Federal government changes course on sex discrimination legislation

Senator Peter Harder waits in the Senate lobby in Ottawa on November 15, 2016. The federal government has opted to change course on its proposed legislation designed to end sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act. The government's point man in the Senate, Peter Harder, told the upper chamber this afternoon the proposed change will result in full legal status of First Nations women and their descendants born prior to 1985. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - The federal government has decided to change course on its proposed legislation to end sex-based discrimination in the Indian Act.

The government's point man in the Senate, Sen. Peter Harder, told the upper chamber Tuesday that the government is offering to make a change that would restore full legal status to First Nations women and their descendants born prior to 1985 — a measure that moved Indigenous Sen. Lillian Dyck to tears.

"Colleagues, if we pass today's motion, something wonderful will happen," Dyck told the chamber, her voice cracking. "Something that First Nations women have been waiting for for nearly 150 years."

The Indian Act, which dates back to 1876, remains the primary law defining the relationship between the federal government and First Nations across the country. Its original definitions focused primarily on men, denying women many of the same privileges and powers as their male counterparts when it came to their Indian status.

Numerous amendments over the years have chipped away at those imbalances, but critics say the document as it currently stands continues to treat women unfairly, particularly when it comes to their Indian status and their ability to pass that status along to their descendants.

Once passed, the government amendment would ensure Indigenous women finally get the same ability to transmit their registered Indian status to family members, Dyck said.

"Your language, your culture, your connection to your family, your connection to your community."

Dyck recently joined forces with Sen. Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas and other advocates as part of an awareness campaign to urge the Liberal government to change the bill.

Part of the outreach, supported by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, included the distribution of a letter last week to women's organizations, academics and human rights groups to drum up support for the "full and final removal" of sex discrimination in the Indian Act.

The government and officials have now found an acceptable solution to a standoff between the Senate and the House of Commons, said Dyck, who urged her fellow senators to pass Harder's proposal by the end of the week.

"Let's move it and urge the members in the (House of Commons) to concur," she said.

First Nations women can breathe a sign of relief, Dyck added. "I know I will."

In June, the Senate unanimously passed a change to the bill designed to ensure Indigenous women and their descendants enjoy the same Indian status under the law as their male counterparts.

The House of Commons, however, did not originally accept the Senate's proposal, with the government saying it needed more time to examine the potential impacts.

The previous Senate amendment would have focused on issues beyond merely the sex-based inequities, creating ambiguities and potential legal problems, Harder said.

The government's original bill would only have addressed discrimination in Indian Act registration since 1951, when a more modern registry was created. The amendment would, among other things, also address inequities created between 1869 and 1951, said the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.

The Liberal government's bill was in response to a Quebec Superior Court decision that ruled certain sections of the Indian Act related to registration status violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The case was brought by Stephane Descheneaux of the Abenaki community of Odanak, about 40 kilometres northwest of Drummondville, Que.

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.

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