I'll speak first, Mr. Chair, with your permission. Then I'm pleased to answer any questions.
I know that Mr. Lemay is anxious to have a dialogue on this, and I always enjoy that.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to discuss Bill C-44. I'm pleased that the committee members are undertaking a review of this important projet de loi. It is human rights protection legislation that will repeal section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Bill C-44 proposes to end an exemption that was included in the original legislation when it was enacted some time ago, actually in 1977.
As a result of this exemption, individuals, mostly residents of first nation communities, have had limited recourse under the Canadian Human Rights Act should they feel their rights have been violated. This fundamental injustice represents a black mark on Canada's democracy. I would draw to your attention a number of reports to the United Nations that have singled this out and recommended change.
Section 67 clearly permits discrimination against a particular group of citizens, and Bill C-44 proposes to ensure that the laws of the country will apply equally to all Canadian citizens.
This is not the first time that Parliament has tried to repeal section 67. Bill C-108 was introduced nearly 15 years ago, only to die on the Order Paper. More recently, attempts to repeal section 67 through Bills C-7 and S-45 suffered a similar fate. Parliamentarians now have an opportunity to see the job through.
Support for the repeal of section 67 comes from a wide variety of groups, including this very committee. In its report on matrimonial real property on reserves, Walking Arm in Armto Resolve the Issue of On-Reserve Matrimonial Real Property, members of this committee called for the repeal of section 67.
Your committee's position on this matter was based largely on the testimony of representatives from several key groups, including the Native Women's Association of Canada. In fact, I would point out that Beverley Jacobs said this before your committee at that time, as follows:
—many first nations women have no recourse at all when their rights are being violated in their communities. They have no recourse to challenge their band councils for discriminating against them and for forcing them out of their own communities. We demand basic human rights for our women and children.
As minister, I take that statement to heart. Nothing will change unless action is taken, and that is precisely what we have done with this legislation.
Over the years, calls for the repeal of section 67 have come from a wide variety of sources, including the Assembly of First Nations, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Canadian Human Rights Commission itself, and other independent commentators who have filed reports with the UN.
The fundamental injustice engendered by section 67 has also attracted international attention, unfortunately earning Canada censure from the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Mr. Chairman, in my opinion, it all boils down to a simple issue of human rights. Canada must not perpetuate the discrimination inherent in section 67.
I appreciate that some groups have raised concerns about Bill C-44, despite its noble goal. Most critics focus on three points: a perceived lack of consultation, the absence of an interpretive clause and concerns about the potential impact.
Today, I will address each of these criticisms in turn.
On the perceived lack of consultation, I would contend that in fact there's been a significant amount of discussion and consultation on the repeal of section 67, all of which has informed the bill that is before you today. There have been, really, 30 years of discussions since 1977 about the repeal of section 67.
Perhaps the most comprehensive consultation was launched in 1999 as part of a formal review of the Canada Human Rights Act. As you know, the Canada Human Rights Commission itself has spoken on this issue.
Among the many regional and national aboriginal organizations to participate in the review were the Native Women's Association of Canada, Alberta's Aboriginal Human Rights Commission, and New Brunswick's Aboriginal Peoples Council.
The final report issued by the review panel in 2000 recommended the repeal of section 67, and two years ago consultation with aboriginal groups informed a special report on section 67, completed and filed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission itself. Again, repeal was the recommended option.
In 2003 section 67 was also discussed as part of the committee's hearings into Bill C-7, the controversial First Nations Governance Act. During these hearings, several aboriginal groups lobbied for the repeal of section 67, a position restated during hearings that were held in 2005 on matrimonial real property on reserve. The Assembly of First Nations has also expressed its views on the public record.
While not every stakeholder and aboriginal person has had the opportunity to participate in consultations, there can be no doubt that a determined effort has been made to gather relevant opinions. And that the consensus was and continues to be clear: section 67 must go. Thirty years is long enough.
A second criticism of Bill C-44 concerns the absence of an interpretive clause. In this regard, an interpretive provision is required in the Canadian Human Rights Act to balance the interests of individuals seeking protection from discrimination with aboriginal community interest. That is the argument put forward.
I share the view that the Canadian Human Rights Act should be applied in a manner that is sensitive to particular circumstances of aboriginal communities, but the truth is that three factors preclude the need for an interpretive clause in the legislation. The first is that laws already exist that provide for a balancing of individual and collective rights. I refer to the constitutional protection already in place for the recognition of collective aboriginal and treaty rights in section 35 of the Constitution Act, which remains as the paramount authority in our legal system.
