Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak today to this bill that recognizes the rights of the James Bay Cree of Quebec and would set in place a framework to move forward. It is one of those few occasions where we see all members of Parliament working together for a result that is needed and that can actually set a standard to move forward.
I would like to begin this afternoon by placing this agreement in terms of the context so we have a real understanding of what it is we are talking about. As much as we support the bill and recognize the importance of the bill, we need to put it in terms of the overall failure of the federal government to put in place similar agreements elsewhere. We go back to the 1970s, the time when the James Bay projects were first being enacted in the province of Quebec. I think my colleagues from Quebec will agree that at that time the understanding of first nation relations was very different.
When I worked in the region of Abitibi, I remember people talking about how the first nations were for many years considered squatters on their land. The idea of developing projects, whether it was hydroelectric projects, forestry projects or mining projects, they were never done in consultation with the first nation communities affected. In fact, this has been a situation that has gone on right across Canada. Even last year we saw the McGuinty government in Ontario jailing leaders of a first nation community who were trying to lay down some basic ground rules about consultations in their community.
The James Bay agreement stemmed out of what started as the James Bay Cree fighting to be recognized on their own territory and to say that if there were to be development, they would be at the table. If there were to be benefits, they wanted their people to see some of those benefits because they would be the ones living with the long term effects of the massive hydro developments being proposed at that time by the Bourassa government.
The James Bay agreement originally came into place because the province of Quebec recognized at a certain point that it would not be able to go ahead with development without a framework agreement in place with the James Bay Cree. There was too much international pressure. The Cree, Billy Diamond, Matthew Coon Comb, the whole leadership of that period, mounted such an amazing international fight that Quebec came to the table and, because Quebec came to the table, they said that the federal government had to come to the table as well.
We do not see the federal government going out and settling land issues. It is not in the business of doing that. Time and time again, it dodges its obligations. It has refused to meet with first nations communities on the most basic issues. In terms of the initial James Bay agreement, it was because Quebec recognized that if it were to get hydroelectric development off the ground it would need to have an agreement and to have an agreement there needed to be a provincial and federal détente.
The original James Bay agreement set the framework for the Cree of James Bay of Quebec to actually begin to participate in the 20th and 21st century economy and to set a standard in place that every first nation across this country has looked to. The idea of revenue sharing agreements used to be seen as revolutionary and now it is what first nations recognize is needed to go forward.
I would like to compare the situation of the original James Bay Cree agreement, the Paix des Braves, with the bill we are looking at today, Bill C-28, in terms of the development of treaties on the ground and the success of the James Bay Cree, but compare it to the difficulties being faced by other first nation communities that are also trying to establish agreements.
I represent the James Bay region of Ontario and we could not see a starker contrast in terms of first nations development between the James Bay communities of Ontario and the James Bay communities of Quebec where both the federal government and provincial government in Ontario consistently walked away from basic obligations for infrastructure, education and health services that have left the communities in levels of poverty that most Canadians would not believe exist, but on the James Bay of Ontario it is all too often the daily occurrence.
I had the distinct pleasure in a past life to travel along the James Bay coast of Quebec where I saw proper roads, proper houses built and the people were part of the economy. This is not to underplay any of the problems that may exist on the James Bay coast of Quebec but to say that we have a very distinct situation in Ontario.
In my role as a member of Parliament, I took part in the Treaty 9 centenary that was happening across the great territory of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which is part of the region I represent. It has been 100 years since the signing of the treaty.
Being in communities such as Martin River, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Moose Factory, I got a very different view of what those treaties meant than the politicians who were coming in to so-called celebrate it. In many of the communities I went to, people said there was not really much to celebrate in the fact that they signed off their land in good faith, to work as partners, to develop and to give their people a chance. The white commissioners at that time saw the treaties as a way of taking the land and putting the communities onto these pitiful reservations.
There is a difference in how the people talk about the treaties. It is clear that once the federal government signed the treaty, and in fact the province of Ontario signed Treaty 9 as well, as far as it was concerned it was finished with its obligations. It walked away on these communities. In the first nations communities, they still talk about what the treaties meant.
Let us look at the historical records of Treaty 9 communities, such as the Mushkego Cree of James Bay, Ontario. One of the reasons they signed the treaty was because they recognized that with the pressures on the change of life, with the Hudson's Bay factors who had lorded over the land for many years, there was a change coming. They were worried about the future of their children.
