Evidence of meeting #4 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was community.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

John Borrows  Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law, University of Victoria, As an Individual
Éric Cardinal  As an Individual
Marlisa Tiedemann  Committee Researcher

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Welcome, everyone, to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

I would like to start by acknowledging that we're meeting on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people. I'd also like to point out that we have some young ladies here who are part of the Women in House program and are shadowing members of Parliament.

Welcome to those ladies.

Also our former colleague, Mr. Romeo Saganash, has joined us today. It's good to see you again.

11:10 a.m.

Some hon. members

Hear, hear!

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

We have a busy schedule. We'll get under way with the first committee business, dealing with the Subcommittee on Agenda and Procedure. It met on Thursday, February 27 to discuss the future business of the committee. A copy of its report has been distributed to members for their consideration.

Is it the pleasure of the committee to concur in the second report of the subcommittee?

(Motion agreed to)

Thank you very much.

Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Thursday, February 27, the committee will now begin its study of the indigenous crisis in Quebec and Canada.

With us today, we have the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and the Minister of Indigenous Services along with their respective deputy ministers. Each minister has been given up to 10 minutes to make opening statements, and then we'll proceed with questions and answers.

With us, we have the the Honourable Carolyn Bennett—

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative Prince George—Peace River—Northern Rockies, BC

I have a point of order.

Chair, I was asking about whether this meeting was televised and, sadly, it isn't. Given that it's such a top-of-mind issue and so important to our country, why isn't it being televised today?

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

The answer is that the television isn't always available. It is webcast, so it's certainly available to anybody who wants to see it. We have media present in the chamber right now. It's just one of those things where we didn't have the service available today.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative Prince George—Peace River—Northern Rockies, BC

Okay.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Mr. Schmale had asked, and we put the request in, but this is what we have.

Mr. Schmale.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Jamie Schmale Conservative Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock, ON

Also on that, Chair, given that we're running a bit behind by 10 minutes, I'd like to seek unanimous consent to extend this portion by 10 minutes.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

All in favour?

(Motion agreed to)

Thanks, Mr. Schmale.

Minister Bennett, would you like to begin, please?

11:10 a.m.

Toronto—St. Paul's Ontario

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett LiberalMinister of Crown-Indigenous Relations

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

It's a pleasure to be back before this committee for the first time in the new Parliament, especially with so many new faces on this truly important committee for Canada. I, too, want to begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin people.

I am pleased to be here with my honourable colleague the Minister of Indigenous Services, Mr. Marc Miller, and our deputy ministers.

We understand that we've been asked to talk about the recent blockades and protests across the country, but I think I'm here mainly to talk about the complex underlying issues at their core. Our government understands that the recent rail blockades have had real impacts on Canadians, businesses and people across the country who rely on a working rail service to get to work, transport goods and keep their businesses running successfully, and also on indigenous peoples.

I think, as you know, that across all government departments, we're working around the clock to resolve this in a peaceful and lasting way. We welcomed the news last week that the remaining rail blockades had been removed and that regular rail service is resuming.

I think we understand that Canadians have been frustrated as they saw the impacts of the recent rail blockades continue, and some opposition politicians, we worry, were unfortunately focused on, as I think I said in the House of Commons, exploiting divisions within a community, which is not going to get us to lasting solutions and the kind of healing needed.

As the Prime Minister said so eloquently, Canadians expect us to work together to get through this together.

Marc and I are here to answer questions you may have because we believe it's really important that all of us truly understand the complexity and sensitivity of the situation and the danger of some of the inflammatory rhetoric we have heard in recent weeks.

As a physician, I am reminded that it's also the obligation of all parliamentarians to firstly do no harm. We need a lasting solution so that nations can take decisions together to achieve the certainty required for first nations, Métis and Inuit to ensure that their communities are healthy and vibrant.

The issues at the heart of this situation extend beyond a particular project, and deal with complex matters of indigenous governance, rights and title.

Over the past several weeks, my B.C. counterpart and I have been in ongoing communication with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs to try to de-escalate the situation and find a path forward to deal with these issues in a substantive way. While policing decisions are made independently and free from political influence, we were pleased that the RCMP in B.C. worked with the Wet'suwet'en to make operational changes to de-escalate the situation and make room for the in-person talks between the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and the federal and provincial governments.

We were also encouraged that Coastal GasLink independently agreed to pause work on the project during in-person discussions to help make that possible, and we were very grateful for Nathan Cullen's work in the de-escalating of the situation among all parties.

