House of Commons Hansard #25 of the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was nisga'a.

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Noon

Reform

Mike Scott Skeena, BC

moved:

That, in the opinion of this House, the federal government should conduct a province-wide referendum in British Columbia on the Nisga'a Final Agreement prior to the consideration of any further stages of Bill C-9, an Act to give effect to the Nisga'a Final Agreement.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to advise the Chair that I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Calgary Southwest.

I will confine my remarks today on the Nisga'a treaty to process. The reason we moved this motion for debate in the House regarding a referendum in British Columbia on the treaty has to do with the fact that the process that has brought us to this point with the treaty has been wrong. It has been wrong for many years. It has led to a treaty which, right now in British Columbia, enjoys at best questionable support. In our view it does not pass the judgment of the people of British Columbia. Indeed, we do not believe it would pass the judgment of the people of Canada.

I will give the House a bit of background as to what has happened up to this point in time. It has often been said that the Nisga'a leaders for more than 100 years have tried to get a treaty with Canada and with British Columbia. That is in fact the case. There is a lot of documentation which shows that the Nisga'a leaders have tried since before Confederation to have the Government of Canada, and prior to that the Government of Britain, enter into a treaty. They were steadfastly refused for more than 100 years.

It is also true that in 1973, with the Calder decision of the Supreme Court of Canada being a split decision, the Government of Canada became alarmed that the Nisga'a had come close to winning a land claim case in court. At that point the government decided that it would enter into negotiations.

British Columbia refused on the basis that in 1871 when it joined Confederation the terms of that union, which was called the act of union, expressly provided that the federal government would be responsible for all existing and future obligations to aboriginal people, except for the narrow requirement of the province of British Columbia to set aside lands known as reserve lands and to have those registered with the land title office and conveyed to the federal government, which B.C. did. British Columbia has about 1,600 such reserve lands that were registered between 1871 and 1926 when the federal government ultimately passed legislation which recognized that B.C. had lived up to its full obligations under the terms of the union.

British Columbia refused to join the discussions regarding treaties, taking the position that Canada was rightfully the body to be negotiating with the Nisga'a and if Canada required land or resources to complete those negotiations Canada would have to come back to British Columbia and make arrangements to compensate, to buy the land and the resources to be conveyed.

In 1991, however, there was a change taking place in British Columbia. The provincial government at that point said it would sit down as a party to the negotiations. It also indicated that it would be prepared to put land on the table as a provincial government on behalf of the people of British Columbia to resolve the outstanding claims. What it also did, the first major flaw in the process that has led us to the great problem we have today, was that it signed a secrecy agreement with the federal government and the Nisga'a negotiators wherein it said that it would be party to negotiations that would take place behind closed doors. The negotiators were all bound by the secrecy agreement not to discuss anything outside the negotiating room. The public of British Columbia for many years was not even aware that these negotiations were taking place and certainly had no idea of the ramifications of the negotiations.

In 1994-95 the Reform Party of Canada found out that these negotiations were taking place. It held a series of public meetings and tried to bring to the attention of the public that this was taking place. It also tried to create some kind of a mechanism for public input. The negotiators for the federal and provincial governments fought the Reform Party of Canada tooth and nail. They did not want to have anything to do with it.

In 1996 an agreement in principle was announced. It was released publicly. At that point the provincial government decided it would have its standing committee on aboriginal affairs travel the province of British Columbia to consult with the public. I attended several of those meetings and I have the minutes of proceedings of all of those meetings. People who showed up to voice concern or express any kind of opposition to any of the principles or any of the facets of the agreement in principle were routinely belittled and their character and motives were called into question. The provincial members, dominated by NDP MLAs, took the position that people who questioned the wisdom of the agreement in principle were not just wrong but were somehow lesser people; evil people, if I can use that term.

The final agreement was released publicly last year. We note that in the final agreement there was no substantive change from the agreement in principle, so all the committee work that was done by the B.C. standing committee was obviously just a big PR exercise so the government could say it had consulted with people when in fact it had not.

