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Inuit leader says he can't support bill creating national reconciliation council

OTTAWA — The leader of a national Inuit organization says he cannot support federal legislation to create a national reconciliation council.
Natan Obed makes an announcement on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. The president of the national Inuit organization says had Ottawa engaged it earlier on developing legislation to create a national reconciliation council, they wouldn't be where they are today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The leader of a national Inuit organization says he cannot support federal legislation to create a national reconciliation council.

The legislation, which passed unanimously in the House of Commons this week, would create a council to oversee Ottawa's implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's 94 calls to action.

At a press conference in Ottawa Friday, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed said the bill could result in recommendations "that may be completely out of sync" with Inuit positions, with only one seat on a board of nine to 13 people to be nominated by the organization.

"We are still quite concerned, from a fundamental level, about being understood, and our rights being upheld and our institutions being supported in the face of wilful ignorance about the respect that is necessary for our institutions," said Obed. 

As the bill is written, the three national Indigenous organizations representing the Inuit, Métis and First Nations would be able to appoint members on the council's board of directors. At least five other members would be elected by an application process established by the board. Two-thirds of board members would be required to be Indigenous persons, with two hailing from the territories. 

A parliamentary committee studying the bill recently added a fourth position on the board to be nominated by the Native Women's Association of Canada, which is not a rights-holding organization in the same way as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Métis National Council and Assembly of First Nations are.

Obed raised the concern that many Canadians don't understand "the difference between the representatives of Indigenous peoples versus organizations that serve Indigenous peoples on particular issues."

But in a statement on Friday, the women's association said it is one of the country's largest Indigenous organizations, "period." 

The statement added that the association is a leading voice when it comes to violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls, as well as those who are gender diverse. It said the decision to include it on the council "is a departure from patriarchal practices of the past and is to be roundly applauded." 

Meanwhile, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents non-status First Nations individuals and Indigenous Peoples living off-reserve in urban areas, is raising ire about its lack of inclusion. 

Its president, Elmer St. Pierre, called the move "a slap in the face to thousands of survivors who live off-reserve."

Still, this week,members of Parliamentunanimously passed the bill in the House of Commons and sent it to the Senate, which could decide to make further amendments.  

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller suggested Friday it could take several years to know whether a national council to oversee the government's implementation of the calls to action is working as an accountability mechanism. 

Its creation was one of the 94 calls made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in its final report, presented back in 2015. 

While the legislation was being debated at the committee stage, Miller faced questions from opposition MPs about why it took the government seven years to bring it forward.

One of the reasons the minister provided was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, which brought much of the government's agenda to a screeching halt. 

On Friday, Miller acknowledged the disagreement with Obed but said he is "optimistic" that the legislation will work and is open to amendments in the Senate.

Obed said that things might have turned out differently had his group been consulted on the development of the proposed law much earlier. 

"If this piece of legislation was co-developed from 2017, 2018, when the first considerations of this bill were discussed, I don't believe that we'd be in this scenario," he said.

"Hopefully, there is a way that, that we can support the bill moving forward."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2022

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press