Given these protections, members of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, the body that will adjudicate complaints under the statute, are required by the act to be sensitive to human issues as they pertain to aboriginal and treaty rights. They can also be expected to interpret the existing defences in the act, bearing in mind these concerns. With these protections in place to help guide the application of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the commission, there's no need to add an interpretive clause to Bill C-44. In effect, the Constitution Act provides that overall interpretive umbrella itself.
The second factor has to do with the critical role of the Canadian Human Rights Commission itself. The commission is charged with the administration of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which means that it not only processes complaints but also engages in educational activities concerning the act. Since it was created nearly 30 years ago, the commission has acquired unsurpassed expertise in interpreting and in resolving cases involving discrimination—that is what they do, and they're good at it. The commission's efforts to prevent discrimination have also been remarkable.
Rather than relying on a specific statutory interpretive clause to safeguard theirs interests, aboriginal groups can discuss the future operation of the Act with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. In fact, many aboriginal governments have had experience with complaints under the Act, situations where section 67 has not applied.
The commission has vowed to work directly with aboriginal groups on implementation. In fact, the commission's aboriginal program is already established and a series of regional workshops are planned. The workshops will provide guidance and support to aboriginal groups that need help to exercise and carry out the new responsibilities under the act. Additionally, the Canadian Human Rights Act already grants the commission the power to establish guidelines or regulations on how the act should be applied to a particular class or group of complaints. These guidelines are statutory instruments with the same legal weight as regulations, but they are flexible enough to be adapted as required. I have full confidence that, given its mandate, its track record, and in dialogue with first nations, the Canadian Human Rights Commission is best placed to offer advice on how the act should be applied, and to do so over time. With passage of Bill C-44, this work will begin formally.
Thirdly, we know from experience with the interpretive clause, which was originally proposed in the First Nations Governance Act, Bill C-7, that it is extremely difficult to capture in a single clause fail-proof language that would address all the competing considerations for handling a Canadian Human Rights Act complaint in a first nations context. To attempt to distill the interpretive power of the Human Rights Commission into a single clause, I submit, is quite problematic. Additionally, an interpretive clause, if passed into law, would have to be interpreted by the commission and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, in any event, in specific cases, and would obtain clarity really only after the litigation of many complaints and conflicts, undoubtedly, with the charter.
In summary, with the protection offered by Canada's legal framework, the support provided by the commission, and the scope that already exists within the Canadian Human Rights Act and the powers of the commission, I'm personally convinced that the full application of the Canadian Human Rights Act can be implemented in a manner that is sensitive to aboriginal communities. I have confidence that the Human Rights Commission is best able to provide that oversight and that interpretive responsibility.
Other aspects of the legislation are helpful to consider. The mandatory review included in Bill C-44, for example, offers additional protection for those who are concerned about its impact. The legislation proposes that a parliamentary committee undertake a comprehensive review of the effects of the repeal of section 67, within five years. I think this is a useful fail-safe.
On this point, I would like to draw to the committee's attention that it is within Parliament's authority to undertake such a review earlier. I would respectfully caution against so doing, but this remains the prerogative of Parliament.
I acknowledge that the repeal of section 67 will have a significant impact on many groups, including First Nations and federal departments. To ensure that First Nations have time to prepare for these impacts, Bill C-44 proposes a delayed application to First Nations' governments six months after royal assent is granted.
With the support of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which has already begun to engage and to raise awareness of human rights legislation with representatives of national and regional aboriginal organizations, I believe this period provides the appropriate balance between, on the one hand, proceeding with repeal in a timely fashion while on the other hand allowing first nations to take measures to prepare for full implementation.
The question of resources has been raised, but until the bill is passed, these costs remain hypothetical. Yes, it will be important to assess what resources might be needed, and I invite your advice on that topic.
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee—and we have a knowledgeable group of parliamentarians at this table today—the time has come to ensure that all Canadians are treated equally before the law of this country. Bill C-44 proposes a fair, realistic approach to ending 30 years of sanctioned discrimination in this country. This committee, in a non-partisan way, can seize the opportunity before it and ensure access to full human rights protection as provided to all. Now is the time for us to act to end the injustice that was created as a so-called temporary measure against first nations citizens 30 years ago. This is an historic opportunity for this Parliament, for all the parties in this House of Commons at this time, to accomplish something very significant. I urge you, as committee members, to review Bill C-44 and to support it.
Thank you. I will do my best to answer the questions from Mr. Lemay and others.