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Parliament Hill is seen in Ottawa on April 21, 2017.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A Quebec chief says the federal Liberal government is fear-mongering when it warns that removing all sexism from the Indian Act would create as many as two million new status Indians and prompt an influx of new members to First Nations.

"They explain this big scenario that's going to happen, so, of course, the chiefs run and they're scared," Rick O'Bomsawin, Chief of the Council of the Abenaki of Odanak, told a Commons committee on Tuesday. But "for a country this year that will be celebrating its 150th anniversary [to] still stand and say we can discriminate against women, I am ashamed."

Members of Parliament are debating what to do about government legislation drafted to comply with a court order to eliminate elements of the Indian Act that make it more difficult for descendants of some women than for some men to pass Indian status on to their children and grandchildren.

In meeting the court's demand, the government left other discriminatory language intact, arguing that its removal would more than double the number of status Indians in Canada, and that changes of that magnitude require more consultation with the chiefs who would have to cope with ballooning membership lists.

But Senators amended the legislation that would make the changes, known as Bill S-3, in spite of the government's objections so that it would give full equality to men and women and to take out the remaining discrimination.

Martin Reiher, an assistant deputy minister in the Indigenous Affairs department, told the Commons Indigenous Affairs committee the government cannot support the amendment because it is unclear and it contradicts other sections of the Indian Act.

"Such a broad amendment casts the net much wider than is what is required to achieve the goals of Bill S-3 and would have wide-ranging unforeseen implications," said Mr. Reiher, who reminded the MPs on the committee that the government has a court-imposed deadline of July 3 to pass the legislation. After the bill becomes law, he said, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs has promised a second phase of consultations with First Nations, which should last about 18 months, to determine the next steps.

Mr. Reiher told the MPs, as a colleague of his told senators, that a demographer's report predicted 80,000 to two million more people would gain Indian status and the associated tax breaks, postsecondary education and supplementary health benefits if the Senate amendment is allowed to stand.

While the government agrees the numbers are so broad as to be meaningless, Mr. Reiher told the committee "there would be an influx of additional members into communities," and that demands further consultation with the First Nations.

But Mr. O'Bomsawin disagreed. In 2009, when a court ordered that the Indian Act be changed to remove other sexist elements, tens of thousands of new status Indians were created, but no one came back to Odanak, he said.

"If a person living here in Ottawa gains their status, do you think they are going to give up their job … and come out to my place and farm the fields? It's all a myth," he told MPs, urging them to pass the bill with the Senate amendments.

Mr. O'Bomsawin rhetorically asked why the government does not want to fix the system. "Let's all be honest," he said. "We all know. It's the financial commitment. We all know this is about money."

The case that is forcing the changes to the Indian Act was brought by an Odanak man named Stéphane Descheneaux 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. Had his Indigenous grandparent been a man, Mr. Descheneaux would have been able to pass his status on to his children and grandchildren.

In justifying its case for more consultation, the government has pointed to testimony provided to the Senate by leaders of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), who said outreach should take place.

But Francyne Joe, NWAC's interim president, told the Commons committee on Tuesday that, while her group does want meaningful engagement with First Nations, it too supports Bill S-3 as amended by senators.

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