Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
On behalf of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, l am pleased to appear before you today to discuss our perspectives on the draft Bill C-44 under study by the members of this committee.
There are three areas that the congress wishes to address today relative to the implications of the draft Bill C-44. These include our comment on the Indian Act as an impediment to effective human rights protection in first nations communities; our views around band councils and on governance in general in first nations communities; and the need for education and outreach to increase awareness, allay concern, and engender understanding of the value of the provisions of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Since 1982, Canada's Constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is the highest law of the land, has specifically recognized three groups of aboriginal peoples: Indians, Inuit, and Métis. However, some 25 years after the repatriation of our Constitution, the gap between theoretical equality and government practice in respect of the recognition and protection of aboriginal rights afforded by its provisions is a matter of daily issue for the constituents of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. Their concerns and aspirations continue to be dismissed by all levels of government. Time and time again they continue to have to contend with exclusion and ignorance.
l have said many times that the Indian Act should be, and in fact must be, replaced. This archaic legislation represents an artificial and foreign imposition of “Indian-ness” on aboriginal peoples. l reassert this call once again to the committee members present here today.
The Indian Act has resulted in the deconstruction of traditional, historical aboriginal nations. Under its prescriptive provisions, these historical communities were reassembled into Indian reserves, many of which have been home to social and economic hardship for aboriginal peoples for more than a century.
In addition to the establishment of the reserve system, the Indian Act, under section 6, prescribes who is entitled to registration as a status Indian. From that designation flows specific entitlements to programs and services. These include things like funding for post-secondary education, for non-insured health benefits, as well as access to housing and some income tax exemptions. Beyond the written words of the Indian Act and the bureaucratic system that sustains and enforces its colonial provisions are aboriginal peoples and their families.
Right now in Canada there exist many aboriginal families in which individuals within the same family do not share the same access to programs and services based solely on their entitlement, or lack thereof, to Indian Act registration. Reasonable people do not have to spend a lot of time pondering the implications of, for example, the fact that while one parent or sibling can access prescription medications, dental care, or eyeglasses, the other parent or child cannot.
Every parent wants their children to have a better life than they do. Imagine for a minute that parents who have successfully accessed post-secondary funding for themselves may see their own children denied the same access because of the application of the tenets of the Indian Act.
Clearly, the Indian Act, both directly and indirectly, is the foundation for discrimination against the majority of the aboriginal population in Canada today. There is a profound lack of federal-provincial consensus around jurisdiction and financial responsibility for programs and services for registered Indians. This includes education, health care, and social services such as income assistance and assisted living services. While federal and provincial governments argue about who should pay for what, aboriginal families and individuals go without.
That said, does the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples support the repeal of section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act? Absolutely and unequivocally.
The fact that the Indian Act has substantially escaped human rights scrutiny for three decades is unacceptable in a country that is otherwise held up throughout the world as an example of a successful and prosperous democracy.
The federal government has spent a great deal of time, effort, and money in trying to support the establishment of the modern fundamentals of good governance on Indian Act reserves. It has also spent an extraordinary amount of money and effort defending the Indian Act from court challenges. Much of this effort has stemmed from the Indian Act's outdated and inadequate direction on governance-related matters within the act's band council governance system.
Since 2003, when the proposed first nations governance act was withdrawn, we have waited for government and first nations communities to present viable alternatives to the much publicly maligned proposed Bill C-7. Nearly four years later we are still waiting. For people who live on Indian Act reserves, the band council is the be-all and end-all in their community. It is the source of jobs, housing, income assistance, education, and training.
CAP and its affiliates across the country continue to be contacted by band members, many of whom have left the reserves because of disputes over access to programs and who report numerous grievances and concerns. They cannot obtain copies of program criteria or policies. They are denied access to redress mechanisms or have had their appeals adjudicated by the same people who denied them access to those programs in the first place.
The provision of on-reserve programs and services is typically done by means of funding from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada under standardized contribution agreements with band councils and their organizations and agencies. These agreements include funding for education, health, social programs such as income assistance, child and family services, family violence, and assisted living. Contribution agreements require band councils to deliver programs with processes that adhere to principles of transparency, disclosure, and redress.
We are aware of a band bylaw that was passed that forced family members to reside separate and apart because spouses or children are not band members. There are also electoral processes that deny individuals the right to run for councils on the basis of their religion, marital status, or residency.
How can we permit these grievances to perpetuate? How we, as aboriginal leaders, and you, as parliamentarians, cannot be morally moved to remedy these situations with speed, conviction, and precision is quite frankly beyond me.
There remains a great deal of debate and controversy in this country about what constitutes a human right and whether or not aboriginal peoples enjoy the same human rights as Canadian citizens generally do.
Sadly, at this point in our history we know that Canada has failed to address a significant source of real and potential discrimination against its aboriginal peoples. Thankfully, the repeal of section 67 from the Canadian Human Rights Act will begin to deal with this pressing issue.
There is an enormous need for education at the individual, band council, organizational, and federal and provincial government levels in order to mitigate and manage what may be a significant conflict of values, program standards, and jurisdictional issues as a consequence of the repeal of section 67.
We, at the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, are under no illusions that the application of the Canadian Human Rights Act to the Indian Act and the full implementation of the Canadian Human Rights Act on reserve will be anything but challenging and at times perhaps even overwhelming. That being said, we do not wish to see a prolonged implementation period for these measures. Human rights are not negotiable, and cannot be deemed negotiable, and their application cannot, and again must not, be deferred in 21st century Canada.
In summary, we strongly encourage the committee to make strong and specific recommendations to the government about the need to work with aboriginal peoples, their band councils, and representative organizations in order to ensure that the implications of the repeal of section 67 are understood and embraced by impacted individuals, communities, and federal-provincial government departments whose existing programs and services have been tied to Indian Act registration and processes.
We live in a nation that enjoys almost boundless prosperity. We, in Canada, are indeed “the true north strong and free”. We need to move quickly and sincerely to ensure that our first nations sisters and brothers, be they youth or elder, living both on or off reserve, enjoy the full freedom, benefit, and protection of the provisions afforded by Canada's Human Rights Act.
So we applaud Minister Prentice and Prime Minister Harper for taking the necessary steps to make this occur, and we encourage the committee to help make these plans a reality.
Meegwetch, merci, and thank you.