Madam Speaker, I rise in the House today to speak to the motion of the hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan who, I must say, makes a tremendous contribution to our committee work through her knowledge and experience that she lends each and every day that we are in committee.
Today we are dealing with a very complex question, as I am sure hon. members know. It is a question that has peaked our interest these last few weeks and has been an ongoing claim before the court,s particularly from Ms. McIvor, but there are others as well who wish to address some of these provisions of the Indian Act that raise difficult questions relating to membership and registration.
Last month our government was proud to introduce Bill C-3, the gender equity in Indian registration act. The primary objective of the legislation is to remove a cause of gender discrimination under the act.
The second objective is to meet the deadline imposed upon Parliament in a ruling of the Court of Appeal of British Columbia. That is an important point because initially the court gave Parliament until April 6 to correct this. It ruled certain sections of the Indian Act invalid, discriminatory and having no effect, but allowed Parliament one year. It then understood, as we resumed the session early in March and that provided Parliament was getting to work on these amendments, that it would see to it to give us an additional three months.
We all realize that there is a time limit and we need to get the bill through the House to at least address the critical issue that the Court of Appeal identified for us.
Rather than have its decision take effect right away, the court suspended the effects of the decision until this year and required us to enact effective legislation to solve the problem. The court has given us until July 5, but if we fail to meet this deadline, a key section of the Indian Act, which is the one that spells out the rules related to entitlement to registration, also known as Indian status, will cease to have legal effect in British Columbia.
This takes us right back to the question I just asked the hon. member for Halifax. The consequences are the area of question, the almost limbo that it would put the whole essence of registration in British Columbia, but it also calls into question the fact that paragraphs 6(1)(a) and 6(1)(c) that would be reinstated under Bill C-3, if they are not reinstated it would not take too long I would suspect before other decisions would come forward in other provinces that would throw those registration provisions into question. Should the two paragraphs of section 6 cease to have legal effect, it would lead to uncertainty and would produce a legislative gap that would prevent the registration of individuals associated with British Columbia bands.
In many ways, this is the crux of our approach to Bill C-3. It is essential that we respond as directed by the decision of the B.C. Court of Appeal and also that we implement this response, which is Bill C-3, with extremely tight timelines, as I have just described.
The legislation now before us proposes to change the provision used to confer Indian status on the children of women, such as Ms. McIvor. Instead of subsection 6(2), these children would acquire status through subsection 6(1). This would eliminate the gender based discrimination identified by the court.
I believe that every member of the House stands opposed to discrimination based on gender, of that we are all well aware and it is clear. Despite this conviction, however, I expect that all members appreciate that equality between men and women is difficult achieve. Bill C-3 would take Canada one significant step closer to this important goal. This issue is all about the ongoing effort to eliminate gender discrimination, and it is ongoing, as I will describe.
The government's approach has always been to act in collaboration with the people directly affected by these issues at play. Bill C-3 is no exception. Last year, following a thorough review and analysis of the court's decision, departmental officials had technical briefings with representatives of five aboriginal organizations to discuss the decision and Canada's proposed response.
Following those briefings, 15 engagement sessions were held throughout the country to present Canada's proposed response to the McIvor decision and to solicit feedback. To help focus the sessions, the Government of Canada researched, published and distributed copies of a discussion paper. Hundreds of participants came to the engagement sessions and many written submissions were received.
Several common themes emerged during the sessions and in the written submissions. Many people were expressing concerns about broader issues of registration, membership and citizenship. We know that the broader reform on these matters cannot be developed overnight or in isolation, least of all just within the context of a parliamentary committee with a short timeframe.
Based on the views expressed during that engagement process, we have announced that these broader issues will be considered in another exploratory process, a process that will extend beyond the scope of this bill before us and that will be taking place over the next few months.
I think all members should recognize that this is something that came directly from those who were involved and participated in the consultations in advance of Bill C-3. This is not something that was just picked out of the air as a way to create a more expeditious route for the adoption of Bill C-3. This is something that was recognized, suggested and recommended by the leadership of various aboriginal groups right across the country.
This will be done in partnership with national aboriginal organizations. It will involve the participation of first nations groups, organizations and individuals at all levels. The findings of the exploratory process will inform the government's next steps regarding initiatives on these issues.
Far from being conclusive, Bill C-3, by its very nature, recognizes that it will solve the question and the problem of the case of McIvor v. Canada that was before the B.C. Court of Appeal. It was necessarily narrow and concise in its scope so as to solve that problem but to not give up on the question of moving forward to address some of these other issues around membership and citizenship.
I am confident that the exploratory process will provide an opportunity for a comprehensive discussion and assessment of these broader issues. This work, however, as I pointed out, will be done separately from the legislation. It allows us to focus our attention on the legislation that is now before us and the solution that it offers to the specific concerns that were identified by the B.C. Court of Appeal.
As important as this work might be, it cannot take precedence over Bill C-3. It must not lose sight of the fact that the legislation now before Parliament responds to a very specific court ruling and a prescribed deadline, as I said earlier, of July 5. The ruling and the deadline informed the very design of Bill C-3 and it is for this reason alone that the proposed legislation is, as I say, very precise, very compact and focused.
