Senator Dennis Patterson: “How will this legislation result in tangible change for the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada?”
photo courtesy of Dennis Patterson

The federal government has spent years dancing around the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

As a new bill to adopt the declaration works its way through Parliament, Nunavut’s legislators are expressing skepticism, even as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) has endorsed the bill, with a condition.

At its March 31 board meeting, ITK passed a resolution backing Ottawa’s Bill C-15 but calling for an Indigenous Human Rights Commission, which would have Inuit representation.

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, Nunavut’s member of Parliament, said she thinks the Government of Canada is “scared” to truly implement the UN declaration on Indigenous rights.

“It has the ability to demolish the Indian Act and aspects of land claims agreements so that Indigenous people can fulfill their human rights,” she said. “It will cost (the federal government) a lot of money to give us what we already should have.”

Qaqqaq pointed out that this is the second attempt by the government to adopt the UN declaration. The last effort died in the Senate when a group of senators prevented it from reaching final vote in June 2019.

MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq: “It will cost (the federal government) a lot of money to give us what we already should have.” photo courtesy of the NDP

“(Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson) had the power to pass that and did not. His constituency is 84 (to) 85 per cent Inuit. Does he not believe that they have the right to self-determination?” Qaqqaq asked. “I think we really need to question why are we even right here, right now.”

Patterson said the pertinent questions that every responsible legislator should ask are: “How will this legislation result in tangible change for the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada … how is this going to translate into real change and real actions?”

He pointed out that former Liberal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was not onside with the adoption of UNDRIP.

“Simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work actually required to implement it back home in communities,” Wilson-Raybould said in July 2016.

Patterson added that the Liberal government failed to conclude its own update of an Indigenous rights framework over the past several years. And that came after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which spent years examining Indigenous rights in the 1990s and its recommendations were shelved, the senator said.

“In this country we’ve done a lot of talking about Aboriginal rights,” he said.

He also noted that he lobbied to have Section 35 – pertaining to Aboriginal inherent and treaty rights – included in the Canadian Constitution Act in 1982, while he was a member of the NWT legislative assembly.

“There’s no question that I support reconciliation,” he said.

Rachel Rappaport, press secretary for Justice Minister David Lametti, said the Liberals supported former NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill to take up UNDRIP in 2016. She blamed its demise on Conservative senators.

“We cannot let the past repeat itself. Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party does not support UNDRIP, and we have already seen their strategy of slowing down the progress and delaying crucial votes on bills they disagree with,” Rappaport stated. “As a minority government, we will need the co-operation of other political parties to ensure that this crucial bill can continue to progress through the Parliamentary process and reach royal assent.

“The framework put forward in Bill C-15 will put into place new requirements for the government to work in consultation and co-operation with Indigenous peoples to align federal laws with the human rights standards set out in the declaration, as well as develop an action plan to help achieve the objectives of the declaration. This action plan must be developed collaboratively with First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and meaningfully reflect the voices and perspectives of Indigenous people across the country. Over time, these efforts will help to further strengthen investor confidence in Canada and support strong partnerships founded on cooperation and collaboration.”

In the Senate on May 28, 2019, Senator Murray Sinclair, in response to Patterson, said the adoption of UNDRIP would have an impact on federal, provincial, municipal and Indigenous levels of government.

“In each case, each of those entities is going to have to consider the extent to which it will make changes within its legal regime to be compliant with the principles that are enunciated in the declaration,” Sinclair said.

Bill C-15 was before the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs for review as of late February.

The original UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations in September 2007.

In its final report in December 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged the federal government to adopt UNDRIP.

Fact file

An act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The purpose of this act is to:

(a) affirm the declaration as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law; and

(b) provide a framework for the Government of Canada’s implementation of the declaration.

The action plan must include measures to:

(a:i) address injustices, combat prejudice and eliminate all forms of violence and discrimination, including systemic discrimination, against Indigenous peoples and Indigenous Elders, youth, children, women, men, persons with disabilities and gender-diverse persons and two-spirit persons, and

(a:ii) promote mutual respect and understanding as well as good relations, including through human rights education; and

(b) measures related to monitoring, oversight, recourse or remedy or other accountability measures with respect to the implementation of the declaration.

Source: Government of Canada

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