Conservative senator accuses Indigenous senators of 'capitulation' on pot bill

A Conservative senator accused Indigenous senators of "capitulation" on the federal pot bill Wednesday when they shelved plans to table amendments after receiving promises from two federal cabinet ministers for more consultation and a pledge to report back on the progress.

Letter from 2 cabinet ministers to Indigenous senators allayed concerns raised by committee

Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen accused Indigenous senators of 'capitulation' on pot bill. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A Conservative senator accused Indigenous senators of "capitulation" on the federal pot bill Wednesday when they shelved plans to table amendments after receiving promises from two federal cabinet ministers for more consultation and a pledge to report back on the progress.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas sent a letter to seven Indigenous senators Wednesday morning hours before the Senate was set to debate potential amendments to Bill C-45, the act to legalize recreational use of cannabis, which is currently in third reading.

Bill C-45 is up for a final Senate vote Thursday.

The 11th hour letter appeared to allay some concerns from Indigenous senators who scrapped plans to table proposed amendments to the bill. The amendments stemmed from concerns outlined by a Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples report that called for up to a year's delay in the bill's passing.

The report said the time frame was needed to allow Indigenous communities to prepare for the social impact of the bill and work out a revenue sharing deal.

Amendment defeated

Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas, deputy chair of the committee on Aboriginal Peoples, failed to garner enough support to pass an amendment setting aside 20 per cent of all federal cannabis production licences to proposals based in Indigenous communities or on land owned by Indigenous governments.

Sen. Murray Sinclair said Tannas's amendment seemed aimed only at First Nations reserves, was vague on the definition of Indigenous governments and left out Inuit and Métis communities.

"This particular amendment ... provides a vehicle by which private enterprise can access licences by using Indigenous people," said Sinclair.

"Let's leave this for the consultation process ... which the government has committed to in the letter they have provided."

Sen. Murray Sinclair said he was offended by Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen and accused Conservatives of bullying Indigenous senators. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The letter said that the Trudeau government would deal with "all of the areas highlighted" by the committee's report through consultation with Indigenous communities and organizations.

The ministers said they would report back on their progress within 12 months after the bill received Royal Assent, said the letter.

Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen said Indigenous senators were passing up an opportunity to change the bill.

"I am troubled by the seeming capitulation," said Stewart Olsen.

"I am troubled by what's happened here. I don't know if there was pressure…. When you have the hammer, don't drop it lightly. "

Conservatives not 'a friend to Indigenous Peoples'

Liberal Sen. Lillian Dyck, who is Indigenous and the chair of the committee on Aboriginal Peoples, then asked Stewart Olsen to explain what "hammer" they actually held.

"If you don't know, Senator Dyck, that's kind of sad," said Stewart Olsen, to groans and shouts of "Condescending. That's condescending."

Sen. Lillian Dyck questioned Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen on what she mean by 'hammer.' (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he was "personally offended" by Stewart Olsen's "patronizing tone."

Sinclair said the Conservative senators were trying to "bully" Indigenous senators when the Conservative party "has not been a friend to Indigenous Peoples."

Stewart Olsen was a senior adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper.

"It suggests we don't know what we are doing ... that somehow we have sold out to others," said Sinclair.

"In reality, that opportunity is merely to comply with the admitted and very public commitment that the Conservative senators have made to delay passage and to make passage of this bill difficult."

Nunavut senator weighs in

The letter from the two cabinet ministers also convinced Conservative Senator Dennis Patterson, who represents Nunavut, to change his mind about tabling an amendment to delay passage of the bill.

Conservative Sen. Dennis Patterson said he believed the letter's commitments would be honoured. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

"There is a commitment made in writing that has been made and I am sure it will be honoured," he said.

"There is a lot of work to be done because the Aboriginal people were left out of this major transformative policy change."

The letter from the two ministers highlighted the federal government's $200 million budget commitment over five years to improve culturally appropriate addictions treatment and $62.5 million over the same time-span for community-based cannabis education campaigns.

The letter also stated that currently five out of 105 licensed producers have "Indigenous affiliation" along with 14 applicants.

While Ottawa, the provinces and territories cut out Indigenous communities from the spoils of cannabis excise tax revenues, the letter said that issue would be dealt with through a "new fiscal relationship" currently in the works.