Globe and Mail

Removing the last vestiges of sexism from the Indian Act will cost the federal government more than $400-million a year, according to a new report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

On Monday, the House of Commons passed a significantly amended version of the bill it drafted more than a year ago to address a Quebec court’s demand that some of the sexism, which was deemed to be unconstitutional, be excised from the Act.

The new report of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) released Tuesday says the immediate effect of Bill S-3 will be to allow between 28,000 and 35,000 additional Canadians to register as status Indians, 90 per cent of whom are expected to do so.

The addition of those people is expected to cost the government $19-million in one-time administrative costs and $55-million a year for the additional benefits and tax breaks that are provided to status Indians.

But the Senate pointed out, as it studied the bill over the past year, that the new legislation would not remove all of the sexism from the Act that governs the relationship between the First Nations and the government of Canada. Even when Bill S-3 is passed into law, people who were fathered by status men before Sept. 4, 1951 can obtain status and pass it on to their offspring, but status women who married non-status men and had children before that date cannot.

The senators insisted that the government change the wording of the bill to eliminate all of the inequality and, after a standoff of several months, the government agree to accept amendments proposed in the Red Chamber – but only after a consultation period with the First Nations that will last for an undetermined length of time.

When consultation ends, and the revisions demanded by the Senate take effect, the PBO says 670,000 additional people will be eligible to claim Indian status, and 270,000 are expected to do so. The remainder, says the PBO, do not have the sort of connection with First Nations communities that would drive them to seek the designation.

The cost of the government benefits – largely medical and dental – and the tax exemptions that would be provided to the total number of new status Indians created by Bill S-3 would then rise to $407-million annually, says the PBO, and there would be an additional $71-million in one-time administrative costs.

Throughout the debate around Bill S-3, frustration was expressed by senators and the government that there was no real understanding of how many new status Indians would be added to the rolls. Government estimates ranged between 750,000 and 1.2 million, although officials with the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs admitted they believed those numbers were inflated.

The PBO report, which was requested by independent Senator Marilou McPhedran, who moved the Senate amendment, and Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, clears up the unknowns.

Some First Nations have also protested the changes to the Indian Act that come with Bill S-3 which, they say, could create an influx of people back to their communities and force them to spread their scarce resources even further.

But the PBO says just 2 per cent of the people who will gain Indian status in the short term when the bill is granted Royal Assent are expected to move to a First Nation. The report says 3 per cent of that cohort already lives on reserves as non-status Indians. And none of the much larger group of status Indians that will be created when the Senate amendment takes effect are expected to move to a First Nation.