A bill that could lead to the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canada is one step closer to becoming law.
On Thursday senators voted to send Bill C-262 to committee, where it will be studied and then sent back to the senate for third reading.
If it is passes, the Act, introduced by Cree MP Romeo Saganash as a private members’ bill in 2016, would require the federal government to “take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
But Senators are racing the clock, with Parliament scheduled to break for the summer on June 21 followed by the fall election.
Murray Sinclair, the bill’s Senate sponsor, told APTN News after the Thursday’s vote that he believes once the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples studies the bill and sends it back to the chamber, it has a strong chance of passing.
But Sinclair said passing the bill will require cooperation from all sides, including the Conservatives, who opposed C-262 in the House of Commons and have been accused of stalling progress in the senate, putting the legislation at risk of dying on the order paper.
“I think people should keep an eye on this,” said Sinclair. “The reason this bill has moved as expeditiously as it has in the last few months is because Canadian citizens have stepped forward and called upon the senators to pay attention to this bill and get it to the study stage at least.”
Last month Cree Senator Mary Jane McCallum told APTN that if efforts to stall the bill are successful, not only would it amount to an abuse of Canada’s democratic institutions, but also a weaponization of the Senate itself.
“As senators it is our duty to uphold and respect the democratic process,” McCallum said. “This includes allowing all legislation the right to come to a vote. By denying this process this great chamber becomes a vehicle of structural violence.”
Sinclair said the focal point of C-262 has become the question of whether respecting Indigenous rights might be bad for Canada’s economy.
The principle of free, prior and informed consent, in particular, has been a concern for some.
Conservative Senator Donald Plett said in the Senate on May 7 that there are “significant unanswered questions over the impact of this bill, not because of a lack of support for the aspirations of UNDRIP but because of the lack of clarity and agreement on what its implementation could mean to Canada.”
Plett singled out the articles of UNDRIP that mention the principles of free, prior and informed consent.
“This phrase… elicits the greatest concern when it comes to its impact on resource development and public infrastructure projects,” Plett said. “What is that impact? Well, that’s the problem. No one seems to know because there is no agreement on whether consent means a veto.”
Sinclair said C-262 has “been represented and misrepresented by others as a bill that’s going to create a constitutional crisis, but the reality is that it’s not about that at all. It’s about looking at the federal laws that need to be changed, and looking at the same time at provincial and municipal laws that need to be changed — to do a study.
“Free, prior and informed consent is a very simple concept,” he continued. “And that is, before you affect my land, you need to talk to me, and you need to have my permission.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re vetoing it. It doesn’t mean that First Nations people, or Indigenous people outside of Indian reserves, are vetoing anything. Just because they say you can’t run a pipeline across my land doesn’t mean you can’t run it somewhere else.”
Sinclair and other senators have repeatedly said the issue of free, prior and informed consent, and concerns over vetos, can be taken up by the committee and presented to senators who have concerns on the matter.
While senators could technically extend their sittings beyond the end of the Parliamentary session and into summer, Sinclair said senators are unlikely to agree to that.
But he feels C-262 could pass by the June 21 deadline.
“The Senate is the master of its own house and it could sit for longer and deal with anything that’s left over after the House rises. But our plan is to refer this to committee, let committee study it and report back before the House rises.”