Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I rise on behalf of the Official Opposition to speak to Bill C-55, to establish a board having jurisdiction concerning disputes respecting surface rights in respect of land in the Yukon Territory and to amend other acts in relation thereto.
This bill was introduced after two other pieces of legislation, namely the Yukon First Nations Self-Government Act and the Land Claims Settlement Act, were passed by this House last June.
Before getting into my analysis of Bill C-55, I would like to describe these two acts to show how important they are and, because of its connection with these acts, how important it is that the bill before us this morning be passed, even if it means making appropriate amendments, which we will consider in committee.
All bills concerning Yukon Indians arise from an extensive process started in Canada, and in Quebec, in particular, two decades ago, when the government of Quebec signed with the James Bay Cree an agreement that came to be known as the James Bay Agreement. This agreement resulted at the time from negotiations conducted in good faith. The Cree were happy, the government of Quebec was happy, Hydro-Québec was happy and the federal Parliament had assented to the enabling legislation for the James Bay Agreement.
I want to make it quite clear that what is going on in the Yukon, as well as what happened in the Northwest Territories and is happening in several parts of Canada in terms of negotiations with native communities, is nothing new. It is not to be dreaded. We are not breaking new ground here. This is a process that was initiated a while back. Certain experience was gained, especially in Quebec, and I would think that it was a pleasant one in the case of Quebec.
In June, we passed two acts concerning Yukon Indians. The first one was designed to provide certain guidelines regarding self-government. It is a self-administration agreement. Some areas of the Yukon have been inhabited from time immemorial by Native peoples. Over the years, these peoples have seen the south expand onto their lands. Mining companies came, trappers came and people from abroad came to the Yukon. The natives saw this happening and thought to themselves: "These people are on our land". I think that it was legitimate for them to want to be masters in their own house so to speak. So, negotiations commenced and from these negotiations arose, among other things, an agreement respecting self-government for first nations. I think it is important to point this out.
The first nations have their own personality, existence and cultural identity, and I think no one here questions the existence of an Aboriginal, Indian and Inuit identity in Canada, which is destined to grow and assert itself.
The agreement on self-government would allow Aboriginal people to make decisions in a number of areas concerning them. They were given-I will go over this quickly as it is not necessarily the subject matter of the bill before us but I think it is important because it is related-some legislative powers, for example for local and private laws relating to social programs and services. It is very important for Native people to be able to set up social services meeting their needs.
I read in this morning's newspapers that Mohawks in Quebec have been given responsibility for job training, which is one of Quebec's traditional demands. We in Quebec have always said that, as a people, we wanted to develop our own workforce, and we see in this morning's newspapers that the federal government will examine how it will be done and the objectives it is pursuing, at least in the case of Quebec's Native people. At the outset, however, we note that the federal government agreed that it is important for a nation, a people to control some aspects of its workforce and social programs.
Mohawks in Quebec will have responsibilities in this area, similar to those given in the agreement on Yukon Indians. I say given because, if we look at what is happening with Canada's Native peoples, I think that in the last century and the first part of this one the federal government put itself in the position to give such responsibilities to the people. Even the Indian Act is very clear on this.
The Yukon Aboriginal people were given some elements of self-government such as responsibility for social programs and citizen services and the power to impose fees and to collect certain taxes. In addition to all this, each first nation will have its own constitution and citizenship code. Each will be able to have authority in the administration of justice.
You can see how all this was done: peoples with their own identity were given certain tools to ensure their autonomy. This House should be congratulated for having passed Bill C-34 last June. It is all very well to have some self-government, to have responsibilities, but you also need a territory on which to exercise those responsibilities and over the past 20 years, the
Yukon Indians, as the minister said, negotiated to reach a land claims agreement.
This agreement was the subject of Bill C-33, which this House passed in June. It is a framework for 14 Yukon First Nations-the Yukon Indians are divided into 14 First Nations with a population of 8,000 or 9,000. The agreement provided for a certain division of lands. Yukon is a vast territory covering over 41,000 square kilometres. On some of the land, the native peoples were granted ownership of the surface and sub-surface, or should I say that their ownership was recognized.
On other parts of the territory, they have only surface rights. This means that the jurisdiction they obtained in the self-government agreement can be exercised on certain territories.
The land claims settlement gives the native peoples some other benefits; for example, Canada conceded $242 million in compensation divided among the 14 nations for a certain number of years. They also obtained rights to exploit the wildlife for purposes of subsistence within the territory. They obtained exclusive hunting rights within other territories.
