Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

UNDRIP a top priority, says Miller, but won’t rule out delay due to COVID-19

The House of Commons is currently supposed to resume in full on Sept. 21

A Liberal commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is still a top priority, says Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, but he could not say whether it is still possible within the promised timeline.

During the 2019 election and again in ministerial mandate letters, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to introduce legislation, developed with Indigenous Peoples, by the end of 2020 that would enshrine the UN declaration in Canadian law.

That remains an “utmost priority” for the Trudeau government, Miller said, adding that legislation will come in the “shortest time frame possible.”

But he also noted the House of Commons has been operating under special rules adopted by all political parties after the pandemic forced the country into lockdown. The rules only allow the tabling of legislation that deals with COVID-19 emergency measures.

“We’ve heard it from every regional and national leadership that it is a, or the top, priority,” Miller told reporters in Ottawa Wednesday.

“The challenges I would highlight … are such that we have a Parliament that is operating under rules that are dictated by all the parties so we could agree to have the format to combat COVID.”

The House of Commons is currently supposed to resume in full on Sept. 21.

Justice Minister David Lametti, whose portfolio is overseeing work on UNDRIP legislation, is on vacation this week and thus unavailable for an interview.

His spokeswoman, Rachel Rappaport, said his office has been working closely with national Indigenous organizations on a path forward for developing the legislation that is adapted to the new circumstances imposed by the pandemic.

“That work is very much ongoing. We look forward to having more to share soon,” Rappaport said.

The commitment to introduce a bill to implement UNDRIP by the end of 2020 has not changed, she said.

“Our priority has always been to see this legislation passed as quickly as possible, working in lockstep with Indigenous partners and rights holders,” Rappaport said in her statement.

“There is no doubt that COVID-19 has created new challenges and circumstances that we must adapt to, but it has not changed the fact that this remains a key priority for our government and for Indigenous partners.”

Last month, Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, who served as justice minister under the Liberals until 2019 when she resigned over the SNC-Lavalin controversy, told the House of Commons she had heard legislation had been drafted and that the Liberals would soon release a discussion paper on UNDRIP.

At the time, she said hoped the government is “aware that fundamental to the declaration’s articles are the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous Peoples.”

She cited concerns about tensions between a luxury fishing lodge in B.C. that reopened to visitors despite a state of emergency issued by the Haida Nation because of COVID-19. The lodge has since shut down.

In response to Wilson-Raybould’s query on UNDRIP, Lametti noted his mandate letter dictates he must implement the declaration before the end of this calendar year.

“It remains a priority for me,” Lametti said in the House of Commons July 22.

“Once we have done that, we will be able to better address the kinds of questions that (Wilson-Raybould) is raising now. We feel the declaration will help reframe the relationship between people in Canada in a positive way moving forward.”

But NDP MP Charlie Angus says he is not hopeful the promised bill will deliver the kinds of reforms that are needed when it comes to the Crown’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples, regardless of when it arrives.

“I think the reality is that whatever the government says about Indigenous rights, they send in the Justice Department to fight tooth and nail against it,” Angus said Wednesday.

“Until we get that change in terms of the confrontational legal approach the government has towards Indigenous rights, we’re going to continue to see problems.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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