Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-44 today. The NDP will support the bill at second reading and refer it to committee. We do support the intent of the bill, but we do have some grave concerns around a number of aspects of the bill and that is specifically what I am going to be addressing this afternoon.
There are a number of issues that I will be talking about. I will be talking about lack of consultation, resources and process.
There have been many claims that there has been consultation over a number of years and yet, when it actually came to writing the content of the bill, there was no consultation on that particular part.
Part of what has been called consultation is consultation that went back to 1999, for example, in an overall review of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the old Bill C-7, the First Nations Governance Act. Those are some of the mechanisms that have been deemed as consultation.
I would argue that part of the problem that we have before the House right now is the fact that we have a government and previous governments as well that have not defined what consultation has meant. So we continue to bump up against this as a problem.
For first nations, Métis and Inuit people, whether it is this piece of legislation or other pieces of legislation that are developed, this directly impacts on their lives, on their ability to live in their communities, and in their ability to maintain a living. There was no consultation and sometimes the consultation is what I call lip service consultation. They will be called in and provide an opinion, and then the door is closed when the decision making is actually going to happen.
Consultation has been a problem that has been identified by the Auditor General. Supreme courts have ruled that there is a duty to consult, but the Auditor General has identified in one of her reports that there has been very little progress made on the part of the government in defining what consultation means. I would argue that if we are going to define what consultations means, we should actually include first nations, Métis and Inuit people as well.
In the discussion of the repeal of section 67 in Bill C-44 is the fact that every review of section 67 has called for an interpretive clause. Although there have been previous attempts to take a look at an interpretive clause, they have fallen short and actually failed.
In this case, I want to go back to the October 2005 report, “A Matter of Rights” by the Canadian Human Rights Commission which did call for the repeal of section 67 legislation. In the report it states:
--provisions to enable the development, in full consultation with First Nations, of an interpretative provision, which will take into consideration the special rights and interests of First Nations in order to guide the Commission and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in the application of the Canadian Human Rights Act with regard to complaints against First Nations governments and related institutions.
There are two pieces in that. First, is the issue around full consultation which I have already talked about and the long foot dragging that has happened in defining consultation, but second, in the report it specifically called for an interpretive provision. This same report also called for a transitional period between 18 and 30 months to allow for that consultation and the enactment of the proposed interpretive provision.
The bill is dealing specifically with first nations on reserve. We have 633 reserves in Canada and part of the challenge when we are talking about consultation is how do we meaningfully include people. We have seen some of these challenges come up with matrimonial real property in how people are included from coast to coast in consultation.
How do we reach out to those rural and remote communities? How do we ensure there are sufficient resources to make sure that people who are different nations, who have different points of view and different cultural and traditional backgrounds, have a consultative mechanism that actually takes a look at those differences?
Further on in this report it talks about moving forward to repeal the legislation. New Democrats agree there is a need to do that, but many first nations women are concerned that moving too quickly will have unanticipated consequences, much like the aftereffects of Bill C-31. That bill reinstated a woman's status if she married a non-native person, but has had the unintended consequences of what some people are calling legislated extinction. Under subsection 6.1(b) of that particular piece of legislation, there is a provision where people who marry non-native people end up losing their status. I want to say a little more about that.
I want to quote from a press release issued by Quebec Native Women Inc. It states:
If passed into law, Bill C-44 would change the ways in which decisions are made in Aboriginal communities. Human rights protection is an issue that deserves immediate attention, but a solution must be developed that takes into consideration the unique reality of Aboriginal people. Moreover, our customs and traditions must be taken into account, as well as our Aboriginal and treaty rights. “The creation of a structure that respects individual and collective rights of Aboriginal people should also originate from a process that reflects these same principles”, stated QNW president, Ellen Gabriel.
Ellen Gabriel is a well respected woman from Quebec. She has expressed some other concerns about how this particular piece of legislation can also be compared to the unintended consequences in Bill C-31. The press release went on to say:
The experience of Bill C-31 has shown us that well-intended legislation can have serious consequences for our people in the future. In addition, Aboriginal people can no longer accept the unilateral imposition of non-Aboriginal laws, which may be incompatible with our cultural values. Furthermore, research regarding the effects of the legislation should be undertaken before it is passed into law, not five years after when the problems created may be irreversible or are simply ignored. After all, we have understood for some time now the negative impact of Bill C-31, but nothing has been done about it.
