceful campaign of moral suasion by Indigenous peoples and their allies to see our human rights upheld in Canada, as they always should have been.

Most recently, Bill C-15 is the result of the determination of a private member and Cree legislator, Mr. Romeo Saganash, with Bill C-262. His efforts built a coalition of leaders, faith groups, scholars and citizens, and current and former parliamentarians, including the Honourable Murray Sinclair and the Honourable Lillian Dyck.

Now with Senator LaBoucane-Benson’s leadership, the time has come to complete this leg of the historic journey embodied in the provisions of this bill. The time has come to begin the hard work of building a Canada where reconciliation is not a dream but a reality.

The issue before us, senators, is whether we as a chamber say yes to reconciliation through the adoption of Bill C-15.

For some senators, saying yes to reconciliation might mean acknowledging Indigenous people’s rights to self-determination, to participation and to ancestral lands and resources.

For some senators, saying yes to reconciliation might mean admitting Canada’s historic and ongoing record of rights violations, including the betrayal of treaties foundational to this country; the suppression of Indigenous spirituality; and atrocities across Canada, such as occurred in Kamloops.

For some senators coming from different perspectives, saying yes to reconciliation might involve a difficult decision to place a measure of trust in government with Bill C-15’s co-developed action plan, given a record of rights violations and ongoing mistrust.

I of course hear and respect such perspectives but, to all senators, I urge you to say yes to reconciliation with Bill C-15.

Now is the time for all Canadians to move forward together as a federation restored through nation-to-nation relationships, a federation renewed by hope for the future. Now is the time through this bill to empower the younger generations to build a better Canada. What’s more, now is the time for us as senators to rise to the occasion and to use our positions as independent parliamentarians to help ensure that the action plan is successful.

Canada cannot afford to miss this opportunity. The necessity and urgency of reconciliation require us to act. This is the moment.

With the importance of Bill C-15 in mind and the limited window of time before us to Royal Assent, for your consideration, colleagues, I will share three thoughts on the path forward.

In my view, the Senate should adopt this legislation swiftly and without amendment to avoid any risk to the bill. Any issues can be addressed through the co-developed and distinctions-based action plan, with ongoing Senate scrutiny and support, especially at the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.

Responding to arguments made by Senator Patterson and other opponents of this bill, I emphasize that Bill C-15 will take nothing away from nations preferring to deal directly with government as rights holders, such as at treaty tables, rather than through the action plan. Bill C-15 imposes no obligation on any nation to participate in the action plan, as it is voluntary.

For any nations reluctant about Bill C-15’s approach, that should not be reason to hold other nations back from realizing their rights in this way, which, in my view, is promising and practical.

Second, in terms of the reputation of this institution, the Senate must consider the consequences of not passing Bill C-15 or of unduly complicating its passage. After the experience with Bill C-262, and after Canadians voted for this bill in the 2019 federal election, the Senate must not impede reconciliation. Indeed, by supporting efforts on the action plan, the Senate should work all the harder to make a positive and valued contribution.

Third, the Senate should consider that Bill C-15 will advance Indigenous economic inclusion, contrary to the claims of the bill’s opponents. As I said over two years ago with Bill C-262, I fully support the adoption of the UN declaration through the lens of having spent several decades working alongside Canada’s Indigenous people who are attempting to secure the future through self-determination while maintaining, protecting and, in some cases, restoring their cultural heritage and community values.

Many communities are achieving tremendous success that can be replicated elsewhere, including through the excellent work of national Indigenous business and economic development organizations.

On this point, I reference the evidence presented to the House of Commons and Senate — most recently at the Aboriginal Peoples Committee. The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, the National Indigenous Economic Development Board and the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association indicated strong support for passing Bill C-15 without delay.

Importantly, the leaders of these organizations — Tabatha Bull, Dawn Madahbee Leach and Shannin Metatawabin — emphasized the need to include economic reconciliation in the action plan. Their collective view was that Indigenous prosperity and rights recognition are inextricably linked. It is their position that the adoption of Bill C-15 will send a powerful message to corporate Canada, helping to establish cultural norms that uphold Indigenous rights and economic inclusion and encouraging private sector commitment to answer the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 92 on business and reconciliation.