When the final agreement was released the provincial government spent $8 million of B.C. taxpayers' money in an effort to sell the agreement. In a highly emotional appeal it routinely belittled again anybody who questioned the agreement, and it routinely indicated that this was a good deal and it would not change one word of the agreement.

We then saw the ratification process take place in the legislature of British Columbia where debate was cut off after less than half of the agreement was debated. Even though the provincial government had promised British Columbians a full debate on the treaty, it guillotined the debate after less than half the treaty was actually debated.

Then we have the federal ratification process. We will recall that the minister of Indian affairs signed the treaty in June of this year, before the legislation or the agreement had even been introduced in parliament. Again we see a perverted process. We now have the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development travelling to British Columbia because, as one Liberal member who was in Terrace last week said: “We are only in B.C. because of a tactic by the Reform Party to hijack parliament. In fact we came here on the white knuckle route. I have not been on a train yet. I have been on every other mode of transportation. This little song and dance is costing the taxpayers $500,000 directly by the Reform Party”. He said that the only reason he was there was because of a tactic of the Reform Party.

In other words, the only reason the Liberal members came to British Columbia, and they made it very plain to the people who were testifying before the committee, which was a stacked committee, was because they were forced into it. They had no real intention of listening to British Columbians.

This is further evidence of the flawed and perverted process that has been used to date to try to ram through a treaty which we do not think enjoys the support of the public of British Columbia. Certainly all of the indications we have are that it does not. This is not a minor matter. This is, as broadcaster Rafe Mair said, a huge change in the social contract of British Columbia.

British Columbians deserve to have the right to vote on this treaty to decide whether the kinds of principles expressed in the deal are principles which they can support, because they will, for sure, be reflected in 50 or more treaties yet to be negotiated. Because of the flawed process that has been used to date, it is absolutely imperative that this parliament in the debate today come to the conclusion that British Columbians have a right to vote in a referendum, that they have a right to take part in the ratification process, and that they have a right to express their opinions.

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12:10 p.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, the hon. member for Skeena has talked of the importance of consultation on the Nisga'a treaty. I certainly do not think anyone disagrees with that. Some of us would argue that there has been extensive consultation.

I would have thought as well that he would have been concerned with consultation with the Nisga'a people, with the people he represents as the member of parliament for Skeena.

I wonder if the hon. member for Skeena could tell the House when it was that he last had a meeting and not a debate in front television cameras. When was the last time the member for Skeena, who represents the Nass Valley and the Nisga'a people, sat down face to face to have a dialogue with the Nisga'a people on this important treaty?

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12:10 p.m.

Reform

Mike Scott Skeena, BC

Madam Speaker, I thank the hon. member for the question. I do not know who he means by the Nisga'a people because I talk to the Nisga'a people all the time. I meet the Nisga'a people face to face. The last time I had a face to face meeting with a Nisga'a individual was about a week ago. I met with Frank Barton and talked with him extensively about his concerns over the Nisga'a treaty. There have been many more like Mr. Barton with whom I have met face to face.

I remind the hon. member that not only do I have the responsibility and the privilege of representing the Nisga'a people, I also have the honour and privilege of representing the Gitksan and Gitanyow people, people who say they have never been consulted by the federal government, they have never been consulted by the provincial government, and they have never heard from this member over here or his party.

I would point out that there are many parties to this debate. I would ask the member not to focus on four or five Nisga'a leaders as being the only example that he can raise in the House.

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12:15 p.m.

Reform

Randy White Langley—Abbotsford, BC

Madam Speaker, I know where the NDP member is coming from. I think we will probably hear today a lot of rhetorical advances coming from the other parties. I want to get something out on the table in the House through my hon. colleague. It is about the role of opposition parties in the House of Commons.

There are four opposition parties in the House of Commons. When there are obvious concerns, not just by British Columbians but by Canadians about the implementation of such a template agreement, why is it that it is only the Reform Party which is not only standing up in the House of Commons in opposition but also in a critique of the bill on the agreement?

