Madam Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to rise here today to take part in the debate on Bill C-28.
I listened to the constructive comments made a member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, the hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan. It is nice to see such a constructive debate on a bill introduced by my hon. colleague, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the hon. member for Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon. It is nice to see the work accomplished by my colleague, the minister, in this file. As we have just seen, the best compliments we can receive are those of the opposition. We have just heard some very constructive comments in that regard. He was also supported by the team from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which I had the pleasure to serve, unfortunately not with the current minister, for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, I believe that this bill is the result of very hard work under the leadership of our minister.
Why is Bill C-28 so important? Because it amends the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act. Consider, for instance, the James Bay Cree and the Naskapi in the communities of Schefferville. This legislation enshrines their rights in Canadian law through a new relationship, as we have just heard. It was negotiated and signed by representatives of the Government of Canada and the Cree of northern Quebec.
The agreement concerning a new relationship is not an ordinary political document; nor is it a measure aimed at correcting an oversight or eliminating a loophole in existing law. Neither is it a standard commercial contract to be put aside as soon as the ink is dry.
The agreement concerns a new relationship and it marks a real milestone in the history of our country. It settles long-standing disagreements between the federal government and the Cree of northern Quebec. It assigns federal responsibilities in key policy fields to the Cree regional administration. It makes available to all governments—federal, provincial and Cree—a clear, equitable and logical method of achieving the essential objective of ensuring that the Cree people of northern Quebec will have genuine self-government.
As a matter of fact, if it succeeds in these three important objectives, the agreement concerning this new relationship will have accomplished what we should expect, that is, the establishment of a solid base on which the Government of Canada and the Cree can build this new relationship.
This is a relationship based on principles such as equality, confidence and mutual respect, which integrates the Cree more closely into the economic and political life of Quebec. It is a relationship that takes us out of the courtrooms and lawyers' offices and brings us together so that we can devote our time and energy to something truly worthwhile, namely, working to develop aboriginal communities, to strengthen families and to build communities where education, housing, and occupational, recreational, community and economic activity can fully develop. Those are the noble objectives at the heart of this agreement concerning this new relationship.
What is more important is that it not only provides tangible benefits to all the parties; but it turns loose some powerful forces within first nations communities, because they have ambitions. I am thinking, as I mentioned, of the nine communities in northern Quebec that lie east of James Bay and south of Hudson Bay. I think, among others, of Joe Linklater, chief of the Gwitchin Vuntut First Nation in the Yukon, who has spoken forcefully of the continuing usefulness of the kind of treaty that we are discussing today and of its impact on first nations communities. Here is what he said last year in his testimony to a Senate committee: “I keep telling people that these agreements have not been negotiated to obtain resources for us; they are negotiated to give us the ability to take charge of our lives and to become self-reliant.”
He speaks of taking charge and becoming self-reliant. Those few words sum up exactly what the Cree of northern Quebec expect from this new relationship. That is precisely what Bill C-28 will help them to accomplish by putting into law certain aspects of the agreement on a new relationship.
The solid footing and permanence of an agreement like this, and by extension Bill C-28, are no accident. They are the outcome of genuine consultations between federal government officials and the Cree communities, and between the Cree leaders and the people they represent. That means there were broad, far-reaching consultations at each stage of the process, from the negotiation of the agreement to the drafting of Bill C-28, including efforts to find new areas for collaboration.
This is what I mean by collaboration. The consultations started when negotiations began. They were not held at the upper level only, negotiator to negotiator. The leaders of the nine Cree communities in the region played an active role in the discussions about the main issues involved and in advising the negotiators on those issues.
The Cree leaders, with the negotiators, focused particularly on the question of governance. More specifically, they brought their experience and their perceptions to the negotiating process. They gave the managers of crucial community operations presentations on specific subjects and on important technical issues in connection with the agreement. In addition, the residents of the nine Cree communities were kept constantly up to date on the plans.
The virtually complete support given by the residents affected by the agreement is testimony to the value of those consultations. A majority of the Cree residents voted in a referendum and an overwhelming 90% majority of them voted in favour of the agreement. Today, it is clear to parliamentarians that the other party is in complete agreement with the kind of project developed by my colleague the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
This agreement is the product of meetings between the federal representatives and meetings with the Cree leaders during the preparation of the bill, to ensure that it reflects the intention of the negotiators and assigns responsibilities to the regional authority so it can take over certain federal jurisdictions. As a result, Bill C-28 offers a promise for the future.
I would like to add that this consultation-based approach has continued and is still going on today. The governments of Canada and Quebec, with the Crees, have established a number of discussion forums. Those forums offer the three governments a structured process for negotiating the possible transfer of additional federal and provincial powers to the Cree Regional Authority.
I am convinced that this process of consultation and open participation in the new framework that has been developed in the last two years, with a relationship based on goodwill and trust, offers a fine illustration of the collaboration that has developed between the Canadian government and the first nations communities in this country. These values, of equality, respect and trust, are what are needed to promote self-determination by aboriginal communities and their progress toward self-government.
In conclusion, I of course urge my colleagues to support this bill, on which there is broad consensus. Naturally there are other challenges, but by working together with the first nations, who are a force for change—and we need only think of all the young people in aboriginal communities who can make a contribution to our economy and our social, cultural and community development—our society will be able to make an investment and reap the fruits of that investment.
I will be happy to answer any questions about this speech.