One of the key things they talked about in agreeing to sign that treaty was that they wanted their children educated. They would make the agreement to share their land, but they wanted their children to have proper schools. We know that the federal government never lived up to that obligation. In fact, it brought in a system of residential schools, not just on the James Bay coast but all across the territory, that inflicted massive generational wounds on these communities.
Even to this day, in my region of Timmins--James Bay, we have two communities with no schools. There seems to be no plan for schools from the government. There seems to be no awareness by the government of a need to build schools. We see that the treaties that were signed were broken.
Having worked as a land negotiator with the Algonquin Nation, I learned very quickly that the word of the federal government often meant very little when it signed an agreement. It signed an agreement as long as the media lights were on and the ink was still wet on the page, but then when it left, whatever agreements a community may have had, the federal government said, “Take us to court”. Of course the communities are too poor to take it to court.
I was working in the community of Barriere Lake after it signed an agreement with the federal government in 1998 to rebuild the community. I was there five or six years later and not a single new dwelling had been built, even though we had an agreement on paper, signed by the federal government, to work with the community to bring it out of its horrific levels of poverty in Barriere Lake.
I sat in on a meeting in November 2005 with the minister of Indian affairs and all the top bureaucrats from Indian affairs to sign an agreement to build a new community for the crisis-ridden community of Kashechewan. I remember that when we were signing that agreement, it was vague, that the verbal agreements that we had been given by the minister and by the senior Indian affairs department heads were not on paper. They had made promises to work and rebuild the community, but none of the commitments we had in terms of moving to higher ground, of a timeline, of how many houses would be part of a movement to get that crisis-ridden community off a flood plain, were in the agreement.
We were told by the Indian affairs senior administration that it would be a sign of good faith and trust to just sign the agreement. Here we had a community that had been evacuated three times in one year because of a failure of infrastructure, because of the crisis that the community had been put through by the mismanagement of their land and their infrastructure by the federal government.
The community was in a desperate situation and they signed that agreement, just as so many first nation communities have signed agreements over the years, in the best of faith. They believed that when the people sitting across the table from them, who represented the Crown, who represented the federal Government of Canada, said that they would follow through, they would mean it. The fact that everything was not spelled out in the agreement was not a problem because they told the community to its face that the agreement would be respected.
The results are clear. Less than a year later we had the government standing and saying there never was an agreement and there never was money set aside for the community of Kashechewan, there was no plan and this was all somehow a figment of people's imaginations and we misinterpreted what was said at the meeting even though we were there with the senior representatives, the senior civil servants of this country in terms of Indian affairs, and the minister and the senior political staff.
We can see the frustration that exists in communities that take the federal government at its word when it comes to negotiating agreements. The failure of the government to live up to basic standards is evidenced for example going back to the community of Kashechewan.
Just a year and a half ago we had two young men, Jamie Goodwin and Ricardo Wesley, who burned to death in a shack. That shack just happened to be a police station. It was a police station because there was no adequate police service facilities in the community of Kashechewan and there were no fire services in the community of Kashechewan. The Nishnawbe-Aski Police had been warning for years that unless the agreement that existed to fund first nation police services was addressed that someone would be hurt, someone would die, perhaps a citizen in a community where there was no police service, perhaps a police officer in an isolated community who had no backup.
Unfortunately, in Kashechewan, it was the case of two young men who were not criminals. They were just young and rambunctious and they caught in a jail cell that should not have been used as a jail cell anywhere else in the western world, and they burned to death.
I was in that jail before those men died. I was there with the Ontario minister of public safety and security and we showed him this building that looked like a crackshack in a war zone. We told him that this is what police officers are having to make do with and something should done.
We spoke in the House of Commons about the need to have agreements in place. It comes back to the issue of being at the table and signing agreements. In terms of police services, it is the federal government and the provincial government that sign these agreements with, for example, the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Services or with health services. Then, both the federal government and the provincial government walk away on those commitments, and the communities are left suffering.
The fire inquest has just finished in Ontario. The recommendations are damning. They are recommendations that we would have seen in any non-native community 40 or 50 years ago in terms of basic standards that have to be in place. For example, we need fire suppression, we need water sprinklers in any building, we need proper facilities, and we need proper funding for police services in these communities. The issue then becomes that agreements are signed but they are not signed in good faith, not by the federal government, very rarely.
I would like to say in the case of Bill C-28, we have an agreement that works. I think we have that agreement because it was the Grand Council of the Crees who fought for so long and said, “This is our territory. When development happens on our territory, it will happen with our consent and unless they have our consent there will be no moving forward”. There was a very clear initial hard line. All the communities worked together to maintain that line. It brought the province of Quebec to the table and then brought the federal government to the table.