Meaningful action from the corporate sector may include equitable access for Indigenous peoples to compete for jobs, additional training and educational opportunities towards a corporation achieving a representative workforce that reflects the demographics of our nation, as well as education for corporate management and staff on intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights and anti-racism.

Just as environmental, social and governance have become increasingly prevalent in corporate responsibility and valued in many equity markets, Indigenous knowledge should also be properly valued and combined with science and corporate governance for inclusive and holistic outcomes. Corporations should become sensitive to social and labour market expectations, contributing to reconciliation and making this a better nation.

These Indigenous business and economic development organizations also indicated that rights recognition is important for true business partnerships with Indigenous nations in resource development contexts, such as through ownership and management roles and skills training and employment commitments. Such approaches can further investor certainty and reduce the risk of litigation.

These organizations also noted that Canada has a history of purposeful economic discrimination against Indigenous peoples through the colonial destruction of traditional economies; the denial of Indigenous nations’ access to rightful lands and resources; the imposition of racist economic restrictions on individuals and communities through the Indian Act; political exclusion from the development of economic public policy; the policies and legacies of residential schools and related assimilation programs, historically approved by the Senate; the inadequate funding of basic living standards, community services and infrastructure; and a lack of fair opportunities for quality education, skills development and access to capital.

It is common thinking that if treaties were upheld and fulfilled, Indigenous peoples today would be making valued contributions to Canada’s economy. Through self-sufficiency and independence, they would be practising their ceremonies, culture and language, and have a proud identity as a nation participating and collaborating within a federation. Instead, they have to campaign and litigate to get the treaties upheld. There isn’t one numbered treaty that doesn’t mention education, yet it isn’t until recently that the gap is being closed on per-student funding and access to education compared to the rest of the country.

Past policies have created ongoing barriers for Indigenous peoples to have full and fair participation in the Canadian economy. I can see clearly how this has held back this country from being all it can be — not to mention the injustices.

Meaningful action from government should include: providing resources and supporting capacity building; enabling all nations to exercise economic self-determination; and allowing them to take full advantage of participating in, and competing for, opportunities that arise. Otherwise, we have the status quo — a lack of access to quality education, skills development and barriers to capital continuing to be an anchor that holds back nations from self-sufficiency and independence.

To achieve economic reconciliation, the action plan will be key. I would encourage the government, and all senators, to give ongoing attention to the need to closely involve Indigenous business organizations in policy development, and to consider Indigenous lenses around economic issues. The result will be greater prosperity for Indigenous communities and the entire country.

In closing, senators, in keeping our eyes on the prize, I quote the Honourable Murray Sinclair’s statement at the introduction of Bill C-15 last December. As a scholar of Canadian history and an inspiration to many in this chamber, including me, Senator Sinclair said:

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is at the absolute heart of the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission . . . With the passage of this bill, in many ways the hard work of reconciliation will only begin in earnest, as many federal laws must be brought into compliance with Indigenous Peoples’ inherent rights. Implementation will be everything. However, this bill is a commitment at the highest level to build the Canada we should have always been, and that we will now build together . . .

The Government’s introduction of Bill C-15 is a deeply moving and encouraging step towards reconciliation. I have confidence that we as a country are on the right path, and I look forward to the legislation’s passage into law. That day, that we can now see ahead, will be a day for celebration.

Senators, a celebration is right; and after this pandemic, we will deserve it. This year, after we pass Bill C-15 into law, our federation’s one hundred and fifty-fourth Canada Day can be the best yet — although sombre and reflective in many ways, realizing the weight of this country’s true history. Nonetheless, with this legislation, Parliament — and the Canadians we represent — will have accepted the truth and said “yes” to reconciliation. That, colleagues, is no small feat.

I urge this chamber to adopt Bill C-15 at the soonest opportunity. Thank you. Hiy kitatamîhin.

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