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12:15 p.m.

Reform

Mike Scott Skeena, BC

Madam Speaker, the best answer I can give my colleague is to refer him to a book that was written by Thomas Sowell, an American author who wrote a book called The Vision of the Anointed . What we have here is a very similar proposition. We have a vision that is expressed through government policy that is adopted by all the other opposition parties in the House. It is a failed vision. It has been a demonstrated failure for over 130 years. My goodness, look at the results that it has represented for aboriginal people on reserves. Look at the dire circumstances that many of these people live in.

These people are so enraptured with this vision that they insulate themselves from the reality of the policy decisions that they make. They refuse to accept the fact that the failure and the abject poverty that many aboriginal people live in is as a direct result of these policies. They continue down the same path without being able to question or even engage in an honest, intellectual debate about what the government ought to do and ought not to do in terms of rectifying the situation and trying to improve things.

That in my view is the failure of the opposition and the government for that matter in this entire debate.

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12:15 p.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, the motion before the House today calls for a referendum of the people of British Columbia. In view of the fact that something like 80% of the cost of this treaty is in fact coming from federal taxpayers from across Canada, if the hon. member is serious about a referendum why is it that he is calling for a referendum just of the people of British Columbia? Why is he not calling for a referendum of the people right across Canada? Of course that would be outrageous because in that case—

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12:15 p.m.

Some hon. members

Hear, hear.

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12:15 p.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson Burnaby—Douglas, BC

The Reform Party is applauding. It wants the people of Ontario to be able to tell the people of British Columbia what is best for them. Shame on the Reform Party.

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12:15 p.m.

Reform

Mike Scott Skeena, BC

Madam Speaker, it is interesting to see the member pirouetting around and changing positions in a heartbeat. On the one hand, he says the people of British Columbia should not be the only ones to have a referendum and then he says they should.

In answer to that question, it is the change to the social contract, the self-government provisions in this treaty, not the cost of it that people should be focused on. That is the real essence of the debate here today. It is the self-government provisions.

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12:15 p.m.

Calgary Southwest
Alberta

Reform

Preston Manning Leader of the Opposition

Madam Speaker, I rise to speak in favour of the motion before the House which calls for the federal government to conduct a province-wide referendum in British Columbia on the Nisga'a final agreement.

On October 26 in the House, I fully expressed my own views on the Nisga'a treaty itself. The focus of today's motion, however, is not so much on the treaty as on the democratic right of the people of British Columbia to register their opinion on this treaty; their support for it or their opposition to it through a province-wide referendum. The point at issue, in other words, is the democratic rights of the people of British Columbia.

The other members of the official opposition today will put forward the main reasons for a referendum. In our judgment, those include economic and financial reasons because this agreement and future agreements modelled on it will have a major financial impact on British Columbians and on other Canadians.

There are, of course, social reasons why this should be subjected to a referendum because this treaty and others modelled after it will have a profound effect, as the member said, on the social and community relations between aboriginals and non-aboriginals throughout the entire province.

There are also constitutional reasons for having a referendum on this issue because the agreement establishes a new order of aboriginal government with jurisdiction over many areas of activity which were formerly the exclusive prerogative of the federal and provincial governments.

I do not want to spend my time on these reasons, important as they are. What I would like to do is to recognize that all the parties in the House, with the exception of the official opposition, have chosen to co-operate with the government in the unseemly task of pushing this treaty through the House with a minimum amount of discussion and a minimum amount of consultation with the people of British Columbia.

Nevertheless, I would like to make some arguments as to why members of the respective parties in the House, regardless of their position on Nisga'a itself, should consider supporting the motion before the House.

The motion tests the commitment of various members and parties to uphold democracy, the democratic rights of British Columbians to affirm or withhold their support for a major piece of legislation with economic, social and constitutional ramifications for the entire province.