I would like to think that it does not take a hard line to get other agreements in place. However, I wonder some days. I wonder when we see the recent report by the parliamentary budget officer and the shameful lack of standards for first nations schools. Again, we talk about agreements that are made and agreements that are broken, and they are casually broken.
In the community of Attawapiskat, which was the impetus that drove the study to get Mr. Page to look at the funding, it is a community that has been poisoned for 30 years. It is a community where children have been at risk, children who now are starting to show signs of leukemia, having gone to school on the largest diesel contaminated site in North American history. That is where their school grounds are. They have been exposed on a daily basis to low levels of benzenes and methylethylenes, blowing up from the dust on the school grounds. That is a community that had negotiated.
Again, we are talking about a community that sat at the table and negotiated in good faith, that had done all the studies that were asked of them, that did all the reports that were asked of them, and that had signed commitments from regional Indian affairs bureaucrats in Thunder Bay, in Toronto, and all the way up to the minister's office, Robert Nault. He came to the community in July 2000 and committed that there will be a school there. Minister Andy Scott in November of 2005 sat with the senior bureaucrats and said, “Make this happen”. The former minister of Indian Affairs, who is a Conservative cabinet minister now, wrote a letter to the community and said, “I will support this plan at Treasury Board”.
If we were in business with someone who signed these kinds of agreements and then breached them, we would take them to court. We would have a reason and we would win in court. When someone makes those kinds of verbal and written commitments, works with a partner step by step along the way and then at the eleventh hour pulls out of negotiations, walks away and says there never was a deal, that person would be taken to court. Yet, first nations are left high and dry.
It is a question of the need to make a commitment to communities that is not arbitrary, erratic or based on whether ministers decide they are going to spend the money some place else. Maybe they are going to move it back to Treasury Board, maybe they are going to take money from a specific funding envelope for schools and spend it elsewhere. This is what the Parliamentary Budget Officer has shown us very clearly, that the standards at Indian Affairs are erratic, random and not measurable by any standard.
As a former school board trustee, I was always shocked when I tried to get a straight answer out of Indian Affairs about its planning methodologies. It was making them up as it went along. Instead of having bureaucrats who could answer, I was dealing with spin doctors.
The civil service exists to protect the public interest and make sure that money taken from the taxpayers of Canada by the government is spent wisely. The role of the civil servant is not to cover the rear end of ministers based on whatever arbitrary political decision they make on a given day. Yet, this is what we see with Indian Affairs all the time. It raises the question of the federal government needing to take seriously on an across-Canada basis a willingness to negotiate in good faith and to tell first nations communities that it when it makes a plan, the plan will be transparent.
There is kind of a sick joke for people who work in first nation communities where the federal government always says to any first nation, “You have to be accountable. You have to be transparent. We want to see your books. You can't monkey around with your numbers. You have to be able to show how you are spending that money”. Well, all first nation communities do that. If they do not, someone takes control of their finances immediately.
Yet, Indian Affairs officials do not subject themselves to any of the same kinds of clear criteria, such as ring-fencing on line items so that funding envelopes cannot be pilfered and spent elsewhere. These are clear obligations. First nations cannot move that spending around. A school board cannot move the funding envelopes around. A municipality cannot go to the local school board and say, “We are not building schools for you this year because we are going to build some roads with it and give a tax cut to our constituents because it is an election year”. That cannot happen. That would be illegal under the provincial systems of government and, of course, it should be. Yet, at the federal level, that is the way business is done on first nations territory.
We are looking at an agreement that should be a model, an agreement that was made with a number of communities in the James Bay region of Quebec that drew a line in the sand and said, “There will be a standard of how you work with us, how you consult with us, how you develop our territory, and we will be part of that”.
I am very proud to work with all the parties in the House to make sure this bill gets through and that this agreement comes into force. However, the standard of trust and respect has to become part of the federal government mantra in order to develop all our first nation communities because the greatest resource we have in our lands and the territory north of 50 is not forestry, not hydro, not the gold nor the diamonds. It is the young people and the children living on reserves who are often treated as completely neglected backwater. The failure of the government to plan and work with communities to develop the resource of these children, these young people, and these growing communities is a staggering loss for today, for tomorrow, and for what our country could become.
I would hope that the spirit of Bill C-28 will help move us forward and all our communities.