Federal government struggles to amend Indian Act after Quebec court found parts were discriminatory
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday his government has assembled a working group of ministers to review all federal laws and policies as they relate to Indigenous peoples.
The group comprises six federal ministers, including Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Health Minister Jane Philpott, Families Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement the group will “help ensure the Crown is meeting its constitutional obligations with respect to Aboriginal and treaty rights.”
The PMO said it will also help Canada comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and to fulfil Trudeau’s ambitious promise to implement all of the Truth and Reconciliation’s calls to action that relate to the federal government.
The committee will be chaired by Wilson-Raybould.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed the review, which he said was something he urged all federal party leaders to commit to doing during the last federal election.
“A joint effort with Indigenous peoples to de-colonize Canada’s laws and policies is essential … First Nations must be engaged as equal partners and nations in this important work,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Philpott said the review could have wide-ranging consequences for her department, which runs the Non-Insured Health Benefits program for First Nations and Inuit people.
“We know that there are a number of laws and policies that need to be readdressed,” Philpott told reporters before question period.
“And certainly within the health portfolio we acknowledge that policies of previous governments have had adverse outcomes for Indigenous communities, so that’s obviously an area that I’m particularly interested in and very honoured to be on the committee.”
The move comes after Trudeau announced last December he would host formal, bilateral talks with Indigenous leaders from the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council each year to help draft policies on shared priorities.
“Through this initiative and the other steps we have recently taken, we are working on a complete renewal of Canada’s nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples,” Trudeau said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
Changes to Indian Act
The federal government has so far struggled to make amendments to some legislation dealing with Indigenous peoples.
Bennett tried to make amendments to the Indian Act late last year in response to a Quebec Superior Court decision — the Descheneaux case — that ruled certain sections of the law relating to the registration of Indian status violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Stéphane Descheneaux was unable to pass on his Indian status to his three daughters because he got it through his Indigenous grandmother, who lost her status when she married a non-Indigenous man, something the court found was sex-based discrimination.
The government’s legislative response to the Quebec court decision, bill S-3, was tabled late last year in the Senate, but was sidelined after a court-imposed deadline was extended to July 3. The government has since said it will pursue wider consultations with Indigenous communities on changes to the Indian Act.
Drew Lafond, a representative of the Indigenous Bar Association, said S-3 was simply “tinkering,” and the government should instead allow First Nations to take control of band citizenship outside of the “archaic constructs” found in the Indian Act.