OTTAWA — The Liberal government introduced long-awaited legislation Thursday to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Justice Minister David Lametti described as a significant step forward on the path to reconciliation.
"It has the potential to be transformational," Lametti told a news conference after tabling Bill C-15 in the House of Commons.
"We're at a starting line putting 150 plus years, longer than that, of colonialism and the impact of (it) behind us," he said. "Let's move to a different model."
The proposed legislation, if passed, would require the federal government to work with First Nations, Métis and Inuit to do everything needed to ensure Canadian law is in harmony with the rights and principles contained in the UN declaration.
It would also have the federal government create an action plan for those goals as soon as possible and no later than three years after the bill comes into force.
National chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said the bill is not perfect and that he is concerned the deadline for completing the action plan is too far away.
"We've waited too long already," he said at the news conference. "We don't want wait for another three years."
Lametti said the deadline is reasonable because consultation with Indigenous Peoples will take time.
"It is complex, working with indigenous leadership. You have national organizations. You also have each individual nation. Each individual nation has a chief or a leader of some sort who would expect to be consulted," he said.
"We picked a date that was realistic but, that being said, the parliamentary process is the place where we can look at that."
Bellegarde said the bill doesn't provide clarity on which federal department will lead the effort to implement the UN declaration in Canadian law. "We would like to see a commitment to a periodic review, which is something any good legislation should have."
The legislation doesn't give First Nations anything new, Bellegarde said. "It acknowledges and affirms our rights under international law."
He said the bill condemns the racist and colonial doctrines and beliefs that have led to grave human rights abuses including the residential school system.
Lametti predicted the bill will have wide support in the House of Commons and the Senate.
"It's a human rights issue. Who's going to vote against human rights?" he said in a separate interview Thursday afternoon.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement the implementation of the UN declaration is essential.
"We are still reviewing the details of the government's bill," he said. "We will be looking forward to working in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to improve the bill."
Conservative Indigenous services critic Gary Vidal's office said the party is still reviewing the legislation and does not have immediate comment.
Ontario Conservative MPP Greg Rickford said in a statement the federal Liberals tabled bill C-15 before completing adequate consultation, adding that Indigenous communities need concrete action from Ottawa.
In a technical briefing provided to media, Justice Department officials said the bill includes a framework to create ways to align federal law with the declaration over time. It does not transform the declaration itself into law.
The proposed legislation builds upon a private member's bill from former New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash, which the House of Commons passed two years ago.
That bill stalled in the Senate, where Conservative senators argued it could have unintended legal and economic consequences, and then died when Parliament dissolved.
The UN declaration, which Canada endorsed in 2010, affirms the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination and to their language, culture and traditional lands.
It also spells out the need for free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples on anything that infringes on their lands or rights, but Bill C-15 doesn't include a definition of such consent.
Lametti said it would be impossible to define a free, prior and informed consent because every consent requires a unique process that includes a dialogue with Indigenous Peoples.
"This is something that is so contextual that will be different with each individual nation, with each project, with each with each level of government," he said.
He said the need for consent doesn't represent a veto.
"Free, prior and informed consent is about respecting the human rights of Indigenous Peoples," Lametti said. "The document itself is about human rights generally, your right to education, language and culture, self determination, (and these) are things that Canadians believe in."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2020.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press