Bennett embarrassed at handling of legislation designed to change Indian Act
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OTTAWA — Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says she was personally embarrassed by the handling of a piece of legislation designed to change sex-based rules in the Indian Act.
While speaking to a Senate committee on Wednesday night, Bennett admitted time constraints caused mistakes and for less engagement with First Nations than she would have liked.
The bill — a response to a Quebec Superior Court decision — proposes amendments to address differences in the ways indigenous men and women acquire status and how it is handed down to family members.
Last year the court ruled in favour of three women from a Quebec First Nation and declared that portions of the Act violated equality provisions under the Charter of Rights, but gave Parliament 18 months to make legislative amendments. In certain situations men could pass their status on to their descendents, but women could not.
The government faces a time crunch because the court required a response be in place by February, Bennett said.
"My department's failure to directly engage with the plaintiffs was not only unacceptable but embarrassing for me as minister," she said.
Bennett, who made the comments before being questioned by senators, said she has since been in contact with each of the plaintiffs.
The bill was closely scrutinized by senators at the committee hearing on Wednesday, including Conservative Sen. Dennis Patterson from Nunavut.
"Could we not do a better job with this bill ... if we were to ask for a little more time to deal with it in the new fiscal year?" he said. "Yes, these people have been left out for decades but there are others that we should include that appear to have been left out."
Bennett said she was not sure the court would grant an extension and added that a longer time frame would not allow for her to meaningfully engage with communities on issues beyond sex-based discrimination.
The legislation has also been criticized by groups including the Assembly of First Nations.
Bill S-3 will result in continued discrimination, said AFN women council chair Denise Stonefish.
The approach of the bill continues arbitrary federal control over First Nation identity, she said.
"We do welcome the removal of the sex and gender based discrimination from the Indian Act in principle ... but it is important to remember why the Indian Act was created in 1876 and the bottom line was to assimilate our people," she said in an interview.
The government plans to move ahead with a process for indigenous groups to examine broader issues around Indian registration, band membership and citizenship beginning in February.
The government is also adamant about moving beyond the Indian Act, Bennett said.
"I want you to see that this is a step in actually getting my department out of the business," she said.
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