On the precipice: Romeo Saganash’s bill will see UN Indigenous Rights Declaration become Canadian law

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It was over 30 years ago that a young Romeo Saganash first attended negotiations at the United Nations in New York City to help push Indigenous rights to the level of international law.

Saganash now stands ready to see his private member’s bill adopted by Parliament, thereby incorporating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into Canadian law.

Speaking to the House of Commons, Saganash addressed his life’s work that brought him to that moment, as a residential school survivor who was “incarcerated culturally, politically, linguistically, spiritually even.”

When he got out of residential school, he had two goals. The first was to reconnect with the land and live off the land, which he did right after getting out. The second was to reconcile “with the people who had put me away for 10 years.”

Bill C-262, he says, is his attempt at reconciliation.

Saganash was born in Waswanipi, and first went to the UN in 1984. A year later he founded the Cree Nation Youth Council, and in 1989 became the first Cree person in Quebec to achieve a law degree. In 2011, he was elected a New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou for the first time. He introduced Bill C-262 in April 2016.

At the time, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government opposed the bill.

Famously, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is herself Indigenous from British Colombia, called UNDRIP “unworkable” within the context of Canadian law.

That all changed in November at an event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Declaration on December 13, 2007. At the time, only four countries in the world opposed the Declaration, including Canada.

“With the direction and leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, our government will support Bill C-262,” Wilson-Raybould said at the event. “The bill acknowledges the application of the UN Declaration in Canada and calls for the alignment of the laws of Canada with the UN Declaration.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde responded, thanking Saganash for his work. “Giving life to the UN Declaration in Canadian law will build a stronger country,” Bellegarde commented. “First Nations are looking forward to their opportunity to provide input and comment on the bill as it works its way through the parliamentary process.”

In a speech to a Parliament Hill rally December 4, Saganash said that the government only supported it because of widespread pressure from people across the country.

He emphasized that the bill was non-partisan: “It’s not about Romeo Saganash or the NDP, it’s about Indigenous Peoples’ human rights, their fundamental rights. It took 150 years to get here with respect to Indigenous Peoples, it will take 150 years to fix.”

A few hours later, he was inside the House of Commons for the first debate on the bill since it was introduced last April.

Saganash reminded MPs that the bill is not about creating new laws or rights; it’s simply about recognizing rights that are fundamental, inherent and pre-existent for Indigenous Peoples.

“Bill C-262 is about human rights. Bill C-262 is about justice. Bill C-262 is about reconciliation. If we are true to our commitment to reconciliation, this is the first step in that direction,” he declared.

Speaking on behalf of the government, MP Yvonne Jones, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said the government was proud to support the bill.

“We will do what is long past due in this country, which is to bring forward the right legislation and standards to ensure that self-determination and the inherent rights of Indigenous People are respected in the lands that we all love,” said Jones.

Saganash said he expects Parliament to vote on the bill sometime in late February or March.

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