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MP’s dream to defend indigenous rights close to reality

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

12/20/2017

OTTAWA (CCN) — NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s dream to see Canada bring its laws in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) has moved closer to reality.

The Liberal government has indicated it will support his private member’s Bill C-262 that would do just that.

Implementing the UNDRIP is also a position endorsed by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See’s representative at the United Nations. In 2010, the then president of the CCCB signed a joint letter with other religious leaders calling on the Canadian government “to work in partnership with indigenous peoples on a respectful process for the full endorsement and implementation” of the UN Declaration.

In a news conference Dec. 5, Saganash, following the bill’s first of two hours of debate in the House of Commons, described Bill C-262 as “probably the most important legislation that the Parliament of Canada will have to consider in a long time.”

“What I’m proposing here is a legal framework for the future,” he said. If a bill comes forward on something such as a First Nations control of First Nations Education Act, “these are the minimum standards the government has to respect.”

Without this legislation, the meaning of treaty rights and Canada’s constitution remains “vague,” he said.

“The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has the merit of clarifying what those rights are,” he said. “That will hopefully avoid us going to court every single month.”

“There’s hundreds of millions of dollars that are spent fighting Aboriginal rights in this country. If we are serious about reconciliation, then that needs to stop as well.”

Saganash pointed out the justice minister is obligated to ensure any legislation is “consistent with the Charter before it’s tabled.”

“We don’t have the equivalent for Aboriginal and treaty rights. This is what this bill is going to do as well, said Saganash, who represents the Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou riding in Quebec.

Saganash, a Cree from northern Quebec, told the House Dec. 5 he is “a survivor of the residential school system where I spent 10 years incarcerated culturally, politically, linguistically, spiritually even, in the residential school system.”

“I set out to do exactly two things coming out of residential school: first, to go back to the land where I come from and live off the land, hunting, fishing, and trapping. That is exactly what I did the first year I came out of residential school,” he said. “The other thing I said to myself was that when I came out the objective for me that I set out was to reconcile with the people who had put me away for 10 years.”

He was good to his word.

Saganash was the first Cree to receive a law degree in Quebec in 1989. Among other leadership roles, he became one of the negotiators and drafters of the UNDRIP.

The work was “not easy,” he told the news conference.

“There were moments at the UN when I thought I just should go back home and leave it there, because it was difficult,” he said. “The challenges were great. We started with trying to get member states to recognize we were peoples like all other peoples, not just minorities in our countries, we were peoples indeed with the same right of self-determination.”

It took 23 years to negotiate the document and Saganash was there from the beginning in 1984.

In September 2007 the UN General Assembly accepted the document, but Canada was one of four countries that voted against it, with the United States, New Zealand, Australia. Canada came aboard in 2010, he said.

However, Saganash expressed disappointment that the Conservatives are not backing his bill.

The Tories’ Crown-Indigenous Relations & Northern Affairs critic MP Cathy McLeod told the House Dec. 5 she found the Liberal government’s decision to support a private member’s bill, and not to put such important legislation forward as a government bill, “unfathomable.”

“In the past, the Liberals have argued vehemently that any small changes to the Indian Act and the Labour Code must only be introduced as government legislation, where there is an opportunity for comprehensive reflection and not just a couple of hours of debate,” she said. “I would suggest that the bill before us today has more far-reaching implications than the right to a secret ballot for union certification.”

Article 19 of the UNDRIP requires the government to “ensure free, prior, and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative measures that may affect them,” she told the House.

She asked if this would apply broadly to such legislation as the recent marijuana bill that will affect indigenous Canadians as well as non. She also asked about how the government would obtain this consent, since the national bodies representing indigenous peoples are advocacy organizations, not rights holders.

Bill C-262 has another hour of debate before a vote that would send it to committee. Saganash told the House he believed any questions MPs have could be answered at the committee stage.

 

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