Liberals' bill on Indigenous rights getting pushback from Conservatives, First Nations critics

A key element of the Liberal government's reconciliation agenda is facing resistance from Conservatives inside the House and some First Nations leaders from the outside.

Proposed legislation would ensure Indigenous rights are respected but concerns about consent clause remain

Liberals face pushback to passing UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

1 year ago
Duration 2:12
The Liberal government is committed to passing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but it's facing pushback as the fate of resource projects could be at stake. Even some Indigenous leaders say it won't advance their sovereignty.

A key element of the Liberal government's reconciliation agenda is facing resistance from Conservatives in the House of Commons — and some First Nations critics on the outside.

Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), is at the second reading stage and is being discussed this week by members of the standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs.

The proposed legislation aims to implement the UN declaration by ensuring federal laws respect Indigenous rights.

Some First Nation critics say the bill doesn't go far enough and may end up restricting those rights.

"It doesn't seem like Canada has really learned its lesson from Oka to Wet'suwet'en to the Mi'kmaq fishermen," said Grand Chief Joel Abram of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians.

"Our first choice is to have it go back to the drawing board."

Conflict over energy projects erupted across the country last year after the RCMP removed Wet'suwet'en members, who were demonstrating against the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, from their traditional territory. (Jesse Winter/VICE)

UNDRIP affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples to their language, culture, self-determination and traditional lands. 

It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. Canada's Conservative government voted against it at the time, citing concerns about natural resources and land use — but then endorsed it in 2010.

In 2019, an NDP private member's bill to implement UNDRIP died on the order paper after Conservative senators — warning it could have unintended legal and economic consequences — slowed its progress. Last December, the Liberal government introduced a new form of the legislation.

Fear of 'veto' persists

Conservatives again are raising concerns — mainly over UNDRIP's requirement that governments seek "free, prior and informed consent" from Indigenous communities before pursuing any project that affects their rights and territory.

"When a First Nation says no to a project, does that mean it's dead?" asked Jamie Schmale, Conservative Crown-Indigenous relations critic, at Tuesday's standing committee hearing on Bill C-15. 

"It leaves a lot of unanswered questions and potentially the courts to decide that definition."

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, legal counsel to the Assembly of First Nations, said those fears are misplaced. 

"Consent is not a veto over resource development," Turpel-Lafond said.

Grand Chief Joel Abram of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians wants the proposed legislation to go back to the drawing board. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

"What this is doing is saying we want to end the process of this very colonial approach to taking Indigenous peoples' lands, supporting projects and developments on those lands without their consent, engagement and involvement."

Human rights at stake, ITK president says

Turpel-Lafond said the language in the bill should be made clearer by, for example, replacing the word "discrimination" with "racism".

She also said the bill has promise and aims to close a gap by reinforcing existing rights that haven't been respected.

"The most important thing it does is it puts an obligation on Canada to conduct its policies and conduct its interactions with Indigenous peoples on the basis of recognizing Indigenous people have rights," Turpel-Lafond said.

"Since as long as there's been a Canada, it's been doing it the opposite way, which is denying that Indigenous peoples have rights and ... a very high-conflict relationship. The bill is meant to shift that."

In a statement to CBC News, Justice Minister David Lametti's office said the government remains open to any proposed improvements to the bill. 

"Our government has been clear in recognizing the realities of discrimination and racism that Indigenous peoples face in Canada, and we continue to work in partnership with Indigenous peoples to find and implement concrete solutions to address them," said the statement.

WATCH: Inuit leader says government bill is a test of Indigenous rights

Bill is a test over the recognition of Indigenous rights, Inuit leader says

1 year ago
Duration 0:43
Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, explains what's at stake, as Bill C-15 is debated in parliament this week.

Natan Obed is president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which co-developed the bill with the federal government. He told CBC News the legislation creates a new avenue for Indigenous people to seek justice in the courts.

"This legislation really is a test on whether or not specific political parties or specific jurisdictions accept that Indigenous peoples have human rights," Obed said.

"If governments are still in the place where they're fighting against Indigenous peoples rights, what they're really saying is that human rights apply to some of their constituency, but not all. I hope that political parties can understand that this is actually what is at stake here."

'You're going to see more conflict'

Russ Diabo, a member of the Mohawks of Kahnawake and a policy analyst, went to Geneva in the 1980s and 1990s to develop the declaration with the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. 

He said Canada's interpretation of UNDRIP doesn't advance the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and allows the government to keep the upper hand under the law.

"Bill C-15 is going to entrench all of that, the colonial status quo," Diabo said.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, legal counsel for the Assembly of First Nations, said claims that the bill might give Indigenous communities a veto over development projects are mistaken. (CBC)

Diabo said the bill reinforces Canada's existing policies on modern treaties and self-government, which he believes are in breach of the UN declaration's standards.

That, he said, will make it harder for Indigenous communities to block resource projects they don't want.

"(UNDRIP) will be used domestically against land defenders and water protectors to say that they're acting outside of the law when they go and stop projects or activities that they feel are infringing or affecting their aboriginal treaty rights," Diabo said.

"You're going to see more conflict."

The provinces also could play spoiler and undermine the federal bill if they decline to pass their own laws on UNDRIP, since natural resources fall under their jurisdiction, Diabo said.

"It doesn't deal with provincial jurisdiction and that's going to be the big problem."

Half a dozen provinces already have asked the government to delay the bill over worries it could compromise natural resource projects.

NDP Premier John Horgan's government in B.C. is the only one so far that has passed a provincial law implementing the declaration.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.