Canada's Original Think Tank

Tributes – The Honourable Charlie Watt

Tributes – The Honourable Charlie Watt

Tributes – The Honourable Charlie Watt

Hon. Serge Joyal: 

Honourable senators, today is a sad day for our chamber as we witness the departure of Senator Charlie Watt, one of the first Inuit to be a member of the Senate of Canada, in 1984, where former Senator Willie Adams, also an Inuit, had been sitting since 1977.

Senator Watt devoted his entire life to the promotion of the status and the rights of the Inuit people. He was among the first Inuit representatives in 1980 to testify at the special joint committee on the patriation of the Constitution, which I had the privilege of co-chairing at the time, and to claim the recognition of Aboriginal ancestral and treaty rights, which were finally entrenched in section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 through an amendment adopted by that committee.

We cannot underestimate the strategic importance of this constitutional change for the Indigenous people of Canada in the years that followed. It was a historical step forward. Section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 led to over 80 judgments rendered by the highest court, thereby re-establishing the rights of Indigenous peoples of Canada to their territory and setting aside more than 150 years of discrimination through the Indian Act and also affirming the rights of equality for Indigenous women.

Without the recognition of Aboriginal rights in section 35, Canada would not be engaged on the path of reconciliation it is on today with Indigenous peoples.

Moreover, Senator Watt has always advocated that there is a complete system of Aboriginal law that predates colonial occupation, and that in fact Canada benefits from three legal traditions: the Aboriginal system of governance and family law, the French civil code and, of course, common law.

He has advocated for his right to speak Inuktitut during the deliberations of our chamber. It was under his initiative of June 23, 2009, after reports from the Rules Committee, that the experiment of using a third language, Inuktitut, was successfully conducted in the Senate Chamber during a debate for the first time in 300 years. This was, in fact, the first time since 1701, when the treaty of Montreal was negotiated and signed by 39 Aboriginal chiefs that Aboriginal languages were abundantly spoken.

We should recall several lessons from that historical day in our chamber, a day when we had access to three audio channels — French, English and Inuktitut — to understand the proceedings of the chamber.

Senator Watt, having been your personal friend over the last 50 years, it remains one of the greatest incentives for me to diligently continue serving the peoples of Canada. Thank you.