The Liberal government introduced legislation on Thursday that would align federal laws with the foremost international commitment on the rights of Indigenous peoples.
The legislation would affirm that the terms of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) apply to Canadian laws, meaning they could be used to interpret existing laws and develop new legislation, but it would not transform the declaration itself into law.
“The government of Canada must, in consultation and co-operation with Indigenous peoples, take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the declaration,” the bill states.
The government said the legislation was based on a private member’s bill put forward by New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash in the previous Parliament.
The reworked bill also calls on Ottawa and Indigenous leaders to work together to create an action plan for how to make federal laws comply with the objectives of the declaration. It says the plan must be ready no later than three years after the law is passed.
Natan Obed, president of the national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said the bill is a step toward fulfilling Canada’s international human-rights obligations and shows Canadians that Indigenous rights are not negotiable and must be respected.
“To me, the implementation of this particular piece of legislation will push back against all other notions that our rights are somehow less than other human rights enjoyed by other Canadian citizens,” he said in an interview.
UNDRIP, which the United Nations adopted in September, 2007, details rights that it says “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.” It also outlines how existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms apply to the specific situations of Indigenous peoples.
At a news conference in Ottawa, Justice Minister David Lametti said the Liberal government believes the bill will have wide support in Parliament.
“How can you be against the recognition and the assertion of inherent human rights?” he said.
Mr. Saganash, who is Cree, tabled a bill in the previous Parliament to ensure the laws of Canada are in harmony with the UN declaration. His bill passed in the House of Commons, but stalled in the Senate, where it died when the 2019 election was called.
In an interview, Mr. Saganash said the declaration is the most comprehensive legal document that applies to Indigenous peoples, and the legislation confirms that the rights it contains have application in Canadian law.
“This is a strong statement for me,” he said.
Conservative MPs did not support Mr. Saganash’s bill in the House of Commons. Conservative senators stalled its progress in the Red Chamber while they expressed concern about aspects of UNDRIP, including a requirement that Indigenous peoples have “free, prior and informed consent” on projects that include resource development.
Conservative critic for Crown-Indigenous relations, Cathy McLeod, expressed apprehension on Thursday after the new bill was tabled. She said that while UNDRIP is an important guiding document toward reconciliation, her party is concerned about a “lack of clarity and common understanding” of the key concepts.
On Nov. 9, Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said in a letter to Mr. Lametti that the province was worried about a draft of the legislation, adding it will have “significant implications for the Canadian economy and specifically on investment in Alberta.”
“If the UN declaration or its principles are to be implemented in Canada, it must be done thoughtfully, purposefully, and within the bounds of the Canadian Constitution, and in a manner that reflects the unique legal landscape in each province,” he wrote.
Tim McMillan, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said on Thursday that his industry has made important strides in developing relationships based on trust and respect with Indigenous communities. He added that his organization looks forward to setting up a plan to support the UNDRIP legislation.
David Chartrand, a spokesperson for the Métis National Council, said the UNDRIP legislation is a blueprint for clarity, adding that industry has gained a better perspective and understands the legislation is not going to affect business in a negative way.
“I think industries are really coming on board and they’re sending the message that they are supporting this bill,” he said.
Any fears that have been raised about the impact of the legislation are misplaced, Mr. Lametti said. He added that certainty is what is needed in the relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people, and the government will work to dispel any misunderstandings.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is his party’s critic for Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous relations, said on Thursday the implementation of the UN declaration is essential and amounts to a framework for reconciliation.
“The NDP understands this and that is why — following Romeo Saganash’s leadership — we have been fighting for such a bill for years,” he said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde urged all federal parties to support the legislation, saying it will bring economic stability.
The legislation is part of the government’s response to calls from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on residential schools, and the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The TRC, which spent six years examining the country’s residential school legacy, recommended that federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments fully adopt and implement UNDRIP as the framework for reconciliation.
Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired that commission, said the legislation is a great step toward work necessary to bring federal law into compliance with the UN declaration.
With a report from James Keller in Calgary
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