Senate backs down from standoff over Indian Act amendment

TheGlobeandMail.com – News/Politics
November 9, 2017.   , OTTAWA

An amended bill that aims to rid the Indian Act of all its sexist elements has been approved by the Senate despite senators’ expressed concern that the government has given no timeline for removing one of the most contentious areas of discrimination.

The vote in the Red Chamber on Thursday afternoon ended debate on a bill, known as S-3, that was drafted more than a year ago. Its passage will mean the rules governing the transfer of Indian status from one generation to the next, which have favoured men over women for more than a century, will become gender-neutral.

The vote also ends an unusual standoff between the Senate and the House of Commons that resulted in an even more unusual Senate victory – of sorts.

Senators expressed serious reservations on Thursday about the fact there is still no time frame for ending the rule that says people fathered by status men before Sept. 4, 1951, can obtain status and pass it to their offspring, but status women who married non-status men and had children before that date cannot.

In the end, they said they would act as watchdogs to ensure the government follows through on its promise to eventually take that provision out of the Indian Act.

“I know the Senate will not let this go. We will not forget,” Lillian Dyck, the chair of the aboriginal people’s committee, said in urging her fellow senators to support the amended bill despite their concerns. “We don’t trust the government, but that’s why we have the Senate. We are the house of sober second thought.”

Bill S-3 was intended to address a Quebec court judge’s ruling that said some sections of the Indian Act were unconstitutional and set a deadline for the government to change them.

That deadline was extended several times as senators determined the bill before them left many sexist elements of the Indian Act untouched and refused to give it quick approval.

The Senate finally passed the bill last spring, but, in a unanimous vote, amended it to strip out all of the sexist elements.

The government would not accept the Senate amendment, in part because it has no real idea of how many new people would be granted Indian status, and the accompanying benefits, if all of the sexism were gone from the Indian Act. Some government estimates suggest it would increase the Indian rolls by 750,000 to 1.2 million people – although the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department admits it believes those numbers are inflated.

In addition, some First Nations object to being asked to share their limited land and resources with large numbers of new members.

So the government stripped out the Senate amendment and sent a message saying it had done so.

The Senate had to approve that message for the legislation to move forward. But senators refused to consider it.

Faced with the possibility of a prolonged standoff and a new and final deadline set by the court of Dec. 22, the government capitulated.

It created its own amendment that promised to strip the last vestiges of sexism from the Indian Act after an unspecified period of consultation with First Nations that would start in the new year.

That uncertain timeline gave a number of senators pause.

Senator Patrick Brazeau, who once led a national Indigenous organization, tried to amend the bill on Thursday to put a deadline of 18 months on those consultations.

“The government should justify to this chamber, why, when it comes to the the equality rights of Indigenous women, that they cannot bring themselves to impose an end date,” said Mr. Brazeau, explaining that he is acting on behalf of one of his young daughters.

But Ms. Dyck responded that she feared the government would simply not pass the bill if the Senate amended it again, and that could mean the deliberations would go past the Dec. 22 court deadline, jeopardizing the registration of status Indians across the country. In the end, the Senate agreed and reluctantly passed the amended bill.

“We all want that fixed date for implementation,” Ms. Dyck said. “I believe the debate now should move to the House of Commons.”

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