Mr. Speaker, it will be hard to follow the hon. member's act of statesmanship and debate. I will do my best to be diplomatic.
I would like to make a few remarks concerning Bill C-399 to establish a first nations ombudsman and first nations auditor to assist with administrative and financial problems. While I appreciate and commend my hon. colleague's intentions, or at least some of them in the bill, I have no choice but to express concerns about his proposed solutions to the problems facing first nations and aboriginal communities.
Bill C-399 was drafted with perhaps the best of intentions but does not include all the aspects and solutions of the government's proposed legislation, which was recently referred to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Northern Development and Natural Resources for review.
The government's proposal is the product of consultations with thousands of Canadians, analysis by financial and constitutional experts and refinement by a ministerial advisory committee. My esteemed colleague's bill is the result of a more limited approach and, as a result, clearly does not reflect as much in put of aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.
The hon. member's bill proposes to establish two new offices, a first nations ombudsman to assist with conflicts that arise concerning first nations and a first nations auditor operating under Canada's auditor general. Creating these offices is clearly in some respects not in the best interests of aboriginal people and could in fact generate more problems. For instance, the proposed bill provides no mechanism for first nations communities to shape the mandates of these new positions.
Under Bill C-399 the roles and responsibilities of a first nations ombudsman and auditor are ambiguous. Consequently, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development could be obliged to intervene directly in the affairs of first nations. The history of ministerial control over the affairs of aboriginal people is not in many respects a happy one. It is clearly in the interests of all Canadians that first nations communities direct their own affairs.
I would also like to point out that the ombudsman model does not allow for the resolution of situations where responsibilities lie with other jurisdictions, such as provincial and territorial governments. Nor does the proposal address areas where responsibilities are shared. We believe that these shortcomings could lead to years of expensive constitutional wrangling.
Finally, Bill C-399 does not provide a framework for increased accountability for first nations governments. Under the proposal, complainants would be encouraged to bring their problems to the attention of the ombudsman, instead of to band councils.
For all those reasons, I have no choice but to choose Bill C-61 instead of my esteemed colleague's proposal. However my decision is easy because the issues of my colleague and more are dealt with in Bill C-61, the first nations governance bill. I will now explain this in more detail.
The proposed act is more comprehensive and would ensure that first nations improve their accountability and transparency in their governance structures and develop impartial mechanisms for redress and disclosure.
The process that led to the government's proposed legislation began more than a year ago and included consultations involving more than 10,000 aboriginal people. Throughout 2001, thousands of Canadians shared their ideas and opinions at community meetings, via a toll free phone line, in letters and through e-mails.
To provide overall guidance, a joint ministerial advisory committee was established, comprised of first nations representatives and government officials. This committee presented its report to the minister for review three months ago.
The legislation now before the committee would overhaul the fundamental relationship between first nations and the Government of Canada. The act would provide tools for first nations governments to manage their communities effectively and become more accountable to their memberships. Impartial, community based redress mechanisms will be established.
As a result, first nations communities will build self-sustaining communities, and ultimately increase the prosperity of all Canadians. In the words of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development “This legislation puts the power to handle community governance affairs where it belongs, in the hands of first nations people”.
I believe the minister captured the essence of the government's proposal. First nations communities will decide how to govern themselves, how to track their finances and how to development their economies.
The proposed legislation offers guidance to first nations communities and includes a series of templates on governance and accounting systems. Should a first nation be unclear on how to avoid a conflict of interest for example, it can adopt the legislation's template quickly and easily.
Bill C-61 enables first nations to design codes for leadership selection, financial management and accountability, and the administration of government, all according to the will of their communities. I am sure everyone recognizes that the key to effective democracy lies in representing the wishes of constituents.
The proposed act establishes standards for the administration of government. Leadership selection for instance must include provisions to ensure majority rule. The act stipulates the number of band council meetings that must be held and indicates how the notice of those meetings must be provided to facilitate the participation of community members. Budgets must be presented and approved annually. The act sets out rules pertaining to conflict of interest, protection of privacy and access to information.
Bill C-61 grants first nations peoples the right to vote on governance codes regardless of whether they live on or off reserve. All band members must have the right of appeal on matters pertaining to band elections and enjoy equal access to band information such as budget documents. They will have an impartial method of redress for administrative decision making.
Of course the proposed legislation is not only about granting rights; it also places obligations on first nations governments. Councils for instance would need to establish impartial methods to deal with complaints about the administration of government and the actions of council. For the first time, the Canadian Human Rights Act would apply to first nations governments.
Aboriginal communities have long struggled to develop prosperous economies. Often the biggest obstacle in their path has been access to capital, startup investment, seed money and new business loans. The proposed act would provide first nations with the legal authority to enter into contracts, acquire property, raise, spend, invest and borrow money.
In short, Bill C-61 would remove the barriers to economic development and would promote self-reliance.
Today first nations administer budgets that often run into the millions of dollars. The Indian Act is silent on financial management and includes no sound fiscal models for aboriginal people. Instead, first nations and aboriginal communities have followed financial models imposed by various government departments and programs. Funding agreements often include requirements to manage money in specific ways. Under the proposed legislation this would change dramatically.
Bill C-61 is just one component of the government's three-pronged legislative agenda to overhaul Canada's relationship with aboriginal people. Other components include the amendments to the First Nations Land Management Act and implementation of the first nations fiscal and statistical infrastructure initiative. All three components are necessary to ensure the ability of first nations communities to fulfill their destinies.
The first nations fiscal and statistical infrastructure initiative will enable first nations communities to establish financial institutions, raise capital for infrastructure projects and collect property taxes. These infrastructure powers are similar to those granted to other governments and would enable first nations to build and maintain roads, water and sewage systems and other types of infrastructure. There are successful precedents in this area.
Under the leadership of the Westbank first nation for instance, a First Nations Finance Authority was created in 1995. Since then several communities have relied upon the finance authority to use debentures and gain access to long term affordable financing. The finance authority has benefited from a partnership with an expert in the field, the Municipal Finance Authority of B.C., which has 30 years of experience and a triple A credit rating.
Aboriginal communities across Canada are keen to follow in the footsteps of the Westbank first nation. All Canadians want to see first nations, aboriginal and northern communities contribute to the prosperity of our nation. We want every Canadian to have both a dream and the ability to make that dream come true. We want every Canadian to be able to control his or her destiny. Bill C-61 is designed to ensure that aboriginal communities can access the resources they need to fulfill their dreams.
I am convinced that all Canadians will benefit, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike. I am also sure that all would agree that the government's proposed legislation is a more comprehensive option than is Bill C-399.
Earlier this week members of all parties spoke eloquently in support of sending the government bill to committee. Many hon. members indicated they were keen to help improve the bill. I urge all hon. members to become involved in the review process.
In conclusion, I reiterate that the goals of Bill C-399 are covered more comprehensively in Bill C-61. Therefore, I encourage everyone to vote for Bill C-61 instead of Bill C-399.