How members vote on the motion will tell voters a great deal about the commitment of those members and their parties to democracy, the democratic rights of the people themselves to decide certain major issues rather than have solutions forced upon them.

To be specific, I first appeal to the Bloc members. The Bloc Quebecois members never tire of telling the House about the democratic rights of the people of Quebec to decide their own future on constitutional matters. Surely, if they are that committed to democracy and the use of referendums to settle issues democratically, they cannot turn around and deny that same right to the people of British Columbia with respect to a quasi constitutional issue of great importance to them.

I would appeal to members of the New Democratic Party. The New Democratic Party professes to have a special commitment to democracy. It is embodied in the name of the party. In the old days when it was still the CCF, it purported to be the party for the little person, the party that wanted to give ordinary people a voice and a say in the great decisions affecting their lives.

The old CCF supported such measures as greater use of referendums, citizens initiatives and recall, not unlike those that are currently in the platform of the Reform Party.

I would appeal to New Democratic Party members, for the purpose of this motion at least, to return to their democratic roots and regardless of their position on the Nisga'a treaty itself, to give ordinary rank and file British Columbians a chance to express themselves on this matter through a referendum.

I would appeal to the federal Conservative members in this way: It was a Conservative federal government which brought in the Federal Referendum Act of 1992. Section 3 of that act reads:

Where the Governor in Council considers that it is in the public interest to obtain by means of a referendum the opinion of electors on any question relating to the Constitution of Canada, the Governor in Council may, by proclamation, direct that the opinion of electors be obtained by putting the question to the electors of Canada or of one or more provinces specified in the proclamation at a referendum called for that purpose.

Whereas the B.C. referendum legislation requires an actual constitutional amendment to trigger a province-wide referendum, the federal legislation, enacted by a Conservative government, is much more inclusive, permitting a referendum “on any question relating to the Constitution of Canada”.

While some members may dispute the official opposition's claim that the whole Nisga'a agreement is a de facto constitutional amendment, no one, regardless of their position on this issue, can deny that it certainly raises questions relating to the Constitution of Canada.

For example, the preamble of the treaty makes reference to section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The first provision in chapter 2 of the treaty defining the “nature of the agreement” says that the agreement is “a treaty and a land claims agreement within the meaning of sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982”. The Nisga'a agreement is described within itself as being by definition a constitutional document.

Section 8 of chapter 2 makes specific reference to the Constitution of Canada itself. Section 9 refers to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which is part of the constitution. Section 23 of chapter 2 elaborates on Nisga'a rights as provided for in section 35 of the constitution.

Since the Nisga'a final agreement obviously raises questions relating to the Constitution of Canada and the Conservative Referendum Act of 1992 specifically provided for the use of referendums to obtain expressions of public opinion on such matters, I would therefore appeal to Conservative members to uphold the principles and the spirit of their own referendum act and support the motion before the House.

It is evident to the official opposition that a majority of the members of the Liberal government have simply written off the opinions and interests of British Columbians. The government is at odds with the people of British Columbia on everything from the handling of illegal immigrants, to the collapse of the west coast fishery, to aboriginal issues in general, to the Nisga'a treaty in particular.

We, therefore, do not expect a majority of the government members to have any respect for the democratic rights of the people of British Columbia to express themselves on this issue, even though the provincial Liberal Party in B.C. under Gordon Campbell has explicitly called for a referendum on the Nisga'a treaty in that province.

The motion before the House, however, does provide a specific opportunity for the last remaining Liberal MPs from British Columbia to declare where they stand when the democratic rights of the people of that province conflict with the position and party line of the federal Liberal government.

The people of B.C. expect that when there is a conflict between the Liberal Party line and the position of the electors of B.C. that the position of the electors should prevail.

A majority of the people of British Columbia would therefore expect the following members to support the motion and will be watching with keen interest tomorrow night to see if, in fact, they do. I refer to: the member for Victoria, the member for Richmond, the member for Vancouver South—Burnaby, the member for Vancouver Centre, the member for Vancouver Kingsway, the member for Vancouver Quadra, and the member for Port Moody—Coquitlam—Port Coquitlam.

