UNDRIP bill moves on in Ottawa

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Some First Nations leaders have successfully put heat on Ottawa to speed up Bill C-15, Canada’s UNDRIP legislation.

The government responded by putting a time limit on the first round of Commons debate on the bill, in order to move it along to a Commons committee for further scrutiny.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, began the pressure, telling the Indigenous and Northern Affairs committee he fears C-15 could get stalled before Parliament rises for the summer — or is dissolved for a potential federal election.

(A private member’s bill on UNDRIP from NDP MP Romeo Saganash, Bill C-262, came close to passing, but died after stalling in the Senate just before the 2019 election. Its key elements are included in Bill C-15).

Said Bellegarde: “Canada has made commitments to the Indigenous peoples of the world that it would implement the declaration. What we still lack, however, is the legislation that implements the declaration and sets us on a course of recognition of rights and provides the framework for reconciliation.

“It is important for First Nations, and I believe it is important for all Canadians, to seize this opportunity now. We need to hear the words ‘royal assent’ before the end of June.”

Chief Wilton Littlechild told the committee how he has spent 40 years fighting for recognition of Indigenous rights in Canada.

‘Willie’ Littlechild is a Cree lawyer and chief, a former Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, a former MP, and a residential school survivor.

He was part of a team of human rights and legal experts who took part in a 1977 Indigenous delegation to the United Nations, and later also worked on UNDRIP, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN in 2007.

Littlechild expressed cautious optimism about C-15, which would begin a process to harmonize Canada’s laws with UNDRIP.

“I feel positive that we are going in the right direction. After all, we didn’t go to the United Nations or to the Organization of American States to cause anyone any trouble. We went there because our treaties were being violated on a daily basis and it was our elders and our leaders who instructed me to bring this . . . to the global arena.”

But, he told the committee, “I have to withhold my emotion and my horse races inside me until I hear the words ‘royal assent.’”

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former judge who helped draft BC’s 2019 UNDRIP legislation, told the committee that the notion of a blanket veto on development projects amounts to “fearmongering.”

She said the bill will simply put into operation government policies and processes to ensure First Nations are involved at the outset when it comes to decisions regarding their existing land, title, and human rights.

“We want to end the process of this very colonial approach to taking Indigenous people’s lands, supporting projects and developments on those lands without their consent, engagement and involvement, and to operationalize a different set of practices,” Turpel-Lafond said.

The minority Liberal government received the support of the NDP to pass the time-limit motion. Conservative and Bloc MPs voted against limiting debate, and the Conservatives once more said they fear that C-15, as written, could give First Nations a veto over resource projects.

The party’s Crown-Indigenous relations critic, Jamie Schmale, an Ontario MP: “It’s not that we, as Conservatives, believe that UNDRIP or C-15 will mean that bill is against development. What we’re asking is, because there is no clear definition, when a First Nation says no to a project  . . . does that mean it’s dead?”

The UN declaration spells out the need for “free, prior and informed consent” from Indigenous peoples on anything that infringes on their lands or rights, but C-15 does not include a legal definition of “consent.”

On the question of consent, the law firm of Borden Ladner Gervais says: “Both British Columbia and Canada characterized consent as an objective that must be pursued in good faith, but not a required outcome.”

Our Alliance agrees with Turpel-Lafond.

“I think UNDRIP should create more certainty for the financial world,” says our CEO, Karen Ogen-Toews.

“Some groups think that they can use this as a veto, but I don’t think so. I think it was spelled out when it was first announced that this is not a door for Indigenous people to veto any projects.”

Bill C-15 will require the federal government to ensure, over time, that the laws of Canada are consistent with UNDRIP’s 46 articles but does not (as some noisy critics have claimed) make those 46 articles into Canadian laws.

C-15 requires Ottawa to prepare an action plan within three years of the bill’s passage to achieve the declaration’s objectives, and to table an annual report detailing progress made. Bellegarde said the three-year timeline should be reduced to two.

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