‘It’s the first fundamental step towards reconciliation,’ sponsor Roméo Saganash says

After more than 30 years, Roméo Saganash may be close to having his life’s work become law.

On Tuesday afternoon the NDP MP will stand up in the House of Commons to debate his private member’s Bill C-262 to ensure Canada’s laws are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“It’s going to be an important day for Indigenous people in this country,” said Saganash. “It’s about humans rights and justice.”

Saganash spent  23 years helping to draft the declaration before it was adopted in 2007 by the majority of nations at the UN General Assembly.

Romeo Saganash

The NDP’s parliamentary leader, Guy Caron, centre, and MP Roméo Saganash, right, attend a rally on Parliament Hill Monday to support Saganash’s private member’s bill that would see Canada adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (Jennifer Choi/CBC)

Canada voted against the declaration at the time, but removed its objector status in May 2016.

Since he was elected as MP for the northern Quebec riding of Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik Eeyou in 2011, he’s been pushing to make that declaration part of Canadian law.

The UN declaration is a wide-ranging document that recognizes the rights of Indigenous people to be free from racial discrimination, to have the right to self-determination and autonomy and the right to financial compensation for confiscated lands. It also recognizes their rights not to be assimilated or have their culture destroyed.

“There are political, there are social, there are cultural rights, there are economic rights, even spiritual rights,” said Saganash in an interview with CBC News.

It also requires states to obtain free and informed consent prior to approving projects like natural resources extraction on Indigenous land or territories.

Some Indigenous and environmental activists see this as a tool to stop future pipeline development.

Clarifies rights in Canada

Saganash says it doesn’t create new rights for Indigenous people in Canada, but it clarifies them, complementing the rights that exist in the Constitution and those recognized in Supreme Court decisions.

He says his bill will make sure these rights can’t be easily diluted by governments.

“If you don’t have that legislation that confirms that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples already has application in Canadian law, then it’s up to every other government to determine what’s in there or not,” he said.

“It’s the first fundamental step towards reconciliation, and we need that.”

Saganash tried to have a similar bill passed in 2015, but it didn’t get enough support under the previous Conservative government.

This time it appears he could succeed. Unusually for a private member’s bill, it has the support of the government. Last month Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced her government will back the bill, after earlier resisting it.

Wilson-Raybould says the government considers the declaration an important part of its efforts toward reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Complex legal process

But Conservative Indigenous affairs critic Cathy McLeod warns the government is jumping into a complex legal process with little debate.

“To move such a significant piece of legislation forward in the form of a private member’s bill is absolutely wrong,” said McLeod in an interview. “It won’t have the scrutiny it deserves, it won’t have the hours of debate it deserves.”

Private member’s bills have two hours of debate. A government bill can be debated for days.

McLeod calls the UN declaration “very important” but says she has lot of questions about how all 46 articles will be absorbed into Canadian law. She wonders about the article that gives Indigenous people the right to “free prior and informed consent” on issues like resource development.

“So I want to know what is the difference between what we have right now — which is consult and accommodate — and free prior and informed consent. What is that going to mean in practical differences?”

Bill C-262 will be debated for an hour today and for a second hour in February. The House of Commons will vote on second reading in March. If passed the bill will go a committee for further study.

Saganash thinks there’s a lot more at stake than his bill. He thinks the international community is watching how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau handles it.

“They want a seat at the (UN) Security Council. This is his opportunity to walk the talk.”