Story by Frank Larue
First Nations groups applauded opposition MPs after they stalled a clause-by-clause study of Bill C-44, the First Nations Human Rights Act, at a rare summer sitting of the House Aboriginal Affairs Committee at Parliament Hill in late July.
Members of the aboriginal affairs committee had been recalled from summer recess to hold a meeting on the controversial bill that would make the Indian Act subject to the federal human rights code.
The governing Conservatives forced the committee to meet to extend the Human Rights Act to aboriginal communities, but opposition MPs and aboriginal groups argued for more time for consultation.
The bill repeals Sec. 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA), a 30 year-old exemption which states that no part of the act affects the Indian Act. The bill would extend the reach of the Canadian Human Rights Commission over claims of discrimination that have been shielded because the Indian Act is outside the human rights code.
The Canadian Human Rights Act outlaws discrimination in employment and services on such grounds as sex, race, ethnic origin and marital status. The exemption has been condemned over the years in Canada and the United Nations.
Opposition MPs were angered that the government has rejected calls for advance consultations with First Nations and for changes to the bill advocated the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
The opposition had been trying to force the government to honour a motion approved by the majority of the committee in June, requiring a suspension of committee hearing for up to 10 months while consultations take place between government and First Nations organizations.
They questioned what they were doing there in the first place, saying that the chair of the committee called the meeting of his own accord and against the will of the majority of the committee.
“This government has shown nothing but contempt for the will of a standing committee of Parliament and total disregard for the concerns of those who will be most affected by the new legislation,” said Liberal MP Anita Neville. “Why are the Conservatives afraid of consulting with First Nations?”
NDP aboriginal affairs critic called the committee recall a political stunt.
“This bill is creating too many doubts in the First Nations communities,” she said. “These are the people who have to live with the consequences of hasty legislation before and they want the Harper government to stop bullying First Nations and get it right.”
The opposition argued that further consultation is necessary to work out safeguards to ensure the law does not backfire on the collective rights of First Nations and equip the country’s band councils with the necessary resources to cope with anti-discrimination complaints and redress.
MPs argued over whether the committee would enter into a clause-by-clause examination of the bill, as Conservatives wanted, or a change the agenda of the meeting to first consider a motion put forward by Neville.
“The opposition parties want to put off clause-by-clause, but we took the time to come back this summer to deal with a very important issue, extending human rights to First Nations people,” said Tory MP Rod Bruinooge, parliamentary secretary to Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice. Bruinooge said that there has been ample consultation and that there was no consensus among aboriginal groups on the form, length or definition of adequate consultation.
The committee eventually voted to change the agenda and debate the Liberal motion that called on the committee to suspend the study of the bill.
“We’re very pleased that the Liberal motion passed overwhelmingly,” said Candice Metallic, legal advisor to Phil Fontaine, AFN national chief. “The AFN position has been from the beginning that First Nations need to be consulted, not just on this legislation, but on every legislation and specific initiative that comes through this parliament.”