Not for one minute have any of the members, certainly not the members around our committee, suggested otherwise, that there are not other issues that need to be dealt with. As a matter of fact, none of the committee members, although I cannot speak for all of them, would have been surprised by what we heard from the witnesses. The member for Labrador commented earlier this morning about what we heard from the witnesses. He is absolutely correct. None of us were surprised by that because we knew, even through the consultation process, that these discriminatory issues existed and needed to be dealt with. However, we also had the urgency of the McIvor question, something the court handed to us that we had to deal with urgently.
As Bill C-3 proceeds through the process, we must and will continue to work in partnership with first nations and other aboriginal groups and organizations to identify and discuss these critical issues. This is a process we have talked about that will remain separate, and we will proceed on that basis.
Bill C-3 is progressive, responsive and measured. It is rooted in the principle that all citizens should be equal before the law. Bill C-3 represents a timely and appropriate response to the British Colombia Court of Appeal's ruling. It proposes to eliminate a cause of unjust discrimination and ensure that Canada's legal system continues to evolve alongside the needs of aboriginal peoples. In essence, Bill C-3 represents a forward step by a country committed to the ideals of justice and equality.
I know there have been a number of comments and discussions by members in questions and comments and, through the course of this debate, it has been identified that there are other areas of membership and registration that members and the government should be considering in terms of making the Indian Act more responsive to these gaps and questions that continue to be raised by aboriginal leaders and individuals across the country.
I would encourage members, certainly those members on committee, to read, if they have not already read it, the B.C. Court of Appeal's decision to see what the appeal judge said in respect of why the Court of Appeal narrowed the scope of that decision, because it had some justification to do that. It was looking at Bill C-31, which was passed in 1985. This legislation, at that time, had been around for 24 years, and because it had been in place for such a long time, people, in this particular case aboriginal people, had become acclimatized to the provisions of that bill. Families and aboriginal organizations had each made decisions based upon that legislative regime that existed.
When a Parliament comes along and decides to change and amend the very regime by which people had made decisions and existed in the course of 24 years in this case, there is no question that one can look back and say that yes, some discrimination occurred there. The court clearly has upheld that assertion that there was discrimination there.
However, once we go back and amend it, we need to be careful, because what we might also be doing by conferring rights and privileges to one group of people is upsetting the equality and certainty that existed among those families that were there.
It is a rather interesting principle to get one's head around, but I would like to read one section of the decision that I think squarely hits the nail on the head. In this case, the Appeal Court judge is talking about Bill C-31. It reads as follows:
The legislation at issue has now been in force for 24 years. People have made decisions and planned their lives on the basis that the law as it was enacted in 1985 governs the question of whether or not they have Indian status. The length of time that the law has remained in force may, unfortunately, make the consequences of amendment more serious than they would have been in the few years after the legislation took effect.
Contextual factors, including the reliance that people have placed on the existing state of the law, may affect the options currently available to the Federal government in remedying the Charter violation. It may be that some of the options that were available in 1985 are no longer practical.
That gives us a sense of the difficulty that we have with amendments to the scope of Bill C-3.
Members will know that Bill C-3 was passed at second reading, and by our own procedural rules we are not allowed to expand its scope. Indeed, that is the very reason we are here today: we are discussing the question as to whether the House would consent to allowing the committee to expand the scope of the bill.
This is a question that deserves serious consideration. We have to tread very carefully. Committee members know that the kinds of issues brought to us by the witnesses we heard are legitimate. As the member for North Vancouver mentioned, there is far from being a consensus of opinion. There are differences in what we heard in terms of how some of the registration provisions would be implemented, particularly at the community level.
The member for Labrador mentioned, for example, the remarks of one of our witnesses, Pam Palmater, who is from Ryerson University. I must say that Ryerson is my alma mater as well; I had to throw that in.
Ms. Palmater was very clear. She brought a different perspective to our committee because she spoke as an aboriginal person who did not have status and lived off reserve. She had a perspective different from what we heard from people who came from a different experience, having lived on reserve all their lives.
There is no doubt that anyone would be challenged in trying to understand some of the intricacies in the bill, but what remains clear is that we have a mission in front of us to carry on.
As I outlined, the first thing we need to do is address the issue that the British Columbia Court of Appeal put in front of us in regard to the weaknesses in Bill C-31 as they apply to the McIvor v. Canada case. That is before us and that is what Bill C-3 does.
We recognize that there are other issues. That is the exploratory process that we now need to put in place. We need to bring some certainty to the registration provisions, sections 6(1)(a) and 6(1)(c), so that we have a position that people can depend on going forward. We need to continue to work with aboriginal groups right across the country to refine some of the citizenship and membership questions.
I will leave it at that. I invite questions from members. Some members will actually be working together in committee this very afternoon on this question, and I know the discussion will continue.
I must say that it has been a fruitful discussion. This is an issue that we do not always get a chance to talk about, particularly here in the House. It is a rare occasion when we can have such a full debate on a question that is very important to aboriginal people right across the country.