The eyes of B.C. are upon these members. Will it be the Liberal Party line or the democratic rights of British Columbians? The vote on the motion will tell the story.

I appeal to all members, regardless of their position on the Nisga'a treaty, who profess to value the democratic rights of the people of British Columbia to decide for themselves whether the Nisga'a agreement is in the interests of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in that province to support the motion before the House.

I move:

That the motion be amended by inserting after the words “British Columbia on” the words “the ratification of”.

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12:25 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

The motion is receivable.

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12:25 p.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, the Leader of the Official Opposition has indicated that he supports a referendum on this Nisga'a treaty. He has also spoken on a number of other occasions about the use of a referenda in a variety of contexts. He said, for example, that on the fundamental issue of freedom of choice on abortion that he supports, personally, a constitutional amendment, as I understand it, to make abortions in Canada illegal, but that he would be prepared to have that issue put to the people of Canada in a referendum. I assume that is the position of other Reform Party members.

I wonder if the leader of the Reform Party could indicate where he draws the line on the use of referenda. Many of us are concerned that if we subject the rights of minorities to a majority referendum, this could lead to a very dangerous abuse of the rights of minorities. I wonder if the Leader of the Official Opposition could indicate where he would draw the line. Is he prepared to use referenda with respect to the most fundamental and basic rights of minorities in the charter of rights? Would he have used referenda with respect to Japanese Canadians during and after World War II? Would he have subjected their rights to a referendum? Would he have subjected the equality rights of gays and lesbians to a referendum?

Just where does the Leader of the Official Opposition draw the line in the use of a referendum with respect to the most basic and fundamental rights of Canadians?

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12:30 p.m.

Reform

Preston Manning Calgary Southwest, AB

Madam Speaker, I thank the hon. member for his question. I am glad he has paid attention to our demands for referendums. I wish he would pay attention to everything we say on this subject because we have answered this question at least a hundred times before.

We believe in the use of a referendum to allow people to express their opinions. We also believe in legal definitions of rights and constitutional provisions for bills of rights which provide some constraint on the other side so that rights cannot be simply trampled by majorities at their whim. We support the use of the courts to uphold those rights.

We are talking about a balance. This country hardly ever resorts to referenda. This is a country which professes to have great respect for majority opinion and it hardly ever goes to the public on any issue. Even to make changes in the Constitution of Canada itself as profound as the ones in Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accord took enormous public pressure.

This country is hardly overdosing on referendums. We have had a national referendum on conscription, a national referendum on prohibition and a national referendum on the Charlottetown accord. Canada has had three referendums in 135 years. The country is not overdosing on referendums. There ought to be more occasions where the public gets a chance to have its say. The Nisga'a treaty particularly in its all pervasive effects on British Columbia is one of those instances.

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12:30 p.m.

NDP

Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, my comment is for the Leader of the Opposition. I do not think he answered the question put to him by the member for Burnaby—Douglas.

The member made an argument about why there should be more referendums and why it could be argued we have not overdosed on referendums, to use the member's phrase. However, he did not answer the question as to how he sees the role of referendums when it comes to things which arguably have to do with minority rights.

I wonder if the Leader of the Opposition could address that as he did not in his answer to the member for Burnaby—Douglas.

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12:30 p.m.

Reform

Preston Manning Calgary Southwest, AB

Madam Speaker, I believe I did answer the question at the beginning of my remarks. The Reform Party believes in constitutionally entrenched rights. We include and believe in the use of the courts to uphold those rights. We also believe in the opportunity for people to vote on constitutional amendments. There should be a balance used between the referendum mechanism and constitutionally entrenched rights and use the courts to enforce them. That is how we achieve the balance.

It is our view that this country is going to have to achieve that balance or it is going to get increasing disrespect for the charter of rights and freedoms and the legal mechanisms used to enforce it.