It is really interesting to have a Conservative government introduce a piece of legislation that is talking about human rights. Yet, the Conservative government had an opportunity to support the United Nations declaration for indigenous rights. The Conservatives worked hard to ensure that Canadians were not supporting that, the Canadian government was not supporting that declaration. That has signalled to first nations, Métis and Inuit communities that this particular government is not taking human rights seriously in their communities.
Recently, Monday as a matter of fact, we had National Chief Phil Fontaine talk about filing a complaint at the Canadian Human Rights Commission regarding the appalling situation concerning child welfare in this country. Then my colleague from Timmins—James Bay today asked a question about Kachechewan, a community where the children do not even have access to a primary school. Surely schooling is a fundamental human right in this country.
There have been many opportunities for the government to demonstrate its commitment to human rights for first nations, Métis and Inuit people across this country and it has failed to do that. It is a bit hypocritical, I would suggest, to argue that the government's foremost piece of legislation will deal with human rights for first nations people in this country.
Mary Eberts from the Native Women's Association participated in the Department of Justice review on section 67 in the year 2000. She made a number of recommendations around section 67. I want to talk about a couple of those because people have put forward some proposed solutions for how we might deal with section 67. These are solutions that have come from first nations communities. Surely, those are the people who should be actively involved in putting forward those solutions. She said:
To protect traditional Aboriginal rights from the impact of a CHRA without section 67, include in the Act a provision similar to s. 25 of the Charter: the guarantee in this Act of certain rights shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any Aboriginal, treaty or other right that pertains to Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
She went on to say:
However, it should be recognized that some of Canada's most prominent foes of the rights of Aboriginal women have argued that the right to discriminate against and exclude women is part of the traditional heritage of Aboriginal people.
I might add that there are many people who do not agree with this opinion. This is not a universal point of view.
This argument is made, for example, by the Sawridge band in its case against Bill C-31, and in its intervention to oppose John Corbière's attack on s. 77 of the Indian Act. Accordingly, any provision drafted pursuant to recommendation 2 should include a safeguard, or rider, to the same effect as ss. 35(4) of the Constitution Act, 1982, that aboriginal and treaty rights are extended equally to men and women.
The [Canadian Human Rights Act] should apply to Band Councils, to their membership codes, and to the actions of the federal Government pursuant to the Indian Act. The Act should also include a standard provision that would make the [Canadian Human Rights Act] applicable to self-government agreements unless and until the measures to protect human rights were put in place pursuant to the agreement.
She also mentions:
--procedural rights, which could be enforced against procedural unfairness in dealing with claims for reinstatement under Bill C-31, and in the ways First Nations deal with reinstatees.
The [Canadian Human Rights Commission] needs to be provided with the funding to make it fully effective as an instrument of human rights enforcement. In the case of Aboriginal people, such funding would allow the Commission to take account of the facts that Aboriginal people live in isolated and remote areas; may not have access to sophisticated communications means; may have literacy and language issues in dealing with the Commission; do not have ready access to legal advice because of their isolation and poverty; live in small communities where reprisals for complaints may be a continuing problem or in urban centres where they may be homeless or transient; and are dealing with organizations...with a record of poor communication, so that access to required documentation may be difficult to obtain.
Ms. Eberts made a number of concrete recommendations that successive governments have failed to implement. The report was written back in 2000, I believe. I also have another section that I want to read for members, around the old Bill C-31, the old bill that reinstated women and has had this unintended consequence. She stated:
The shrinking of the status Indian community as a result of the application of the discriminatory provisions will enable the federal government to shed its responsibilities toward Aboriginal people, since it now recognizes obligations only to those who have status under the Indian Act. Bill C-31 also restricts the life choices of young Aboriginal people whose parents are C-31 reinstatees: to ensure that their children can be registered, they will have to partner with a status Indian. Policies restricting access of Bill C-31 reinstatees to their Bands or Band reserves may make it difficult to make such social connections; in any event, forcing them erects a kind of race segregation that resembles apartheid.