The weekend before last, when I met in Smithers with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and the B.C. government, we had very frank and substantive discussions, guided by respect, on issues around Wet'suwet'en rights and title. We were also pleased that the members of the Wet'suwet'en Matrilineal Coalition participated in the first night of the meeting, and we were able to hear their very important perspective directly. These talks focused on two separate issues: the recognition of Wet'suwet'en indigenous rights and title throughout their territory and the issues arising out of the Coastal GasLink project. These topics were discussed separately, and with respect to rights and title, the parties focused intensely on the commitments to an expedited process to implement Wet'suwet'en rights and title.

The result of these discussions was a draft arrangement that will be reviewed by the Wet'suwet'en clan members in their clans and in their houses through the Wet'suwet'en governance protocols for ratification. I believe that over these two weeks...that they need that space to have those conversations independently of outside voices. I believe that the removal of the remaining rail blockades last week and the resumption of rail service provides the Wet'suwet'en nation with that space to have this important conversation of rights and title within their territory.

Out of respect for the process, Canada has agreed that the Wet'suwet'en Nation would have the time to consider the details of this arrangement before it was made public. If ratified, Minister Fraser and I have agreed to return to the Wet'suwet'en territory to sign it, and the parties have agreed to implement title on an expedited basis and to coordinate how we will work together. We are inspired by the courageous Wet'suwet'en people who took the recognition of their rights to the Supreme Court of Canada in the historic Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa case in 1997. We need to be clear that the court did not, at that time, grant title to their lands; it affirmed the rights of the Wet'suwet'en, but said that the question of title was to be determined at a later time and then implemented.

I believe that this arrangement with the Wet'suwet'en people will now be able to breathe life into the Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa decision so that future generations do not have to face conflicts like the one that they face today. As the late chief Wah tah Kwets said in the Delgamuukw case, “It is up to us to create a new memory in the minds of our children.”

While work remains, these talks have been an important step on reconciling complex matters of rights and title.

From education to fisheries, to child and family services, to policing, to court systems, we have made important strides forward in the hard work of what Lee Crowchild describes as “deconstructing the effects of colonization”.

Over the past five years, we have been moving away from the parameters of the Comprehensive Land Claims and Inherent Right policies.

Our government's approach to negotiating rights-related agreements is being developed through lessons learned from the over 150 recognition of indigenous rights and self-determination discussion tables across Canada. These negotiations involve almost one million indigenous people from 480 first nations, 44 Inuit communities and seven Métis organizations. Since 2015, we have been advancing interest-based discussions and ensuring that co-development is the core of any negotiations with indigenous groups.

In 2019, the governments of Canada and British Columbia and the First Nations Summit co-developed the recognition of reconciliation rights policy for treaty negotiations in British Columbia. This new policy eliminates the concepts that were the barriers to future treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements, including extinguishment and cede and surrender. It demonstrates Canada's commitment to working collaboratively with indigenous and provincial partners, based on the affirmation and implementation of indigenous rights and in accordance with the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Together we are committed to resolving the issues we face and to implementing Wet'suwet'en rights and title. We understand that we are in a critical time together, and we are committed to building a new path together with indigenous peoples across Canada.

Meegwetch.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Thank you so much, Minister.

Minister Miller, would you please go ahead?

11:20 a.m.

Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Soeurs Québec

Liberal

Marc Miller LiberalMinister of Indigenous Services

Thank you, Chair.

I want to start by acknowledging that we are gathered here today on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin peoples.

I know that this directly impacted many of you in the room today, as it impacted the communities you represent, and the lives of your constituents.

The conversations that happened in Smithers with Minister Bennett are a positive and vital step, but there's no doubt that there's more work to do, work that many of you in this room know well as members of this important parliamentary committee. There's a lot of work to be done in addressing the underlying concerns of the Wet'suwet'en and the resulting solidarity actions that took place across the country.

However, I'm glad that together we can demonstrate a peaceful, achievable resolution. I believe the easy way is not always the right way. Sometimes using force is a sign of weakness. Over the past few weeks, we've seen the result of ignorance, fear and lack of understanding in vitriolic messages and comments online, through stories of individuals being targeted in public and private, and we saw that not far from here in Ottawa. An indigenous youth group had to move their planned weekly gathering due to the receipt of a death threat.

I think this shows that we have a long way to go when it comes to learning the dark parts of the history of this unreconciled country and its peoples, and truly making an effort to learn from one another and listen.

I've said this before and I'll continue to say it: When we don't have an open and honest dialogue, we simply can't move forward together.

Consistent, open and respectful dialogue is paramount to achieve peace, cooperation and prosperity in this country for all peoples.

