When I started blogging the first time well over a decade ago, I set a few ground rules for myself, rules that I’ve stuck to ever since and I believe have served me well. One of those rules was to “Never blog while extremely angry.” That’s a rule I had to invoke last night when this news came out from the Senate, news that wasn’t shocking but still hurt none the less:
Folks, I’m not going to deny how this made me feel; this hurts deeply, watching 8 years of work on UNDRIP legislation, including 5 of my own, go up in smoke because a tiny handful of unelected and unaccountable Conservative Senators decide they wanted this to die. These “honourable” gentlemen, unable to carry a democratic vote or get enough support for their position, used dirty procedural tactics to simply try to smother this bill in its legislative crib. C-262 was literally one debate and one vote away from becoming law. After more than two years of debate, votes, committee studies and alike in both the House of Commons and the Senate, it was that close to becoming law. That’s not nothing, and it’s extremely rare to see private members bills get that far just to be killed like that.
That fact also speaks loudly to the motivations of those Senators, people appointed to apply “sober second thought” to legislation. But instead of that humble sobriety, these Conservative appointees put partisanship above all in a display of being drunk on power the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations in this country. Senators like Don Plett, Scott Tannas and Dennis Patterson all made it very clear that they wanted no part of ensuring that Indigenous people in Canada had the basic minimums of human rights protected. That was too much for them to bare, and in their pearl-clutching horror, they overrode not only the will of the majority of the elected House of Commons, they did the same to the majority of their Senate colleagues. It’s disgusting and beneath our democratic values, but it’s clear that those three Senators don’t give a damn.
What makes this worse to me how this all happened. If C-262 lost in an honest vote, I wouldn’t have liked it but I could have accepted it. Very few opposition private members bills get out of the House of Commons because they can’t get enough votes, so to see it lose in a democratic vote wouldn’t have hurt anywhere near this much. But this comes back to the rules of the Senate and how it runs itself. The fact is that Opposition members in the House of Commons could not do what these Senators did; the rules that govern the House of Commons make it impossible. But the Senate somehow still allows this, allowing a single Opposition Senator to hold up an entire piece of legislation, just because while facing zero accountability for their decision. For all the discussions around C-262 and winging about vetoes (which this bill didn’t give), it’s more than cruelly ironic that this bill died because these few Senators effectively vetoed the expressed wishes of the House of Commons and the majority of their Senate colleagues. And that’s an irony that I doubt that Mr. Plett, Tannas nor Patterson see or even care about.
The Liberals have promised to re-introduce UNDRIP legislation in the next Parliament, as I’m sure the NDP will again as well, but that promise doesn’t mean much today. The fact is that this bill was mere days from becoming law, in a bill that would have done it the right way. I don’t have faith that any new Liberal bill in the next Parliament (if they win of course) will be the same or as good; history isn’t on the Liberals side there.
The next Parliament is beside the point here though. For me, there are two major takeaways from this, neither of which are good nor promising. For starters, if it wasn’t clear before this, the Senate as an institution is a broken place. We’ve seen through the appointment of new Independent Senators that we’ve gotten some better people in the Red Chamber, like Murray Sinclair, and that’s helped improve the place. But this episode proves that the problem isn’t with the people there, it’s the institution itself. The fact that a chamber can’t get a piece of legislation dealt with properly when they have over a year to do it is condemnation on the institution, not the people bringing forward the legislation. The Senate is broken and major changes to its structure and rules need to happen if it hopes to survive calls for being abolished, called that will get stronger after this.
My other major takeaway from this is the place of Indigenous peoples and our rights in our democratic institutions. I’ve spent over a decade trying to convince more and more Indigenous people in Canada to get involved in our politics, to vote and to run for office. When doing so I’ve always pointed to how our participation is a sleep giant that can make a serious difference, but I’ve always had to fight against hesitancy. I’ve heard time and again how these processes are not “ours”, something I’ve never had a great comeback to. The best I could say is that we are being offered a chance to have a say who we will face at the other side of government tables, and that we should use it.
But this episode has the power to undermine everyone’s efforts to get more Indigenous peoples in Canadian politics. This shows just how fierce and strongly things are stacked against our rights within the current process. With C-262, it didn’t matter that we convinced a majority of MPs, it didn’t matter that the bill passed votes and studies and it didn’t matter that a majority of Senators supported it. All that didn’t matter, because a tiny handful of Conservatives said “No way in Hell.” It seems that Indigenous Rights are uniquely able to bring that response out of Conservative politicians, and this time it worked. So even after doing everything right, following every step, still this happened. How do you convince Indigenous peoples to put their faith in these institutions again, especially when this could easily happen again? That’s a very legitimate question to ask, one that I honestly don’t have an answer to.
Folks, I don’t know what to tell you today. I’m hurt, I’m upset, I’m disheartened and I’m left feeling very down on it all. I know that the right answer is to say we’ll keep fighting on, and that’s probably what we’ll do in the end, but it doesn’t feel right saying it today. The words that feel right, that are ringing in my head are from Andrew Barton, once said by Tommy Douglas: “I am hurt, but I am not slain. I shall lay me down and bleed a while, then rise and fight again.” We will get up and fight again for our rights, with this moment clear in our minds.