Trudeau government support for Bill C-262 is not yet a time for celebration

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Applause and surprise met Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s announcement that the Trudeau Liberals would move to support bill C-262 – a private member’s bill sponsored by Romeo Saganash, the NDP MP for Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou.

Tabled in the House of Commons in April 2016, Bill C-262 calls for Canadian law to be in “harmony” with United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). More specifically, it affirms all 46 articles of UNDRIP while ensuring “nothing [will be] construed so as to diminish or extinguish existing aboriginal or treaty rights… recognized and affirmed in Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.”

The announcement was made November 20at a symposium in Gatineau, hosted by the Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of UNDRIP.

Additionally, the bill requires the federal government to develop an “action plan to achieve the objectives of the UNDRIP” in partnership with First Nations.

A year-and-a-half earlier, at the Assembly of First Nations’ Annual General Assembly, Minister Wilson-Raybould had called the UNDRIP “unworkable” in Canadian law and appeared to be managing the expectations of First Nations’ leadership. That was shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign promise to implement UNDRIP.

Some have gone so far as to label the position as an “about-face” by the Liberals. However, Paul Joffe, lawyer and legal scholar for the Grand Council of the Crees, was less severe in his assessment.

“I’m giving the Minister and the Liberals the benefit of the doubt. If you take the time and look at what Minister Wilson-Reybould said in the summer of 2016, it doesn’t appear to me that she was saying it was unworkable, but that it wasn’t something that would be done all at once,” Joffe told the Nation.

“This government has shown that it’s willing to work with Indigenous peoples and move from colonialism to contemporary standards outlined in UNDRIP,” Joffe added. “If the Conservatives were to win the next election, they have made it clear that they have no use for the Declaration.”

Joffe was quick to point out that the Harper government defeated a similar bill put forward by Saganash in 2013. He insisted that this was a great opportunity, not only for the Indigenous peoples of Canada but the Indigenous peoples of the world.

“It’s one thing to talk about the Declaration in public, it’s another thing entirely to say, ‘On behalf of the Trudeau government – on behalf of Canada – we support Romeo Saganash’s Bill C-262 on the UN Declaration,’” said Joffe. “It says something important to the rest of Canada and also establishes tremendous precedent for Indigenous peoples across the globe.”

There’s still a long road for this bill before it becomes law. C-262 is in its second of three readings. If the Liberals follow through on their non-binding statement, the bill will be sent to its third reading in parliamentary committee. There, its contents will be examined and amendments could be made before it makes to its third reading. After that, it must go through the same process in the Senate, where it may be amended. Both chambers must adopt the same version of the bill before it can receive Royal Assent.

“The bill could be improved in parliamentary committee, hopefully it wouldn’t be reduced,” said Joffe. “It’s important for Indigenous people to be involved, and to be vigilant and hold the government to account to ensure what’s get through is a significant change to Canada.”

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