OTTAWA — Odds are shrinking that an NDP MP’s bill proposing the government review its laws to ensure they meet minimal international rights standards for Indigenous peoples will pass before Parliament adjourns for summer.
The latest setback for NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s Bill C-262 happened Wednesday evening after a meeting of the Senate’s standing committee for Aboriginal peoples was abruptly cancelled. The bill will die on the order paper if it doesn’t pass before Parliament rises.
“We only have two more weeks left,” committee chair Sen. Lillian Dyck told HuffPost Canada. “And because it’s a private member’s bill, the only times it will likely come up for debate … is on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
The cancelled meeting comes days after the final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls urged Parliament to pass Saganash’s bill.
Watch: The report on missing & murdered Indigenous women & girls is here
The bill demands the federal government ensure federal laws are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). That declaration formalizes “minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being” for Indigenous peoples around the world.
Saganash introduced the bill in spring 2016. Months later, former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said adopting the UN declaration was an “unworkable” and “simplistic” approach to improve Indigenous rights.
Wilson-Raybould later backtracked on her comments, and announced the government’s full support for Saganash’s bill in 2017. The bill passed the House of Commons last year.
Wednesday’s meeting was supposed to be the last of four that senators had agreed to use to study the bill. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who was scheduled to appear before the committee, was outraged by the nature of its cancellation.
Dyck blamed Conservative Whip Sen. Don Plett, accusing him of pulling procedural tactics to obstruct the meeting. “He has thwarted the democratic process in my view,” the Saskatechewan senator said.
Plett shot back that he’s just doing his job and not trying to stall the bill. “I am trying to do things in a proper order,” he said.
The Tory senator, who also sits as a member of the Senate’s Aboriginal peoples committee, said he had made a handshake deal with Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair that he would support study of the bill on the condition that two ministers make themselves available for questions.
The two ministers Plett wants added to the witness list are Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister David Lametti.
In April, Bennett and Lametti sent a letter to Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith to drop “stall tactics” that have delayed the bill from being studied in committee.
Plett called the letter a “very unusual” intervention by the government over a private member’s bill and said he wants an opportunity to question ministers about their support.
“To me, this is about as black and white as possible and yet people are trying to find every avenue to somehow blame me or our caucus for stopping a bill, when we in fact are continually holding up our end of bargains and others are not,” the Manitoba senator told HuffPost in an interview. “I find that very frustrating.”
Conservative senators are concerned that acknowledging the “free, prior, and informed consent” of Indigenous peoples, as written in UNDRIP, may give communities a “veto” to halt resource development projects.
Several legal experts who appeared at committee last week said that concern holds little merit. Joshua Nichols, an assistant professor of law at the University of Alberta, told senators that kind of argument is “misleading,” explaining that a veto and consent aren’t the same thing.
John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, said the word “veto” doesn’t appear anywhere in the UN declaration.
At the end of the meeting, a Tory MP claimed the committee was stacking its witness list with supporters of the bill.
The government thinks the delay is an example of partisan politics at play.
Bennett’s office called Plett’s request to have ministers appear before committee on a private member’s bill “unusual” and “nothing more than the latest Conservative delay tactic” to delay C-262 from going forward.
“Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples cannot and should not be subject to partisanship,” Bennett’s office wrote in an email.
It’s parliamentary procedure for a sponsor of a bill to appear at committee to answer questions. Saganash appeared at the Senate’s Aboriginal peoples committee last week where he called pushback to his bill concerning.
“I find it kind of troubling that there are still people in 2019 in this place called Canada that oppose the human rights of the First Peoples of this country,” he said at the time.
Landmark national inquiry report calls on Senate to pass bill
National inquiry commissioners included the passage of Saganash’s bill as one of their top 10 “immediate” calls for action after hearing testimony from thousands of people.
Watch: Justin Trudeau accepts inquiry finding of genocide, but says focus must be on response
Recognizing that the bill could be repealed by a future government, the commissioners took an extra step to call on the government to bring the Constitution in line with UNDRIP.
Plett said he hasn’t had a chance to review the national inquiry’s final report and said if the government is serious about its support for C-262, then the government should sponsor it.
“If this becomes a government bill we will be obligated to deal with it,” Plett said.
“And if it is as important as what the inquiry says, or what Sen. Sinclair says, or indeed Minister Lametti says, then make it a government bill.”
That’s the way to get things done, he said.