Indigenous groups accuse Conservatives of 'shameful' stalling tactics on rights bill

Indigenous groups are urging the Senate to quickly pass legislation to cement provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canadian law and are decrying what they call "shameful" stall tactics by some members of the Conservative Senate caucus.

Former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner says chance to bring UNDRIP into Canadian law must not be lost

Campaigners show support on Parliament Hill Monday, Dec. 4 for NDP MP Romeo Saganash's private member's Bill C-262, which would see Canada adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (Jennifer Choi/CBC News)

Indigenous groups are urging the Senate to quickly pass legislation to cement provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canadian law — and they're taking aim at what they call the use of "shameful" stalling tactics by some members of the Conservative Senate caucus that could kill the bill.

The enabling legislation was first introduced as a private member's bill by NDP MP Romeo Saganash, who was also part of an international team that helped craft the declaration. It has been stuck in the upper house for nearly a year after quickly passing through the House of Commons with little resistance.

UNDRIP recognizes the right of Indigenous peoples to legal equality, self-determination, the preservation of their language and control of traditional land, among other rights.

Former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced in 2017 the government would simply back Saganash's bill rather than introduce separate government legislation. The Liberals promised to implement UNDRIP in the last election campaign.

A lack of options

That choice could now prove problematic as the government's representative in the upper house, Peter Harder, has fewer tools at his disposal to ensure an NDP bill is passed. He can invoke time allocation on government bills to shut down debate, for example, but government legislation typically takes precedence over private member's bills when it comes to Senate committee study.

And with only seven sitting weeks left before the summer recess, the pressure is on to pass bills before an expected fall election.

If the UNDRIP bill — which could have wide-ranging effects on Canadian law if fully implemented, doesn't pass by the end of June it will die on the order paper. That would mean new legislation would have to be introduced in the next Parliament to actually implement UNDRIP.

Some Liberal and Independent Senators Group (ISG) senators are eager to send the bill to committee for the necessary study but, so far, members of the Conservative opposition have prevented such a vote through a series of procedural manoeuvres.

On Wednesday evening, for example, Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith moved to adjourn debate on the bill  — a tool used to punt a vote or delay further discussion — but lost a chamber-wide recorded vote on that motion.

That loss was followed by an attempt by Conservative Manitoba Sen. Don Plett to adjourn the entire chamber for the evening. The Senate then spent the next hour debating a question of parliamentary privilege by Plett on a different matter before the chamber packed it in for the night — without ever returning to the UNDRIP bill.

Those efforts are similar to tactics used by the Conservative opposition on other controversial pieces of legislation, such as the bill to make 'O Canada' gender-neutral, the trans rights bill and legislation banning whales in captivity.

At NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's suggestion Wednesday, the House of Commons unanimously agreed to send a message to the Senate calling for greater "urgency" on both the UNDRIP bill and another bill that demands mandatory sexual assault training for judges. "These critical bills cannot be delayed any further," Singh said.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the Conservative delay tactics, while permitted under Senate rules, are "undemocratic."

'Dirty tricks'

"This is a shameful moment for Canada," said Stewart Phillip, the grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. "It's profoundly troubling that a crucial opportunity to now move ahead with the urgent work of reconciliation could be jeopardized by Conservative senators resorting to procedural dirty tricks."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called UNDRIP "the framework for reconciliation" and urged the federal government to move ahead with its implementation.

"After more than two decades of deliberation in the United Nations, and more than a decade of political debate in Canada, the opportunity to finally move ahead with concrete, meaningful implementation of the UN Declaration must not be squandered by unprincipled stalling tactics," said Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, a former commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

UNDRIP recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to be free from racial discrimination, to self-determination, to autonomy with regard to their "internal and local affairs" and to financial compensation for confiscated lands. It demands states obtain "free, prior and informed consent" before approving activity — including natural resources extraction — on Indigenous land.

'Let's rock the boat'

"We have the opportunity to move forward beyond the status quo," said Independent Quebec Sen. Patrick Brazeau, a former national Indigenous leader.

"Let's push back against bureaucratic inertia. Let's rock the boat. Let's ruffle feathers, but in a positive way. Let's send this bill to committee so we can properly study how to harmonize our laws."

And while Independent senators might be eager to pass the bill, the Senate's Aboriginal Peoples committee, which will give the legislation its final review, is preoccupied already with two "pre-studies" of government legislation that soon will go before the Senate: Bill C-91, the Indigenous languages legislation, and Bill C-92, Indigenous child welfare reforms.

The Aboriginal Peoples committee will be busy with that work for the next several weeks, meaning its review of the Saganash bill won't come until later in this parliamentary session — likely sometime in May.

My biggest fear is that we pass this bill, thinking that it is merely symbolic, that it can be passed and somehow ignored or minimized.- Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas

A Conservative Senate source, speaking to CBC News on background, said there is nothing nefarious about the adjournment motions and said ISG members also have adjourned debate on the bill in the past to have more time to prepare speaking notes.

"If you want to know how we approach these issues, look no further than the former Conservative government," the source said, adding it was Stephen Harper who formally apologized to survivors of the Indian residential school system.

While the former Conservative government initially expressed concerns about UNDRIP's wording on land and natural resources — saying it was overly broad and could lead to the reopening of previously settled land claims — Canada endorsed the declaration in principle in 2010, with former prime minister Stephen Harper calling it an "aspirational" document.

Now, the Conservative senate source said, the UNDRIP bill demands a more detailed review because it was "whipped through" the House and it could have "great consequences" for the country.

Indigenous activists have long pointed to UNDRIP as a means to oppose pipeline development that would run through their traditional territories, pointing to the passage that guarantees "free, prior and informed consent" as something akin to a veto.

That possibility has given some senators pause.

"My biggest fear is that we pass this bill, thinking that it is merely symbolic, that it can be passed and somehow ignored or minimized or, worse, that we'll just leave it to be interpreted through decades in court," said Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas of Alberta, a parliamentarian who is well-versed in Indigenous issues through his work as deputy chair of the Aboriginal Peoples committee.

"I support the UNDRIP in its entirety, with the exception of the word that gives me heartburn, which is 'consent,'" Tannas said.

"What does that mean? ... If it turns out that consent equals a veto or anything approaching a veto for Indigenous people over activities and projects affecting their traditional lands, then we need to know that before we vote on this bill and bring it into law.

"We would then need to consider the enormous ramifications to our country. We would need to consider if Canadians are aware of and understand and support such a thing, and it would be reckless to do anything other than that."


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.