Conservative senators are on the brink of thwarting Parliament’s attempt to bring Canada’s laws in alignment with the global minimum human rights standards for Indigenous peoples.
On Wednesday evening the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples was scheduled to hear from three final witnesses and then proceed with a clause-by-clause reading of Bill C-262, one of the final steps in the process before the new legislation can become law.
But less than an hour before the committee was scheduled to sit, Conservative Senator Donald Plett, the senate opposition whip, and a few other Conservative senators voted down a motion by committee Chair Lillian Dyck proposing to sit through committee while the Senate chamber was in session.
C-262 is a private member’s bill from Cree NDP MP Romeo Saganash.
It would compel Canada to review federal laws with an eye to compatibility with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
The bill was introduced in 2016 and was passed in the House of Commons last year.
Dyck says the Conservative senators are stalling, putting progress on Indigenous rights at risk.
“They’ve been denying that they’re delaying the bill, but honestly, if you look what they’ve done, it is delay tactics,” Dyck told APTN News Wednesday evening.
Dyck points to previous delays in the bill’s progression through the senate at the hands of Senator Plett, who she says, stalled the bill two to three weeks from going to committee.
“As the whip Senator Plett has the power to create havoc,” she said.
“This bill is important for Indigenous people.”
Plett and other Conservative senators like Scott Tannas have expressed concern over the bill, saying it could give Indigenous peoples a “veto” over resource development projects and create legal and economic uncertainty.
Independent senators and Indigenous leaders have long maintained that properly recognizing Indigenous rights in Canadian law would lead to less uncertainty, since many of the court cases around resource development projects revolve around legal questions of whether Indigenous rights have been properly respected.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was scheduled to give testimony before the committee Wednesday evening.
He arrived at the Senate building only to find out the meeting had been cancelled.
Bellegarde said the Conservative senators’ decision to prevent Wednesday’s committee meeting was “outrageous, shameful, and very undemocratic.
“It’s an opportunity lost for rights recognition and implementation,” he said.
“I think it’s going to create further economic uncertainty when it comes to the economy. If you want to create economic certainty, you’ve got to respect rights, title and jurisdiction. So it’s a huge missed opportunity by the Senators.”
Former Northwest Territories premier and former Dene Nation president Stephen Kakfwi was also left standing outside the Senate building Wednesday evening.
He travelled from Yellowknife to watch the committee meeting and support the bill’s passage.
“The goal of [C-262] is to recognize the human rights of the Indigenous people of this country, to ensure that all the laws in Canada abide by the fact that we have the same rights as human beings to every other Canadian that lives in this country,” Kakfwi told APTN.
He said the Conservative senators’ actions amount to “one last attempt to continue to oppress the human dignity of the Indigenous people of this country.
“That has been the history of Canada. People have slowly relented,” Kakfwi continued. “And here today, we just saw the last remnants of fear-mongering people, ignorant people, who think there is national interest in continuing to suppress our human rights of the Indigenous people of this country.”
Plett and Tannas did not respond to interview requests from APTN by the time of publication.
But Plett did respond to Senator Murray Sinclair on Twitter, after Sinclair, the bill’s senate sponsor, called out the Manitoba senator for stalling jeopardizing the bill.
“It took the UN 24 years to pass UNDRIP and Senator Sinclair expects the Senate APPA committee to deal with it in less than 24 days,” Plett tweeted.
In a recent interview with APTN’s Nation to Nation, Sinclair suggested the continued suppression of Indigenous rights in Canada could lead to a rebellion.
“My view is if we continue to ignore what society is doing to Indigenous people…we will likely be creating a population of young Indigenous people who will be prone to thinking about acting out violently against society.”
Cree Senator Mary Jane McCallum told APTN last month that by preventing the bill’s passage after C-262 has already been voted on and supported in the House of Commons, unelected Conservative senators are turning the Red Chamber into “a vehicle of structural violence” against Indigenous Peoples.
Saganash, who testified before the senate committee last week, is now pointing to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer now, who he wants to ensure the Conservative senators support the bill’s passage.
“If Andrew Sheer, as leader of the Conservative Party, cannot or will not control Conservative Senators from killing the Bill C-262 – if, as a result, the UN Declaration will not be implemented in Canadian law, and if the Conservatives show such disdain for the human rights of Indigenous peoples across Canada and prefer to perpetuate colonialism and injustice – then the Conservatives are unfit to be elected and form the next federal government in Canada,” Saganash said in a written statement Wednesday evening.
The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report called on the federal and provincial governments to “fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.”
Earlier this week the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its final report.
Among its 231 calls for justice, the national inquiry compels Canada to implement the U.N. Declaration, including “amending the Constitution to bring it into conformity with UNDRIP.”
In April, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh moved a motion asking the Senate to pass C-262 into law “at the earliest opportunity.”
The motion was unanimously adopted by the House of Commons, including by Conservative MPs.
Kakfwi said the Conservative senators’ attempts to now thwart the rights-based legislation is a clear example of how the senate can work against Canadians’ democratic interests.
“The senate surely should be abolished for the kind of shenanigans that they pulled off here today,” he said. “It is thwarting the will of the elected people in the legislature, in the House of Commons, here today. Who are they? A handful of Conservative senators.”
Bellegarde said the Conservative senators “can do better job and must do a better job for Canadians.”
Dyck said if the Conservative senators are unsure about the bill, they should “let the whole senate decide.
“It shouldn’t be up to a few who have decided that they don’t want to pass it. Let it come to a vote,” she added.
“In a democracy, especially I think as senators, we should be putting things to a vote — we shouldn’t be trying to hold them up.”
APTN requested comment from Scheer on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.