1st Session, 42nd Parliament
Volume 150, Issue 269
Thursday, February 28, 2019
The Honourable George J. Furey, Speaker
Indigenous Languages Bill
Aboriginal Peoples Committee Authorized to Study Subject Matter
Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: Honourable colleagues, I rise briefly today to speak in support of this motion calling for a pre-study of Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages.
This is a bill that is vitally important to get right. With this ever-increasing slough of legislation we all know about, we need the time to do our jobs. A pre-study is a responsible way of taking advantage of the time available to the Aboriginal Peoples Committee at this moment.
As critic for the bill, I will speak to it during second and third reading. I would like to take a moment to say, as the senator for Nunavut, why I think it is so important that we study this bill.
I want to tell you that, happily, in Nunavut, where 86 per cent of the population are Inuit, 75 per cent of Inuit have Inuktut as their first language. According to Nunavut Tunngavik President Aluki Kotierk, during her February 26 committee testimony in the other place, however, she said:
Every year, the number of Inuktut speakers in Nunavut declines by 1 per cent.
Current language barriers not only hurt the dignity of unilingual elders during day-to-day transactions, such as banking, where they are made wholly reliant on English-speaking relatives, but they can also cause real harm.
In 2016, the Language Commissioner for Nunavut published a report entitled If You Cannot Communicate with Your Patient, Your Patient is Not Safe, which was reviewing the Qikiqtani General Hospital, Nunavut’s only hospital, located in Iqaluit. She told the story of a 15-year-old, Ileen Kooneeliusie in January of 2017, who passed away from tuberculosis. Despite going to the local health centre several times, the severity of her condition was not caught early enough to prevent her death. Her mother, Geela, strongly believes that if health workers had spoken Inuktut, her daughter would still be alive.
That’s just one tragic story. It highlights the real-life consequences of getting this bill wrong. We need to ensure the bill protects, promotes and revitalizes Indigenous languages throughout Canada for essential services and programs such as justice, health and education, which need to be offered in Indigenous languages, where numbers warrant.
I was disappointed to hear from leaders such as Ms. Kotierk and ITK President, Natan Obed, that this bill in its present form is viewed by Inuit as largely symbolic. Indeed, Ms. Kotierk stated that “symbols are important, but they fall short of what is needed and what is called for in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.”
I am concerned that, during this pre-study, we study the consultation process that led to the bill. Ms. Kotierk said, following the tabling of the bill, that, notwithstanding all the rhetoric about co-development, this bill shows no measurable input, despite our best efforts to engage as partners. When I say “none,” I mean “none.” This issue must form an important part of the proposed pre-study.
Honourable senators, I want to make it clear to First Nations and Metis senators, and all of us who represent Indigenous minorities in the Senate, that the Inuit, whose language is relatively healthy compared to others — although it’s eroding — do recognize that First Nations and Metis face their own language issues and priorities. They fully support their efforts to secure legislative provisions that respond to that.
So NTI, working with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, wishes to play an active role in the parliamentary committee process. I would urge honourable senators to give the Aboriginal Peoples Committee the ability to study this bill soon so that we have a chance to ensure the bill is done right and accomplishes what all Indigenous people hope it can achieve. Thank you.
Motion to Urge the Government to Bring Into Force the Remaining Provisions of Bill S-3 Adopted
Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: Honourable senators, I rise today to support the motion put forward by our colleague Senator Dyck.
Senator Dyck has given us some background and her personal story, which she shared and we thank her.
However, if I may, for the benefit of those senators who were not members of the chamber at that time, I would also like to share my views on the history of the bill so that senators may understand the importance of bringing into force these provisions of Bill S-3. I also believe it is important for our colleagues to have this history so there can be a deeper understanding of the collective struggle undertaken by members of the committee to get these provisions included in the bill in the first place. I want to emphasize, as Senator Dyck has said, that the committee worked together in a fully collaborative and nonpartisan manner, to its credit.
Bill S-3 was entitled: An act to amend the Indian Act (elimination of sex-based inequities in registration).
On November 17, 2016, I stood before this chamber at second reading of this bill. As critic, I described the bill as it had been described to me at a Senate briefing. I believed then this bill would eliminate the residual gender-based inequities enshrined in the Indian Act that pertained to registration in response to a Quebec court decision in the case of Descheneaux.
But when the bill was referred to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, it became immediately apparent that this was not a simple case of eliminating gender-based discrimination once and for all, as the short title of the bill promised. Indeed, witnesses told our committee that there were several circumstances identified under which discrimination would persist.
Under the experienced leadership of Senator Dyck, our committee was able to effectively examine the deficiencies of this bill and bring to light issues surrounding consultation and scope that would have left many First Nation women and their descendants without a means to claim their rightful status.
Prior to this bill, colleagues, I must confess that I was not aware of the immense complexity of so-called Indian registration. In Nunavut, to qualify for beneficiary status, a child must have only one parent of either sex who is a beneficiary. In fact, that is why I have three biological children who are all Inuit beneficiaries.
This convenient method of passing on status is not mirrored in the Indian Act. Instead, amendments and tinkering throughout the years have created a complex labyrinth of different status designations that could potentially affect a mother’s ability to pass on her status to her children or grandchildren.
Through the study of this bill, I have come to understand that diminishing the rights of Indigenous women in particular was one of the invidious but unstated objects of the Indian Act over the years. Our committee’s combined knowledge, experience and expertise enabled us to exercise every mechanism that parliamentary procedure afforded to us to bring about amendments that sought to give equal status to all beneficiaries, regardless of matrilineal or patrilineal heritage. Those mechanisms included a rarely employed majority vote to report against the bill. This resulted in the responsible minister offering to seek an extension to the court-imposed deadline of passing measures to address the issues outlined in Descheneaux, an approach the department had resisted when that proposal was suggested to the government in committee.
