Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in the House to support Bill C-9, the First Nations Elections Act.
As with everything we do as a government, this bill is about delivering results for Canadians and addressing the priorities of Canadians. That most certainly includes the priorities of first nations citizens of this country, who are currently living under the outdated and discriminatory Indian Act.
As the matters this bill addresses are a priority for first nations, this bill is about empowering first nations across Canada to take charge of their own destinies. In fact, it may easily be said that this is not a government bill, but a first nations bill. The government did not go to first nations with a proposal; first nations came to the government with one. They said, “Here is a serious problem and here is how the government can help us solve it.” Bill C-9 before us today is not the result of the government consulting with first nations; it is the result of first nations consulting with first nations.
I should add that our government was proud to provide the support and coordination that helped first nations engage with each other on a national basis. As the hon. member for St. Paul's stated at a recent meeting of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development:
We think this is an excellent example of bottom-up legislation.
I could not agree more with the Liberal member.
In that regard, I must recognize the initiative and determination of two first nations organizations that have played a pivotal role in bringing us to this day and giving us the opportunity to provide a legislative framework that is indisputably better than what first nations have been saddled with for decades. This is not simply duplicate legislation to the Indian Act, but an effective, accountable, and responsible option for first nations communities.
It was over five years ago that the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, led by then Grand Chief Ron Evans, and the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs, with the support of our government, began the efforts that ultimately resulted in the bill that is before us today. They saw the need for electoral reform. They had good ideas for improvement. They consulted with the leaders of their local communities and with the people who live in those communities.
Half a country apart, they found a remarkable similarity of opinion emerging from these consultations. The quality and scope of these consultations and the close parallels to be drawn between their recommendations encouraged the government to ask the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs to lead a national consultation process. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs covered the west and the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs handled the east.
The consultations included not only chiefs and band councils; from the beginning, they recognized the importance of including individual grassroots band members across Canada. Both organizations gave the consultations a prominent place on their websites. They published their recommendations and explained what they meant and what they intended to achieve. A simple feedback form enabled and encouraged individuals to provide their thoughts and opinions on the initiatives being proposed. I would point out that this feedback carried considerable weight with the government in developing this bill.
As a result, in supporting Bill C-9, we have the opportunity to endorse not only its contents, but the truly inclusive and collaborative process that led to its creation, an example of how first nations people, their leaders, their representative organizations, and the federal government can work collaboratively to find solutions and achieve a common goal.
It is difficult to imagine a more laudable goal than ensuring that all first nations citizens have the opportunity to participate in free and fair elections. However, the fact is that for many first nations governed by the outdated and archaic Indian Act, the most basic premise of democratic government does not exist. The failures of the Indian Act with respect to elections are well known and long-standing, dating back to the early 1950s. Even before the development of the bill before us today, more than 75 first nations communities decided to take matters into their own hands and move out of the Indian Act to design and implement their own community election codes.
Adoption of the proposed electoral system described in the bill is voluntary. The bill is intended to provide an option for first nations that may not have the capacity to develop their own community election code or that simply want a turnkey and accountable election code that they can opt into.
Let us consider some of the shortcomings the bill would address.
The Indian Act, for example, specifies the chief and band councillors are elected on a two-year term. This is hardly conducive to the design and execution of the long-term strategies needed to achieve key priorities. It also means that first nation communities are in almost constant election mode. By the time a first nation council has been elected, sworn in, got a handle on its responsibilities and started the actual process of governing, it is time to start campaigning for the next election.
Bill C-9 would enable first nation communities to fix that by implementing four-year terms for elected officials, bringing them into line with what is the norm for most other jurisdictions in Canada and allow time to not only learn the job but time to actually do the job.
In addition, the bill would enable different first nations to hold their elections on the same day, a common election day. This innovative idea came directly from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and it is a good one. With terms of office beginning and ending at the same time, common election days would make it easier for groups of first nations to collaborate and present a common front in business development endeavours and other shared priorities.
Longer terms in office and the potential to set common election dates are important improvements, but any elected official's term is too long if the legitimacy of the electoral process is in question. This is perhaps the most damaging impact of the electoral system provided under the Indian Act.
The sort of checks and balances that allow most Canadians to take for granted the results of an election as an accurate reflection of the will of the people are virtually non-existent in the Indian Act. We have all heard of cases of vote buying and other irregularities, irregularities that even if they do not effect the legitimacy of an election can cause it to be perceived as such.
