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Canada Bill Debate

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      FEBRUARY/MARCH 1982      v12 n02 p06  
The major portion of debate around the Canada Bill in the British House of Commons focused on issues raised by Indians through MPs from all sides of the house. Canada's Indian policies were repeatedly assaulted by Conservatives and Laborites alike during first and second reading debates putting non Indian Canadians in the "gallery of strangers" on the defensive.

Support for the Indians within the House of Commons had said earlier they would not oppose patriation of Canada's new constitution but would examine and publicize Indian grievances and pressure Ottawa to clarify and strengthen her Indian policy. But, criticism was all the House of Commons could offer during the first two debates. The Canada Bill, as the Canadian constitution is referred to by the UK parliament, passed first reading after a six hour debate by a majority of 334 to 44 in mid-February. Second reading also took most of the day March 3 when a proposed amendment suggesting a veto for Indians in constitutional matters concerning them was defeated by a margin of 140 to 28.

Third and final reading of the Canada Bill in the House of Commons is expected in the second week of March. Again another round of criticism centering around Indian rights is expected but Britain is not expected to halt patriation altogether; at least not in the House of Commons. Once the Canada Bill passes third reading, it will be sent to the upper House of Lords for their action, and possibly even more delay. Indian officials say the main point of the action in Britain's parliament is to drag as many Indian concerns as possible into the open to be recorded by the British courts and parliament even though Great Britain has no actual power to stop patriation. If such a move were attempted, Justice Minister Chretien would simply rise in the gallery of strangers and declare Canadian independence.

Indian government tactics in Britain's parliament is only one part of the lobby. This action continues in spite of two other developments in late 1981 and early 1982. Other lobby activities are taking place in the British Courts.

Some preliminary events leading up to the present actions could have a bearing on the eventual outcome of the Indian lobby. The question of the Crown's treaty obligations to the Indians of British North America was loosely dealt with in late 1981 by the Foreign Affairs Committee made up of British MPs and by a panel of Judges of the British Court of Appeal. Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee proved themselves lime green in international and constitutional matters in reaching this decision: The British Crown sent all treaty obligations to Canada in 1931 along with the Statute of Westminster. Observers said the committee never adequately dealt with the Royal Proclamation of 1763 or welcomed any appearances by Indians. Neither were Indian governments consulted in the 1931 transfer yet the committee still advised the government they had broken the treaties then.

The second development was the late January dismissal of a case presented to the British Court of A~ peal by the Indian Association of Alberta. Indian governments across Canada crossed their fingers as the case developed. All three judges similarly ruled the Crown is no longer bound by treaty to Canadian Indians. "The Queen of Great Britain is entirely different from the Queen in Canada." The court also refuted the Foreign Affairs Committee view that these obligations were transferred to Canada in 1931.

Despite these rulings, Indian governments remain determined to put their concerns forward in Great Britain's legal and political systems. Canada's doubtful treatment of Indians and other native groups is being well recorded by an outside government. Besides the House of Lords, there are three cases still to be argued before the British Courts. The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) together with the Treaty Nine Grand Council and Four Nations Confederacy will be heard in early june of this year. A statement of claim has also been filed by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI). The Indian Association of Alberta has also taken the lower court of Appeals ruling to the House of Lords.

The British government will push ahead and not wait for the outcome of these legal arguments. They appear already aware of the decisions. Further British actions could be mere formalities but the Indian lobby is scoring more points through their system than it has in decades of negotiations through the Canadian government and media.

Indian officials have noticed the trend set by British decisions and realize future attachments to Great Britain are questionable. The Canada Bill has passed second reading in the House of Commons and is sure to pass third reading in a similar manner as the first two. A repeat performance of this in the House of could be by early indications that the Canada Bill may be subjected to even more examination in the upper House than in the Commons. A lot of points, more than Canada and Jean Chretien care to admit, will again be made public outside Canada. This could give the Indian lobby world attention if another round comes up in Ottawa.

The House of Lords is all that remains between Ottawa and the Indian governments of Canada. The last nail will be hammered in when the Queen sends the Canada Bill home, ambiguously worded references to "existing rights" and all. Britain will once and for all break Treaty.