The bill was then examined in committee a second time.
During that second round of consideration, a key amendment was proposed and adopted. It sought to remedy historic injustices that had afflicted Indigenous women who lost their status due to marrying non-Indian men pre-1951, while also truly eliminating gender-based discrimination in registration. I am grateful and honoured to have had a part in that committee’s leadership.
These progressive and historic amendments were removed during consideration of the bill in the other place.
In fact, ironically, the message that gutted the Senate’s amendments was finalized in the Commons on International Women’s Day.
I want to also acknowledge here in this narrative the assistance of the Government Representative in the Senate, Senator Harder, in conveying to the government the firm resolve of the committee, and indeed the chamber, to not settle for partial measures in ending the long and sad history of gender discrimination under the Indian Act.
I thank you for that, Senator Harder.
United as a committee, and ultimately as a chamber, after receiving the message which gutted our amendments, we insisted on amendments that removed the so-called 1951 cut-off. It proposed the government work collaboratively with First Nations to discuss the issues of status and citizenship in order to fully remove the cut-off. However — and I guess this was a compromise we accepted not without difficulty and not without some anguish amongst some senators — this process was left with an open-ended date of completion.
During consideration of the amended message, I noted my concern related to the less-than-firm numbers provided to us in an impact assessment of passing what was referred to as the 6(1)(a) all the way approach in the so-called Clatworthy report. I appreciate that there was little time, from when the second court extension was granted to when the amended message was received, to generate an accurate report; having had to pass the provision without being sure of the potential impacts was difficult for me.
Indeed, Justice Chantal Masse, who presided over the Descheneaux case, said in her decision that:
It also goes without saying that the issue of the costs that more inclusive provisions would incur is one element among many that Parliament may consider.
And she is right. I believe that any responsible government at any level should know what the potential impacts of their policies would be ethically, socially, and financially. The public deserves to know the costs and the implementation plan before this bill is fully proclaimed.
That said, human rights cannot be legislated based on costs alone. That is why I continue to be supportive of the provisions this motion seeks to bring into force. I promised then to give this process the proper scrutiny it required during the five and 12-month status reports from the government, and I did.
The issues of no set timeline to end the consultation period and a lack of accurate cost projections on the impact of this bill are two instances where we must continue to hold the government to account.
Honourable senators, I believe it is our duty as legislators to seize this opportunity to eliminate the persistent inequity between descendants of the matrilineal and patrilineal lines. I want to acknowledge that one our colleagues, Senator Lovelace Nicholas was an early champion of this fight.
Many women and their descendants have waited for decades for their rights to be re-established. Some of their descendants have waited their whole lives to have their rights acknowledged.
With the recent UN Human Rights Committee ruling, which affirmed the claim that Canada’s Indian Act continues to violate international human rights obligations, we have an opportunity to once and for all right these historical wrongs and bring closure to these women and their descendants by passing this motion and calling on the government to honour its promise to us made 15 months ago.
Honourable senators, the exclusion of women and their descendants from their rightful status and entitlements, I believe, has been a factor in many social ills, including the disproportionately high number of Indigenous women and girls who have suffered from homelessness, poverty, unemployment, health issues and who have tragically in too many cases gone missing or been murdered.
We stand at the brink of a significant paradigm shift that seeks to move away from decades of previous policies of legislated limitations on the status of Indian women and toward policies that foster reconciliation and inclusion.
That is why with confidence I urge my honourable colleagues to unanimously support this motion. Thank you.
Motion in Amendment
Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: Would Senator Harder take a question?
Senator Harder: Of course.
Senator Patterson: With respect to your suggestion that the Ethics Commissioner of the House of Commons is the appropriate place to independently investigate this, Senator Harder, I would submit to you that the Ethics Commissioner’s responsibility is to undertake investigations relating to the ethics code, in this case as it would apply to ministers. I would suggest to you that given the complex circumstances here, it does have to go beyond a code inquiry to get at the truth and to get all the details.
I’d like to ask if you accept that the Ethics Commissioner does not have the mandate to investigate all aspects of the conduct of the members of the executive branch in carrying out their duties.
Senator Harder: If I understand the question correctly, the honourable senator is suggesting there are matters outside of those that the Ethics Commissioner would be examining that need to be part of a broader examination.
Senator Patterson: Outside the code.
Senator Harder: I’m unaware of what he’s precisely contemplating.
We have a situation where the minister has confirmed that there has been no illegal act, as she would define it. Others have confirmed that their actions were not illegal.
The questioners of the former minister and of others have been reassured by all concerned thus far that, in their view, those interventions that they undertook did not direct or otherwise ensure that the minister took a certain course of action.
If the honourable senator is impugning illegal acts, there are other authorities to undertake illegal acts, but at least at this point I haven’t heard any, other than the possible accusations implied in the question.
Motion in Amendment
Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: Just one question, if I may, Senator Harder. Maybe I did not make myself clear enough, but you’ve asked us to reflect on your words. I’d put it to you that — as a former Speaker of this house has said perhaps more eloquently or clearly than I — these are fundamental questions involving principles of constitutional law: the independence of the Attorney General, the rule of law.
Will you reflect on the points made today that the Ethics Commissioner’s mandate, governed by the code of ethics of Parliament, is limited and is not appropriate for undertaking investigations of this weighty nature, and that the commissioner may not have the mandate to conduct the full investigation that you want? Would you reflect on that?
Senator Harder: Senator, I want to give you the assurance that I will reflect on all the points made in the course of this debate, as I hope all senators will, because at the end of the day the Senate, and the Senate alone, will determine whether or not this motion is accepted.