Tories threaten to drop native human-rights bill

Posted on April 16, 2008 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates – national – Tories threaten to drop native human-rights bill: Opposition amendments unsupportable, Indian Affairs Minister says
April 15, 2008 at 4:54 AM EDT

OTTAWA — The Conservative government is threatening to walk away from its own native human-rights legislation, saying that recent amendments from the opposition are unsupportable.

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said yesterday that new clauses inserted into government legislation could allow chiefs and council to ignore human-rights complaints by citing their community’s collective rights.

“I’m not happy with the amendments,” Mr. Strahl said. “What you want to be careful of is … that you don’t just say [that] if the chief decides on his reserve, on his cultural background, ‘the Canadian Human Rights Act doesn’t apply because of our cultural traditions.’ Well, that should be a tough proof.”

The government standoff with the opposition could mean the proposed law may never be put to a vote and simply dies. Combined with the Conservative government’s decision to ignore a recent House of Commons motion in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the opposition is questioning the government’s sincerity when it comes to aboriginal human rights.

“I think it’s part of a larger agenda directed at assimilation,” Liberal MP Anita Neville said.

The legislation, known as C-21, is one of the government’s main aboriginal initiatives. It seeks to close a loophole dating back to when the Canadian Human Rights Act first became law 31 years ago. That law passed with just one exemption: It did not apply on reserves. It was supposed to be temporary.

As a result, individual aboriginals have not been allowed to file complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against band councils and the federal government. Band decisions over key issues such as housing, education and membership could all be challenged if C-21 became law.

The Indian Affairs Minister also opposes an amendment creating a three-year delay before the law takes effect.

“They should be covered now. Today. And any delay is unfortunate,” he said.

But Vancouver lawyer Allan Donovan, who specializes in aboriginal law, says three years is not unreasonable.

“It really isn’t a particularly long transition period,” he said.

Mr. Donovan acknowledged some of the wording used by the opposition to protect existing rights is unusual, but expressed surprise that both sides could not find more acceptable language.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples has said human-rights legislation could be used to take on unaccountable chiefs and ultimately have the Indian Act struck down.

Marcel Balfour, a Manitoba chief who was elected by campaigning against alleged abuses of his predecessors, said Ottawa must take the time to ensure it gets the balance right between collective and individual rights. The Norway House Cree Nation chief pointed out that he was able to win an election on issues of accountability and said he takes offence when the congress attacks native chiefs.

“My people voted for me,” he said. “I certainly make sure that I don’t run roughshod over my people and destroy their human rights.”

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