It's in this spirit of peace and co-operation that I gathered with members of the Kanyen’kehá:ka along the rail tracks in Tyendinaga, as members will know. We pursued an open dialogue and made concerted efforts to move towards a peaceful resolution. Modest but important progress was made through this dialogue.

However, there was an immense amount of suspicion towards my presence—fear it was a ruse and that the police would move in. It's not every day that people are surrounded by police, and the reactions are normal. Parts of the conversation with the leadership of the community, elders and community members, including women and children, were very difficult, very painful and very personal. Upsetting stories were shared about this country's troubling treatment of indigenous peoples.

These are very serious issues which demand our attention, and have demanded it for hundreds of years, and there's no place in this discussion for rhetoric and vitriol.

The question I have found myself asking in the last few weeks is this: are we going to do things the way we have always done them, which has brought us to this point in our relationship, or do we take a new approach that engages in a true government-to-government relationship?

My greatest challenge in the past month in particular, but in the relationship in general, is trust. It prevents the best and most well-thought-out initiatives from moving forward. It is clear that our work must earn that trust over time.

In looking towards building a better future where we earn that trust, I believe it's important to acknowledge the past. For almost 500 years, indigenous peoples have faced discrimination in every aspect of their lives. The Crown, in part, has prevented a true equal partnership from developing with indigenous peoples, imposing instead a relationship based on colonial, paternalistic ways of thinking and doing. This approach has resulted in a legacy of devastation, pain and suffering, and it's not acceptable.

Many of us know where this has gotten us: a broken child and family system where indigenous children up to the age of 14 make up over 50% of kids in foster care even though they represent 7.7% of all Canadian children; shocking rates of suicide among indigenous youth, causing untold pain and hurt that will plague families and communities for generations to come; untenable housing situations where water that is unsafe to drink or even bathe in comes out of the taps; and communities that don't have reliable access to roads, health centres, or even schools.

When we formed government 4 years ago, we made many significant promises including on some of these areas I just touched upon.

We have delivered on much of that but the most important lesson we learned was that everything has to be done in true partnership. That Canada will succeed when we follow the voices of those whom we have ignored and disrespected for far too long, and those who lead communities across this country.

We know that there is no quick fix for the decades of systemic discrimination that indigenous peoples in Canada have faced. But our government is committed to putting in the time, energy and resources to right past wrongs and build a better way forward for future generations.

We do our best to undertake this work in a way that departs from much of our shared history—a history in which the inherent rights, leadership and cultural vitality have not been respected as they should have been.

Our approach is founded on partnership and co-development and is anchored in listening to indigenous leaders, elders, youth and community members and working to support their attainment of their goals based on their priorities.

Since 2016, we've invested $21 billion in the priorities of indigenous partners, priorities that have been set by indigenous partners, and together we've made some progress, but we still have a long way to close the unacceptable socio-economic gap that exists between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

For hundreds of years, indigenous peoples have been calling on the Canadian government to recognize and affirm their jurisdiction over their own affairs, to have control and agency over their land, housing, education, governance system and child and family services. Self-determination improves the well-being and prosperity of indigenous communities, and that's something all Canadians should strive to support.

There is no question that self-determination is a better way forward.

Self-governing indigenous peoples have a proven track record of greater socio-economic success. More children are completing high school, fewer people are unemployed, and health outcomes are much better. Indigenous-led initiatives are more successful, as we have seen time and time again.

There is a critical need to support nation and community-led success in every indigenous community in Canada, not just in education, but also in health care, water and resource management, child and family services, in short, in all sectors.

This is why our government continues to work on shifting policies to recognize the inherent right of self-government for first nations, Inuit and Métis. That means moving to novel models of indigenous government and supporting indigenous communities to assert their rights.

We are working to support first nations to opt out of sections of the Indian Act in areas such as land, environment, resource management and elections. As an example, we're working with indigenous institutions in first nations to develop the tools they need to drive local economic development, empower their communities and promote prosperity.

Since 2019, nine first nations have begun operating under their community-ratified land codes through the framework agreement on first nations land management and the First Nations Land Management Act. In addition, 18 first nations have joined the 264 other first nations asserting jurisdiction in the area of fiscal governance by opting into the First Nations Fiscal Management Act.

Self-determination is key to unlocking economic potential, creating opportunities for growth and closing socio-economic gaps. We know that with advancing self-determination, the potential for success is enormous—success of indigenous peoples and, frankly, all of Canada.

