Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain said adopting UNDRIP is “the right direction.” Photo by Michael Swan

Canadian bishops prepare response to Bill C-15

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  • February 25, 2021

Canada’s bishops are continuing to study federal legislation that provides legal protections for Indigenous communities in the form of internationally recognized rights.

Bill C-15, which would incorporate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into Canadian law, passed second reading Feb. 17.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), which has urged the government to pass UNDRIP legislation, “is taking the time needed to perform an in-depth analysis of its content prior to providing any commentary,” CCCB spokesperson Lisa Gall told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

UNDRIP was adopted by the United Nations in 2007. For most of the decade after the declaration passed at the UN, Canada refused to sign for fear that endorsing the right to free, prior and informed consent for any new development on historically Indigenous lands might re-open settled land claims or grant individual Indigenous communities a veto over otherwise thoroughly vetted infrastructure projects from pipelines to highways.

In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its Calls to Action, demanding that the UN declaration be seen as part of the framework for reconciliation. That same year Cree Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash introduced a private member’s bill that would align Canadian law with UNDRIP.

On their election in October of 2015, the Liberals promised a new relationship between government and Indigenous Canadians. In 2016 Canada officially adopted and promised to implement UNDRIP. It took until Dec. 3, 2020 for a government bill to be introduced.

The CCCB’s primary dialogue with Indigenous Catholics, the Guadalupe Circle, has wanted to make a statement in support of Bill C-15 but the issue is delicate, Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain, a Guadalupe Circle member, said.

“We are very much trying to encourage the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That’s the right direction,” Chatlain said.

The full legal meaning and implications of free, prior and informed consent is still unclear, said the archbishop.

Chatlain hopes the Guadalupe Circle can fashion a statement at its next full meeting, March 26. He concedes it’s cutting it close and the legislation could be passed by then.

Guadalupe Circle member Graydon Nicholas, former Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick and member of the Maliseet nation, declined comment on the C-15 issue, referring questions to the CCCB.

Both the Oblates and Jesuits have endorsed an ecumenical letter in support of C-15.

“Can anyone seriously ask Indigenous people to have confidence in our sincerity to reconcile if we stymie this framework from acceptance once again?” asked Centre Oblat – A Voice For Justice executive director Joe Gunn. “It is time to take up our responsibility to build, not block, reconciliation. This bill is a necessary step forward.”

“We feel that our own reconciliation with Indigenous people is part of our own seeking right relations with God,” said Jesuit Fr. Peter Bisson. “UNDRIP is quite consistent with Catholic social teaching.”

Chatlain said the Guadalupe Circle is in full agreement on the principles of UNDRIP.

“We echo Pope Francis’ statements, especially from the Amazon synod and his report from there, that some of the people who are most helpful in land questions and issues are going to be the people living on the land in a particular area and who are planning to stay there,” Chatlain said. “That is our Indigenous people in many areas.”

In opposition, the Conservative Party of Canada still worries that passing the bill will stop resource development and infrastructure projects.

“We support many of UNDRIP’s articles, but what we oppose is the government’s lack of due diligence in putting forward legislation without reaching a common understanding of how free, prior and informed consent will be interpreted,” said Conservative MP Jamie Schmale from Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock. “We also do not think that enough consultation has been done with Indigenous communities.”

Some conservative religious groups have opposed the legislation because of a line in the preamble which says adopting UNDRIP “must include concrete measures to address injustices, combat prejudice and eliminate all forms of violence and discrimination, including systemic discrimination, against Indigenous peoples and Indigenous elders, youth, children, women, men, persons with disabilities and gender-diverse persons and two-spirit persons.”

The CCCB did not answer questions from The Catholic Register about whether it is concerned by the reference to gender-diverse and two-spirit persons.

Chatlain doesn’t think this should be a major focus.

“There is a little bit of concern that that becomes part of this very important issue of UNDRIP,” he said. “It would not be, to us (the Guadalupe Circle), a huge stumbling block in that the focus is the Indigenous respect that’s reflected in the United Nations declaration. I wouldn’t put that as a huge stumbling block.”

Supporting the legislation has to be part of doing the right thing for all Canadians, said Chatlain.

“All of us realize that it’s going to be a process to find the way for it (Bill C-15) to be a healthy and authentic, effective way to be part of Canadian legislation, especially around clear and informed consent in land issues,” he said.

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