Se­na­tors pre­par­ing for In­dian Act show­down with Ot­tawa

Winnipeg Free Press - - TOP NEWS - DY­LAN ROBERTSON dy­lan.robertson@freep­

OT­TAWA — Man­i­toba se­na­tors say they’re mak­ing head­way in push­ing Ot­tawa to fix dis­crim­i­na­tion in the In­dian Act, but their tac­tics could lead to a risky show­down that could kill the bill.

Since this spring, in­de­pen­dent se­na­tors Mar­ilou McPhe­dran and Mur­ray Sin­clair have been at the fore­front of an ef­fort to re­store In­dian Act sta­tus to tens of thou­sands of Cana­di­ans, which might ex­tend men­tal health and den­tal ben­e­fits to nu­mer­ous Man­i­to­bans.

“Se­na­tors are pretty united that the leg­is­la­tion has to clear all dis­crim­i­na­tion from the In­dian Act,” Sin­clair said.

An Au­gust 2015 court de­ci­sion ruled the In­dian Act dis­crim­i­nates by ex­clud­ing women who marry non-In­dige­nous men, as well as their de­scen­dants.

The Lib­er­als tabled Bill S-3 in Novem­ber 2016, to fix the lin­eage rules for those who lost their sta­tus from 1951 on­ward.

But McPhe­dran amended the leg­is­la­tion in May so it would ap­ply to cases 730 Archibald Street

204-233-0697 dat­ing to 1876, as First Na­tions ac­tivists have long de­manded.

That sparked a dra­matic show­down with the gov­ern­ment, who warned an un­known num­ber of peo­ple could flood First Na­tions vot­ing rolls and over­whelm ser­vices for In­dian-sta­tus hold­ers.

The Lib­er­als gut­ted McPhe­dran’s amend­ment in June, say­ing the in­terim bill would ac­cord In­dian sta­tus to roughly 35,000 Cana­di­ans and kick off a con­sul­ta­tion process to look at ex­pand­ing the bill later.

The Se­nate dug in its heels, caus­ing the gov­ern­ment to yank the bill off the agenda right be­fore the sum­mer break, and seek a sec­ond court ex­ten­sion.

A Que­bec court re­luc­tantly gave the Lib­er­als un­til Dec. 22 to pass the bill.

Over the sum­mer, the Free Press re­vealed Ot­tawa had com­mis­sioned Win­nipeg de­mog­ra­pher Ste­wart Clat­wor­thy to tab­u­late how many peo­ple would be el­i­gi­ble for In­dian sta­tus un­der var­i­ous it­er­a­tions of the bill — in­clud­ing by prov­ince.

The gov­ern­ment has not made that data pub­lic, and bu­reau­crats would only pro­vide it to the bud­getary watch­dog un­der a “Pro­tected B” clas­si­fi­ca­tion, which is de­fined as in­for­ma­tion that, if made pub­lic, “could cause se­ri­ous in­jury to an in­di­vid­ual, or­ga­ni­za­tion or gov­ern­ment.”

But re­cently, the gov­ern­ment’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Sen. Peter Harder, pledged “to mak­ing Mr. Clat­wor­thy’s re­port pub­lic and pro­vid­ing it to the se­na­tors” be­fore they de­bate the mo­tion, likely “in the com­ing weeks.”

It be­came clear just how firmly se­na­tors want to ex­tend the bill when Con­ser­va­tive Se­nate Leader Larry Smith pressed Jus­tice Min­is­ter Jody Wil­sonRay­bould to widen the bill. It il­lus­trated the Op­po­si­tion party has joined many Lib­eral-ap­pointed se­na­tors in sup­port­ing the amend­ment.

Both Smith and McPhe­dran cited Wil­son-Ray­bould’s April 2010 re­marks to a Com­mons com­mit­tee that had stud­ied sex-dis­crim­i­na­tion in the In­dian Act, where she said, “It would be the po­si­tion of any rea­son­able per­son... to erad­i­cate dis­crim­i­na­tion wher­ever and when­ever pos­si­ble in to­day’s age.”

Wil­son-Ray­bould, who was a se­nior Bri­tish Columbia chief at the time, said she stood by those com­ments, but her pre­vi­ous role gives her “some author­ity” on pos­si­ble reper­cus­sions of mak­ing too many peo­ple sud­denly el­i­gi­ble for In­dian sta­tus.

“We’re com­mit­ted to do­ing it in the phased ap­proach,” the jus­tice min­is­ter said.

Re­gard­less, Sin­clair said se­na­tors are de­ter­mined to get their way. Some are mulling a “free con­fer­ence,” a pro­ce­dural move to set­tle dis­putes be­tween the Com­mons and Se­nate, which was last used in 1947.

In­vok­ing a con­fer­ence means both houses sum­mon rep­re­sen­ta­tives to ne­go­ti­ate, pos­si­bly be­hind closed doors, to ei­ther agree on a solution or kill the bill en­tirely.

In such a case, no sim­i­lar bill can be put for­ward un­til the next Par­lia­ment, mean­ing the 2019 elec­tion.

Such a sit­u­a­tion would clearly mean miss­ing the court dead­line, which would cause the In­dian-sta­tus registry to cease in Que­bec and pos­si­bly other prov­inces.

“It’s a con­vo­luted and com­pli­cated process,” said Sin­clair, ad­mit­ting it’s still be­ing re­viewed by var­i­ous se­na­tors’ staff.

Se­nate ex­perts say any se­na­tor could put for­ward a mo­tion for a free con­fer­ence, but they can also pro­pose a mes­sage be sent to the House ask­ing for changes to the bill — both types of mo­tions would re­quire a vote to pass. It’s pos­si­ble the bill could bounce be­tween both cham­bers mul­ti­ple times.

The of­fice of Carolyn Ben­nett, min­is­ter for Crown-In­dige­nous af­fairs, wrote that Ot­tawa is “com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing ad­e­quate time for a mean­ing­ful par­lia­men­tary de­bate,” through con­sult­ing with First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties, ex­perts and par­lia­men­tar­i­ans.

“We are com­mit­ted to re­mov­ing gen­der-based dis­crim­i­na­tion from regis­tra­tion pro­vi­sions in the In­dian Act, as well as ad­dress­ing other ex­ist­ing is­sues sur­round­ing regis­tra­tion.”


Chief Jus­tice Glenn Joyal and four other judges are meet­ing with 30 First Na­tions com­mu­nity rep­re­sen­ta­tives on Tues­day.

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