MPs reject Senate's changes to bill targeting sexism in the Indian Act

The Commons committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs has rejected a Senate amendment that sought to remove all gender-based discrimination from the Indian Act.

'Parliament should take the time to do it right,' says lawyer for plaintiffs in discrimination case

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, left, has said she will hold more consultations to remove remaining sex discrimination from the Indian Act, but is urging Parliament to pass the current bill as is. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Commons committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs has rejected a Senate amendment that sought to remove all gender-based discrimination from the Indian Act.

The amendment has been at the centre of a battle over S-3, a government bill introduced to comply with a 2015 court ruling that ordered the government to address inequities affecting registration for Indian status.

But the bill, which originated in the Senate, was quickly criticized for not going far enough. An amendment, proposed by Independent Senator Marilou McPhedran, addressed that by striking all gender-based discrimination in the act before the bill was sent the House of Commons.

The government claimed the potential impact of the amendment was unclear and pleaded for the bill to be passed in order meet a court-extended deadline of July 3.

The committee's decision Thursday to quash the amendment clears the way for the bill to be voted on in the House of Commons next Tuesday.

"More than 35,000 people have been waiting two years since the court decision to exercise their rights. We need to pass this legislation immediately," the office of Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said in an email. "It is the responsible thing to do."

But the attorney who brought the case to court says his clients are seeking an extension from the Quebec Superior Court, hoping to pressure the government to take more time to review its legislation without the excuse of a looming deadline.

"We're going to seek to extend that deadline so that the Senate and the House — if the Senate and the House don't agree — can do their work calmly, without this utterly artificial deadline that only suits the minister," said David Schulze.

Schulze represents the plaintiffs in the case of Stéphane Descheneaux, a member of the Abenaki of Odanak, a community in southwestern Quebec. Descheneaux was unable to pass on his Indian status to his three daughters, because he received it through his grandmother, who lost her status when she married a non-Indian.

In 2015, the Quebec Superior Court ruled in Descheneaux's favour, determining that provisions in the Indian Act discriminate against First Nations women and their descendants by making it more difficult for them to pass on status to their descendants than it is for men.

'Zero confidence' in government

Bill S-3 does address the narrow circumstances of the Descheneaux plaintiffs and other persons who find themselves in an identical situation.

But in her decision, Justice Chantal Masse said the government should consider the broader implications of her judgment and encouraged lawmakers to settle other related discriminatory situations that arise as a result of the Indian Act.

Stéphane Descheneaux, centre, is one of three members of the Abenaki of Odanak contesting the effects of gender-based discrimination embedded in the Indian Act. (Radio-Canada/Marie-Eve Cousineau)

Bennett has previously said she is personally committed to launching a second round of consultations that would address broader issues relating to inequities in Indian registration, as well as band membership and citizenship.

"We have zero confidence in their second round," Schulze said in response. "The department has no credibility on this."

Schulze ​said the federal government has failed to live up to previous promises to address sex discrimination in the Indian Act. The former Conservative government committed to a second round of consultations in 2010 when it amended the act in response to a Charter challenge brought forward by B.C. lawyer Sharon McIvor, but Schulze said it took the government six years to submit its report.

"I'm happy to be surprised," he said. "But why should my client think it'll be different this time?"

Senate pushback

Members of the Senate committee on Aboriginal Peoples have added their voices to those calling on the government to seek more time.

In a letter sent to the House Indigenous and northern affairs committee, Senator Murray Sinclair urged the government itself to seek a further court extension, saying it would "remove the urgency to pass what is another piecemeal bill." The government said it had no plans to do so.

"There's such strong consensus that this bill is inadequate and that it needs to be significantly revised," McPhedran added, saying that the government appears to be using the July 3 deadline to rush the bill's passage.

In the event that Liberal MPs are forced to support the government's version of the bill, McPhedran said senators will be ready to respond.

The Quebec Superior Court will hear the Descheneaux plaintiffs' request for an extension next Monday.

The House of Commons is scheduled to vote on the bill the following day.