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Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett glares at an opposition MP as she responds to a question about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 30, 2017.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal Liberal government is passing up the chance to request an extension to a court-ordered deadline to remove sexist elements of the Indian Act, despite pleas from senators and others who say more time is needed to fix the legislation that leaves some sexism in the Act untouched.

A Quebec Superior Court Justice, who in January reluctantly granted the government an extension to July 3 to clean up sections of the Act that she said violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, has arranged a hearing next week to determine whether an additional extension is needed, as the government and the Senate battle over how much sex-based discrimination is acceptable.

A Justice Department lawyer wrote to Justice Chantal Masse earlier this week to say the government would not be asking for more time as it tries to get Bill S-3, which addresses Justice Masse's concerns, passed into law without a Senate amendment that aims to eliminate all remaining discriminatory elements of the Indian Act.

Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, "wishes the legislative process to follow its normal course," while reserving the right to request such an extension closer to the deadline, lawyer Nancy Bonsaint wrote.

That prompted David Schulze, the lawyer for the man whose successful case before Justice Masse is forcing the government to change the Indian Act, to say that his client will request the extension that the government is declining.

"They are playing out the clock on this one, so we are calling their bluff," Mr. Schulze said.

The government argues that more than 35,000 people would gain Indian status under Bill S-3 and have been waiting years to exercise their rights, while others would not be able to be registered as status Indians if the bill is not passed by the deadline.

"We need to pass this legislation immediately to address the known gender-based discriminatory clauses of the Indian Act. It is the responsible thing to do," said James Fitz-Morris, a spokesman for Dr. Bennett. "This legislation, once passed, also binds the government to move forward immediately with broader reforms of the outdated provisions of the Indian Act dealing with registration – and will do so in a collaborative and responsible way."

Even if the government is successful in removing the Senate amendment to Bill S-3, the legislation must go back to the Senate for approval. Many senators do not want the sexism to continue.

In a letter to the Commons Indigenous Affairs Committee, Senator Murray Sinclair said the bill, even as amended, "does not go far enough to address sex-based discrimination," but he voted for its passage to meet the court-ordered deadline.

Now that Justice Masse is entertaining the possibility of another delay, Mr. Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wrote: "I urge Canada to consider requesting an extension to the court deadline."

Mr. Schulze represents Stéphane Descheneaux, a man from the Abenaki community of Odanak in Quebec, who was unable to pass on his Indian status to his three daughters because his First Nations descent came from his grandmother, who lost her status when she married a non-Indigenous man.

Any delay in the passage of Bill S-3 will delay Mr. Descheneaux's ability to collect his own Indian status card. "But we don't really have any choice" but to ask for an extension because the broader issue of gender equality is at stake, Mr. Schulze said.

Bill S-3, as it was written by the government, deals with Mr. Descheneaux's issue. But First Nations women who lost their Indian status because they married non-Indigenous men, and who had children before 1951 when the Indian Register was created, would still not be able to pass their status on to their children.

The amendment introduced by Independent Senator Marilou McPhedran aims to eliminate all remaining distinctions between descendants of status Indians, regardless of gender.

The Liberal government, meanwhile, may be facing dissent from its own backbench over Bill S-3. In an emotional speech to the House of Commons this week, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a Liberal MP from Winnipeg who is also Cree, said he was asked about the legislation at a sun dance he attended recently.

"They asked me, 'What are you doing about Bill S-3, and why is the government willing to take away our rights?'" Mr. Oullette said. "Who am I to deny the birthright of my brothers and sisters in the sun dance? I simply cannot do it. It is absolutely shameful that we are debating this."

Family members at the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women are urging the commissioners to build on what they learned at the Whitehorse hearings before they move on to other communities.

The Canadian Press

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