There is little in the Indian Act to discourage these practices. They can be carried on with little or no consequences. This not only undermines confidence in government, but leads to paralyzing appeals of election results.
Under the Indian Act, anyone who does not like the way in which an election has turned out can simply appeal the results by providing a sworn affidavit to the minister regardless of the merits or validity of their arguments.
In addition, the appeal system under the Indian Act is slow and administratively cumbersome. Many months can go by before a decision is rendered. In the majority of cases the appeals are dismissed, but in the meantime with its legitimacy in question, a first nations government comes to a virtual standstill. Projects and initiatives that can benefit a community may be stalled. To add insult to injury, the Indian Act includes the paternalistic provision that all appeals are decided by the minister.
Similar to the provisions of the Canada Elections Act, Bill C-9 contains provisions that would minimize the likelihood of corrupt election practices by setting out specific offences and specific penalties for those convicted of committing those offences. Instead of appealing to the minister, an elector would file an appeal in federal or provincial court. These appeals would be addressed by the courts, just as they are for federal, provincial and municipal elections. This provision would minimize the potential for frivolous appeals and at the same time remove the minister from the process.
Local law enforcements could lay charges for corrupt activity in connection with first nations elections and they would have the backing of the courts to impose fines and jail sentences on those convicted.
Again, these are the kinds of protections, which most Canadians take for granted, that help to ensure the electoral processes are accountable, consistent and effective and that help to provide for political stability that is so essential to economic growth, job creation and higher standards of living.
The first nations elections act would also encourage greater citizen engagement in the political process by eliminating anomalies and other peculiarities that the Indian Act's lack of clarity has allowed to happen.
The nomination process is perhaps the most glaring example. Under the Indian Act, the same person can run for chief and for council in the same election. Not only can the same person run for both positions, the same person can be elected to and serve in both positions. That would change under Bill C-9.
In addition, the Indian Act provides little guidance on other aspects of the nomination process. If he or she wishes, one person can nominate dozens or more candidates for any position. It is not unheard of for a first nations voter to be handed a ballot with more than 100 candidates listed on it, sometimes without the knowledge of those candidates. This hardly encourages citizens' engagement. That too would change under Bill C-9.
The first nations elections act would enable first nations to implement a more stringent nomination process. First nations could impose a fee of up to $250 to discourage the nomination of candidates who were not interested and were simply running as a lark.
Under Bill C-9, first nations would also have the authority to require all candidates nominated to accept their nomination in writing so the names of people with no desire or interest would not appear on the ballot. Other provisions in the bill would enable the development of regulations to address frequently expressed concerns about the potential for abuse in the distribution of mail-in ballots.
In conclusion, I would point out that neither this provision nor anything else in the bill goes beyond what is the norm for most Canadians. Through the consultations led by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs, we have learned that first nations citizens want to have the option to divest themselves of the Indian Act provisions and to a new consistent and accountable system similar to that which is enjoyed by all other Canadians.
I would emphasize again that adopting the first nations elections act would not be mandatory for first nations. Bill C-9 is intended to provide an option for those first nations that are having difficulty with the status quo. They may want a more robust electoral system than what is proposed under the Indian Act, but may not have the capacity to design their own. They may have a community electoral system in place that is not working as well as they had hoped. This is an option and it would be flexible. Many of the provisions themselves would be optional, the nomination fee, for example, so it could be tailored to the specific circumstances of individual communities. It is an option that first nations themselves have asked us to provide.
I am confident all members of the House understand and support the belief that a strong, robust electoral system that assures elections are free and fair encourages citizen engagement and promotes good governance. I would urge all members to compare the option the bill would provide to first nations with the electoral system currently provided for in the Indian Act. The problems allowed by the Indian Act's lack of clarity could be exceptionally damaging.
Let me give the words used by Mr. John Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs in a recent appearance before the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs. He said:
—the Indian Act election process is very ruthless. It is not a nice process. It is not pretty, and it's very vicious in terms of how it gets played out in a community. It negatively impacts a lot of people in the community.
Too many first nations have been struggling under the kind of electoral system described by Mr. Paul. It is why Mr. Paul and first nations leaders and individuals across the country came to the government with a plan to give those first nations a better option, the option that Bill C-9 would provide. The bill is the result of a true grassroots movement and it reflects broad and legitimate consensus among the people who want this option. I would argue that our task is as clear as it is simple. We need only to step out of the way.