I am sure that nobody in this House wants to see unintended consequences from a piece of legislation that has not had that full consultation with first nations communities. The reason we support getting Bill C-44 to committee is that there must be that opportunity to hear from people who are going to be directly affected by the impact of this bill. It is essential that those voices are heard not only in examining this bill, but in identifying the resources required, in identifying the processes to make sure that we are hearing from people, and in identifying any potential amendments that might be necessary to make sure this bill reflects the needs of people in their communities.
I mentioned funding and resources. There are a couple of other things where we could talk about what might actually address some of the issues around human rights complaints. A number of first nations and reports have identified the fact that first nations are quite capable of developing human rights standards that could be equal to those of the Canadian Human Rights Act, if not better. The other issue is that there is a potential to have an ombudsperson who could work with communities that are identifying some human rights issues in their communities.
One of the things we know, of course, is that there is a financial cost to this, but I would argue that there is a financial cost to not doing it as well. We often do not examine those financial costs of not doing things. In this case, what we know is that if this bill goes ahead as it is, without any additional resources assigned to it, the Canadian Human Rights Commission could face increasing backlogs around dealing with some of these issues.
However, we also know that many band councils are not equipped to deal with the volume of Canadian human rights complaints that could come in. They do not have the resources. They often do not have the capacity. Then there are the challenges with travel, communications strategies and all of those kinds of things. If this bill is to move forward, it is essential that resources are provided to communities.
Mary Eberts and others have actually called for an ombudsperson. This person should be able to interact with communities that often have different language capabilities and that have perhaps some educational awareness issues around what could be included in appropriate mechanisms to deal with section 67.
The Native Women's Association of Canada has also recommended that the Canadian Human Rights Commission establish staff and tribunal panels composed of aboriginal people who not only have a background in human rights but also have a background in traditional dispute resolution mechanisms. That would also make sense.
We are seeing in other fields that there is a call in the criminal justice system for some restorative justice processes. Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, it would seem reasonable that we have some sort of commission or tribunal that could work with communities around their own traditional methods of dealing with complaints.
The other issue that I do not think we have touched on is the fact that the Canadian Human Rights Commission should have a special monitoring function with respect to Canada's compliance with international human rights obligations. I know that unfortunately Canada has been cited on a number of different occasions around violations of human rights in this country, particularly women's rights.
We have seen things like the cuts to legal aid that have impacted on first nations women being able to access legal aid when they have a court case to deal with. There are other issues like that which would seem to make it important to give the Canadian Human Rights Commission the ability to oversee the implementation of Canada's international obligations.
I talked about the short transitional period. The Canadian Human Rights Commission, when it made its recommendations, and we would support it, said that there should be at least an 18 to 30 month period of transition to allow the consultation and the development of the interpretive clause, which would make sure we were meeting the needs of first nations communities.
There are a number of other things that I would like to address, but I know I will run out of time so I will close with a couple of specific points.
I mentioned earlier that this is an opportunity for the Government of Canada to fulfill other obligations around human rights. I want to touch again on the United Nations declaration for indigenous rights. This is a statement of principle that has become a flagship for first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples from coast to coast to coast. Canada could signal its absolute commitment to human rights by supporting that declaration. There will be another opportunity, because it will likely come up again over the next few months.
It would be a statement that would say to first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples across this country that Canada takes human rights seriously and is committed to human rights. If we want to demonstrate that we are prepared to work with first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples across this country on human rights, that we are prepared to engage in discussions on a nation to nation basis and talk about some of the situations on the reserves in this country, this would be one way to show that we are prepared to not only talk the talk but walk the walk. That in itself would go a long way to telling people in this country that Canada truly does have a commitment to human rights.
In conclusion, the NDP will support this bill going to committee for a fuller review, where we would look forward to the kinds of consultation that could have this bill reflect the needs in communities across this country.