Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise before the House to explain the necessity of Bill C-25, the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation act.
The genesis of this issue dates back to a historical oversight at the time Newfoundland joined Confederation that left Mi'kmaq residents on the island of Newfoundland outside of the Indian Act.
From the 1950s through to the 1980s, the Government of Canada provided funding to Newfoundland and Labrador for social and health programs aimed at first nation communities located in the province. However, both the federal government and the Mi'kmaq population on the island realized that formal recognition of Mi'kmaq communities was needed to replace the ad hoc and inadequate existing arrangements, which did not take into account Mi'kmaq governance or cultural heritage.
In 1989 the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, representing approximately 7,800 members from the nine Mi'kmaq communities across the island, along with chiefs of six affiliated groups, began a Federal Court action seeking eligibility for registration under the Indian Act. The litigation was resolved through the 2008 Agreement for the Recognition of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq Band.
The agreement set the stage for the recognition of the Mi'kmaq of Newfoundland as a landless band and its members as Indians under the Indian Act. This entitled eligible members to rights and benefits similar to those available to status Indians living off-reserve. It was always understood that the founding membership in the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation would be granted primarily to people living in or around the 67 Newfoundland Mi'kmaq communities named in the agreement.
To allow adequate time to assess who could satisfy the criteria for membership, the 2008 agreement provided for a two-stage enrolment process meant to identify the founding members of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation. The first stage of enrolment, which concluded on November 30, 2009, saw 23,877 people registered as founding members through the recognition order, and three subsequent amendments to the schedule to the order were made to add founding members' names.
It was during the second phase that issues emerged that led to concerns, shared by both Canada and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, about the credibility of the enrolment process.
During the four-year enrolment process, over 101,000 applications were received. Of these, more than 70,000 applications were received in the final 14 months of the process, and more than 46,000 of them were sent in the last three months before the deadline. That was 80,000 more applications than were originally anticipated by both parties. Both parties recognized that the numbers were not credible and could undermine the integrity of the first nation.
A large percentage of the applications submitted during phase two were sent by individuals not residing in the identified Mi'kmaq communities in Newfoundland. Of special concern was the insufficient level of detail in the supporting evidence provided by many applicants.
It became obvious that the original intent of the parties to the 2008 agreement could be compromised and that greater clarity was needed regarding the requirements of the application process. That led to the negotiation and eventual signing of the 2013 supplemental agreement, which provided clear direction to the enrolment committee about possible evidence to support the claims contained in people's applications. It also offered detailed information to applicants about the documentation the committee is looking for to determine their eligibility to become founding members.
The original 2008 agreement is still fully in effect. In fact, the criteria for membership under the 2008 agreement and the 2013 supplemental agreement are exactly the same. The 2013 supplemental agreement extended the timeline to review all 101,000 applications received during the two-stage enrolment process, resulting in the assessment of unseen applications and a reassessment of the applications already considered. This was the only way to be sure that the rules of eligibility for founding membership were fairly applied, that all applications were treated equally, and that applicants were given a reasonable chance to demonstrate their entitlement to founding membership.
In early November 2013, the enrolment committee sent letters to all the people whose applications had not been previously rejected. It indicated whether their application had been determined to be valid or invalid, based on the requirements set out in the 2008 agreement.
Approximately 94,000 applicants received letters confirming the validity of their applications. The letters included information regarding next steps in the assessment of their applications and what additional proof they had the opportunity to provide in support of their applications.
Some 6,000 applicants received letters indicating that their applications were invalid and would go no further.
It is conceivable that some of the current 23,877 founding members of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq first nation will lose their memberships as a result of this comprehensive review. In turn, this means that these individuals would lose their entitlement to be registered as Indians under the Indian Act, and any rights or benefits flowing from it.
This gets to the heart of the matter before us today.
Bill C-25 is an essential part of preserving the integrity of the enrolment process. It would ensure that the Governor in Council is properly authorized to carry out the last step in the process, which is the creation of a new founding members list to modify the existing one.
It is not entirely clear that the Governor in Council has such authority. There is no express authority set out in the Indian Act to amend a recognition order establishing a band, and it is uncertain whether the Indian Act specifically allows the Governor in Council to remove names from the schedule of such an order.
Certainty is critical to correct the problems that arose during the initial enrollment process. Without this act, we cannot finalize the Qalipu Mi'kmaq first nation's founding membership list and fully implement the 2013 supplemental agreement. This would be an enormous disservice to the Qalipu Mi'kmaq first nation, which has been waiting for some time to have these issues resolved.
It is long past time that we settle these matters once and for all so that the Qalipu Mi'kmaq first nation can move forward with confidence to a better future.