Federal government moves forward with commitment to adhere to UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights

Bill C-314 would amend the Criminal Code to provide that a mental disorder is not a grievous and irremediable medical condition for which a person can receive medically-provided euthanasia / assisted suicide. (Image from pixabay.com)

Questions remain over exactly how Bill C-15 will be interpreted by the courts in the future

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

(With files from The Catholic Register)

[Ottawa – CCN] – Almost 14 years after the United Nations adopted a framework establishing the rights of Indigenous people, Canada is finally on the brink of implementing the historic document.

Despite concerns being raised by some opposition MPs over exactly what adopting the United Nations’ Declaration on Indigenous Rights (UNDRIP) will mean legally, the minority Liberal government, with the aid of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, passed Bill C-15 by a 210-118 margin on May 25. It now goes to the Senate for final approval.

Bill C-15, “An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” forces the federal government to bring all of Canada’s laws into line with the UNDRIP. This is the second time since the United Nations passed the non-binding declaration in September 2007 that Ottawa moved to fold the UNDRIP principles into Canadian law. A 2018 private member’s bill died in the Senate when Parliament dissolved for the 2019 election.

Many Catholic and non-Catholic faith organizations in Canada and social justice organizations support declaring Canada’s fidelity to the UN declaration.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), in an April 26 statement from its executive committee, called for the “timely and necessary inclusion of UNDRIP within Canadian law (to) thus contribute to truly respectful and just relations in this land.”

The CCCB statement came on the heels of an April 21 endorsement from the Canadian Religious Conference that called the bill “instrumental for renewing the spirit of reconciliation in Canada and encouraging the work of decolonization, in order to establish right relationships and a common vision for the future of our country.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrapped up in 2015, also made adopting the principles of the declaration within Canadian law a key recommendation in its final report.

Conservative MPs have raised concerns about what Bill C-15 will mean in practice because they claim the federal Liberal government, which has made Bill C-15 a key piece of government legislation, has not clearly stated how the United Nations’ Declaration on Indigenous Rights (known as UNDRIP), will interact with existing Canadian law.

According to the federal government’s summary of Bill C-15, which is called “An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”, the Canadian government must “take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and must prepare and implement an action plan to achieve the objectives of the Declaration.”

Exactly how the declaration will be implemented in law was a concern expressed as Bill C-15 was debated in the House of Commons.

“What Bill C-15 proposes is unique, because no other UN declaration has a legislative declaration with application in Canadian law,” said Conservative MP Arnold Viersen during debate in the House of Commons, adding that the issue is how Bill C-15 will be interpreted going forward in relation to what is called FPIC or “or free, prior and informed consent.”

“I would say we are well on our way to developing systems in Canada that fit in with UNDRIP and come into free, prior and informed consent. As our laws develop, with requirements to consult, we see companies going out and consulting,” he said, adding he is worried that Bill C-15 as it stands now may actually end up creating “confusion.”

“When I asked the department of Justice officials about this at committee, they said that I was correct, that it is a unique thing,” Viersen said. “We are looking for clarity on a number of things, and this bill would not do anything to clarify any of these issues,” he said.

Federal Justice Minister David Lametti said the government has been clear and that the UNDRIP declaration reaffirms the government’s commitment to make sure that First Nations / Indigenous peoples in Canada are consulted in a meaningful and full manner, but dismisses the idea that Bill C-15 would give First Nations a form of veto power.

“FPIC is about meaningful consultation, discussion and dialogue with Indigenous peoples affected by a particular decision, say a resource development project, that they be at the table from the beginning,” said Lametti.

“FPIC is a process,” he said. “It is going to continue to be a process. It will be contextual, so there is no way to precisely define it at the outset, and there is no way it should be precisely defined at the outset.”

Viersen, who is the Conservative MP for the Alberta riding of Peace River-Westlock, said the government has not made it clear if the duty to consult will in fact be interpreted as a First Nations veto by the courts in the future, since the actual wording of Bill C-15 does not specifically say it does not.

“If the government is insistent that it does not mean a veto, what does it mean? What does that consultation piece look like? Does the jurisprudence on duty to consult still stand?” Viersen said.