Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity to add my voice in support of this very worthy legislation, which would see the federal government stop meddling in first nations' electoral affairs, which rightly rest with those communities.
As some of my hon. colleagues have explained, current provisions in the Indian Act have created a democratic anomaly within Canada. Instead of empowering first nations community members to exercise their democratic rights and hold their own governments to account, the Indian Act places the responsibility in the hands of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. This is completely backwards. That is why our government has introduced the first nations elections act. It would provide an alternative to the paternalistic Indian Act and would put the accountability squarely back with first nations members where it belongs.
The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development plays a disproportionately large role in first nations elections, one that he would gladly give up.
Sections 74 and 79 of the Indian Act set out the rules and regulations governing the current electoral system. Under section 74, the minister may declare by order that a first nation hold elections under the act and the Indian Band Election Regulations. Since 1951, approximately 350 first nations in Canada have been ordered to hold their elections under this system. Over time, 100 first nations have been removed from the system and now hold their elections under the community elections system instead.
All first nations that hold their elections under the Indian Act are subject to the same rules and eligibility requirements. The Indian Act sets out the size of a band council based on a first nation's population, generally called “the one per 100 rule”. It stipulates that a band council shall be made up of a chief and one councillor for every 100 members a first nation has. Although the act allows a first nation to reduce this complement of councillors, any such change requires the approval of a minister.
A typical election under the Indian Act includes the appointment of an electoral officer charged with managing the overall election process and all related activities. This appointment must be approved by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada provides training support to electoral officers throughout the election to ensure compliance with the election rules under the Indian Act. Once elected, the chief and councillors hold office for two-year terms.
One of the most serious complaints about the Indian Act system arises when election results are disputed and a lengthy appeals process begins. At the moment, election appeals are received, reviewed, and, if necessary, investigated and decided upon by the department and the minister. The minister has the authority to remove elected officials and to recommend the setting aside of elections. Most appeals relate to election results. The minister can declare that a specific elected official was guilty of corrupt practices in connection with an election. Such a declaration causes the council position to become vacant. The minister may also declare any individuals removed from the office to be ineligible to be candidates for up to six years.
If it is determined that corrupt practices took place or that there was a violation of the Indian Act or the regulations that might have affected the results of the election, the minister reports to the Governor in Council. Only the Governor in Council has the power to set aside an election. If the election of a band council is set aside in its entirety, another election is held under the accelerated process.
It is no secret that first nations are critical of the electoral process under the Indian Act. They complain, with justification, that it sets out an electoral regime that is antiquated and paternalistic. That is not surprising when we consider that the minister even has the power to remove someone for missing band council meetings.
First nations members believe that the minister and his department are far too involved in elections on reserves, especially in handling appeals. The framework for an election appeal under the legislation is one of the most criticized components of the election system. In this day and age, approving changes to the number of councillor positions on a band council, approving a first nation's choices of electoral officer, investigating election appeals, removing elected officials for whatever reason and banning them from running in future elections, and setting aside elections in their entirety are simply roles the government and the minister should not be playing.
I cannot stress enough how paternalistic this is and how it goes completely against the view that first nations band councils are governments and should be treated as such.
Our government agrees entirely that first nations have good grounds for these criticisms. We understand that they want a better alternative. Members on both sides of the House believe that sticking with the status quo makes no sense and is just plain wrong. This simply will not wash with the growing number of first nations that are fed up and frustrated with the current system.
It is long past time for us to fix these structural flaws and it is time to implement the many recommendations brought forward by first nations, which form the foundation of this proposed legislation. They, and we, want to bring the system into line with the way other jurisdictions work.
This modernization is consistent with other first nations legislation, from first nations lands management and financial management to local by-laws. Doing so would strip away some of the electoral system powers that rest with the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, a situation that is simply unacceptable in the 21st century.
First nations electors wishing to challenge the results of their election based on violations to the rules and alleged corruption practices would no longer appeal to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Neither would the minister be involved in removing a chief or councillors from office before the end of their term. Instead, election appeals would be addressed by the courts, just as they are in elections in all other jurisdictions.
The courts already offer an independent and transparent appeal mechanism open to public scrutiny. They already have the power to determine wrongdoing in federal, provincial and municipal elections, so they are well positioned to address issues in first nations elections.
As an added benefit, this approach would discourage frivolous complaints, which are prominent under the Indian Act election system. Such complaints create uncertainty over the band council's legitimacy, hurting the community's day-to-day business activities and discouraging economic development, often for a long period of time. An appeal can take anywhere from six to 18 months to be resolved, and in the end little may change.
About 30% of all band council elections under the Indian Act are appealed, which amounts to about 40 elections per year. Of these, usually no more than five appeals result in an election being overturned. Given that applications to the courts require that grounds be clearly presented and supported, it is likely that fewer frivolous appeals would be launched.
We would be hard pressed to find anyone who believes that the minister must continue to hold the powers he does vis-à-vis first nations elections. We certainly would not find first nation leaders saying this, and I doubt Canadians at large would take this position either.
Bill S-6 is what first nations have been asking for. It is what their members want and need. First nations recognize that a sound, open, transparent election process in an important part of a strong, stable and effective first nations governments, effective governments that respect their citizens' democratic right to be informed and to be heard, governments that respond to the priorities of their residents.
Equally essential is that with stable and legitimate first nations governments in place, first nations, businesses and municipal and provincial governments can pursue mutually beneficial projects. First nations would be able to use the income flowing from these investments to build their economies and improve the lives and livelihoods of their members. That is something that people living in first nations most definitely want.
It is now up to parliamentarians to unleash this tremendous potential by passing this worthy legislation. As we do, we will build a better future not only for first nations, but for all Canadians.