To get there, we need to understand that recognizing and affirming rights is a first step in finding a way forward. We need to support indigenous partners to identify our challenges and then we need to rise to those challenges. Finally, we need to recognize that the most important actions we can take are to listen to the hard truths, embrace change and welcome creative ideas. A transformation like that will take determination, persistence, patience and truth telling.

The work ahead of us will be difficult. As I mentioned, this path will require a lot from us. We will have to work in true partnership and listen, even when the truth will be hard to hear. We will have to continue to communicate, even when we disagree. We will need to continue to collaborate and look for creative ways to move forward, as well as new paths to healing and true understanding.

We've all seen what happens when we fail to maintain dialogue. This leads to mistrust and confusion, which can cause conflict and hinder our common journey. I want to be clear: it is up to the rights holders to determine who speaks for them about their indigenous rights and title. We will continue to work toward continuing these conversations. Despite all these challenges, I know that the hard work ahead of us is well worth the effort.

Together, we can build a better Canada, and that's what we're going to do. It will be a country in which healthy, prosperous and self-reliant indigenous nations will be key partners. We have the opportunity to learn from our shared history, to share our pain and even our joy, and to do the work that will result in a country where everyone can succeed.

I look forward to working with my colleagues on all sides to realize this essential work and enormous potential. It requires the participation of all Canadians.

I look forward to answering any questions you may have.

Meegwetch.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Thank you very much.

Members of the committee, we have a large number of people—the public—in the committee room. Welcome to everyone.

I'll let you know how this works. As the committee chair, I will keep the speakers to the agreed-upon procedure, which is six minutes of questioning in the first round, five minutes of questioning in the second round, then two and a half minutes. That's the way it works. If it seems like I'm cutting somebody off because the answer isn't being fulfilled, it's just the way we work. The important thing is to keep the preamble short, so that the questions can elicit the answers that will appear in our testimony.

I'll start with Mr. Schmale.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Jamie Schmale Conservative Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Ministers, for appearing today.

I was encouraged by your appearance, Minister Bennett, but I was disappointed by your words, especially at the beginning when you talked about creating divisions within the community. I think that was extremely unfair. I'm very disappointed by those words, but they don't surprise me given the pattern of this government, where the failures of this government are always someone else's fault, especially the opposition's.

Having said that, using your words about creating divisions within the Wet'suwet'en Nation, did you meet with the elected chiefs during your visit to British Columbia?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

The matriarchs came to the meeting. I did not meet with the elected chiefs. The Delgamuukw complaint was taken by the hereditary chiefs. That is the group that believes they have governance over the whole of the territory. We met with them first.

As you know, the proposed arrangement will go back to the clans and the houses where the elected chiefs will participate. I am more than happy to meet with the elected chiefs at any time.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Jamie Schmale Conservative Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock, ON

But given that the issue of title has effects on the Coastal GasLink project, as well as the elected bodies within the nation, would it not have made sense to include those elected members at those meetings rather than create divisions within the community?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

I think it was indeed the hereditary chiefs who had raised their concerns. It was the hereditary chiefs who had mounted the support from coast to coast to coast. Therefore, the resolution was going to come with the hereditary chiefs at the beginning. Then we will meet with the elected chiefs.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Jamie Schmale Conservative Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock, ON

If you're trying to get this project to go ahead, why did you not include the people who are in support of moving this project forward? Why would you only include the voices that were against it—the one side of this story?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

Jamie, as I think you know, the project is a B.C. project totally. It's their processes, their permits, their way forward. My job—

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Jamie Schmale Conservative Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock, ON

Did you not say, “Hey, we should probably have all voices”?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

My job is to make sure that the nation comes together and heals as a whole, and the concerns of the hereditary chiefs needed to be heard.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Jamie Schmale Conservative Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock, ON

Given your comment, again, about creating divisions in the community, were all hereditary chiefs included in this meeting, including those who supported the Coastal GasLink project?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

Some of the hereditary chiefs who support the project were certainly there on Thursday night. We heard from each of them individually. They were mainly members of the matrilineal coalition. Then they were able to meet with the other hereditary chiefs. There was a decision taken by the hereditary chiefs in our meeting to take the proposed arrangement back to everybody so that the whole of the nation would take this decision together.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Jamie Schmale Conservative Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock, ON

Again, Minister, you're blaming the opposition for this, yet you and the provincial government did not invite those who had an interest in supporting this project. Of course, when you're dealing with title, the decision of any agreement affects the project, affects everyone within the community, and yet you are saying the opposition's at fault here. But you did not include the other side of the story—the people who support it, who will benefit.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

As we said, this was a B.C. project. Certainly, the B.C. government had heard from the elected chiefs—