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Time to eliminate gender discrimination in Indian registration, First Nation women deserve equality

By Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck      

It would be hypocritical not to apply the same principles of justice and fairness to First Nations women as was done for Omar Khadr.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured Oct. 2, 2016 on Parliament Hill at a vigil for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. The government wants to remove the Senate amendment from Bill S-3, which will allow the continuation of sex discrimination in the registration sections of Indian Act, writes Sen. Lillian Dyck.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

PARLIAMENT HILL—I have been following with great interest the government’s decision to award Omar Khadr $10.5-million in compensation and in particular Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statements defending the decision. I invite the prime minister to use the same reasoning, principles, and values with regard to First Nations women and their rights in Bill S-3: An Act to Amend the Indian Act (elimination of sex-based inequities in registration).

The prime minister stated that the decision to award Omar Khadr $10.5-million was based on the fact that Canada had breached his Charter rights and that Canada is a just society “recognizing rights when it is difficult, when it is unpopular.” I urge the prime minister to apply the same standards to First Nation women and their descendants whose status was wrongfully taken from them. That is the right thing to do.

Loss of status has been identified as a root cause of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Loss of status has marginalized First Nations women and their descendants. Through no fault of their own, they have lost close connections to their original First Nation communities and their families, because they were barred from living on their reserves.

Bill S-3, the government’s first piece of legislation affecting First Nation peoples, continues to contravene the Charter rights of women whose registered Indian status was unfairly stripped from them simply because they married a non-status person. Individual First Nation women or their descendants have launched numerous court challenges over the years; so far all have been successful at the provincial level. In every case so far, the courts have stated that the Charter right of equality between the sexes had been breached.

This June, the Senate passed Bill S-3 unanimously with a gender equality amendment drafted by Indigenous legal experts to eliminate discrimination against Indian women generally rather than limit it to the Descheneaux court case.

Later, in the House of Commons, the government’s position, instruction and action was to remove the Senate amendment from Bill S-3.

This action will allow the continuation of sex discrimination in the registration sections of Indian Act. This clearly is a violation of the rights of First Nation women enshrined in the Charter, the Constitution and the UNDRIP. It’s just not right. Not in 2017. The 150th birthday of Canada. Surely, Canada has matured beyond the colonial underpinnings of the Indian Act.

In the fall, Bill S-3 will be debated in the Senate. I anticipate Senators will insist that a gender equality amendment be added. I urge the prime minister to then instruct his ministers and MPs to accept a gender-equality amendment.

Is it not the prime minister’s duty to help restore the Charter, constitutional and international rights to First Nations women and their descendants? Trudeau has stated that no relationship is more important to him than that with First Nations. Our women and their descendants need his help to regain their citizenship in their respective First Nations. Being status-less is like being state-less.

Is it not the prime minister’s duty to honour Canadian values and help status-less First Nation women who are the most marginalized and vulnerable, and not force them to go to the courts for a remedy to a breach of their rights? As a feminist prime minister, Trudeau understands this and is in a key leadership position to help them regain their status.

It would be hypocritical not to apply the same principles of justice and fairness to First Nations women as was done for Omar Khadr.

With Bill S-3, the government’s first government bill affecting First Nations, I urge Trudeau simply to do the right thing and accept an amendment that truly eliminates all gender discrimination in Indian registration. It’s the right thing to do. First Nation women deserve to be treated as fairly as Omar Khadr.

Please, be the champion for First Nation women’s rights to their status and their ability to pass it on to their families.

Saskatchewan Liberal Senator Lillian Eva Quan Dyck is chair of the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples Committee. 

The Hill Times 

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