That law gave them a territory and clarified the question of surface and sub-surface rights. That is important because for many years Southerners like me thought that the North was a place where very little happened. There was snow and nothing else. We did not know that it was the homeland of native peoples who had been living there since time immemorial.
But the North became topical, in Quebec and in the rest of Canada, when natural resource development attracted individuals and companies interested in oil or hydro-electricity. From that point on, it was necessary to define who was entitled to what territory and who could do what within it. I think that we are well on the way to determining that with the two laws on self-government and land claims.
It is important in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and everywhere in Canada to reach a sort of friendly agreement among the various population groups on how the land will be occupied. Groups which have their own identity must be able to maintain and affirm that identity without interfering with the activities or identity of other Canadian communities.
Whether in Canada or in Quebec, and this is particularly true in the case of the aboriginal issue, I think everyone will agree that there is good will on both sides and that a satisfactory agreement for all concerned will be reached.
I referred to agreements regarding self-government. I also said that Yukon first nations had obtained rights regarding the definition of territory. However, once certain rights are recognized, there may still be disputes and controversies. At some point, certain issues will have to be settled, whether these concern some corporations from the South interested in promoting northern development or Canadians wishing to do things in the Yukon. Someone will have to make decisions regarding the rights of everyone concerned. As is always the case, laws and regulations are passed, but there has to be a court of law or an administrative tribunal to render decisions, otherwise things simply do not work.
Let me give you an example. In recent weeks, the Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development looked at what happened in Manitoba when Hydro Manitoba tried to build a number of dams to generate hydroelectric power on the Churchill and Nelson Rivers. The committee found that an agreement existed but had not been implemented. I hope to have the opportunity to provide more details to the House on this issue when we will look at Bill C-36, which deals with the Split Lake agreement, in northern Manitoba. The problem with hydroelectric development on the Churchill and Nelson rivers in northern Manitoba is that a rather vague agreement was reached but never implemented. The result is that, almost 20 years later, the issue has to go back before Parliament and new agreements must be reached so that the original one from 1977 can be implemented.
As you can see, it is important, when establishing new definitions of territory and rights, to make it very clear that a body is also created to settle disputes.
This is exactly what Bill C-55 does by establishing the Yukon Surface Rights Board. As its name indicates, the board will have jurisdiction over surface rights. In other words, it will be established to settle any discussion, dispute or argument individuals or corporations may have on this issue.
The board members will be designated by the federal government. The bill provides for up to eleven members to be appointed, one half on the recommendation of the Yukon First Nations. I think this is very important, because the disputes the board will have to settle directly affect the Natives, the first people of the Yukon.
So, I think it is important for the Yukon residents, as well as for the people of Canada and of Quebec, to know that, when such disputes will arise, there will be some members on this tribunal, which is not really tribunal, but a board authorized to arbitrate in this type of disputes, who will know what life is for Natives. This is important, because those who pass judgment on a justice issue or any other matter must understand the point of view of the various people from different backgrounds appearing before them.
Fortunately, this bill provides for half of the board members to be appointed on the recommendation of the Native people. I would have expected nothing less but I would hope that the Yukon First Nations will recommend people from their own communities.
However, one section of the bill says that board members do not necessarily have to come from Yukon. Does that mean that somebody from Montreal, Ottawa or Saskatoon, for example, could sit on this tribunal? It makes you wonder. Surely, there are in Canada people who are quite competent to rule on the issues that will be put before the Board. But I, for one, would prefer to see Yukon residents on this board, as they are in a position to make a judgment on the facts they are presented with in the light, again, of the cultural point of view of aboriginal people, of the first nations who will ask the board to make a decision.
As I said, this bill essentially provides for the creation of the board and stipulates how it will be set up, how it will work. It defines its responsibilities, its jurisdiction and its funding. The federal government will take care of its funding.
Maybe this issue will be discussed further in committee because, when we talk about costs these days in Canada, people become nervous. They have the impression that the government's main objective is to cut spending. But we know that, in reality, all the money that the government collects is used to provide adequate services to Canadians. After all, the important thing is to make the people happy, and not necessarily to make bankers, creditors and financiers happy. As politicians, we have to consider what is best for Canadians. But I am getting away from the issue here.
When we study this bill in committee, some people may wonder how come the government is paying for this board. I think it is quite normal that the government should pay for this board, the same way it pays for the courts and for a number of other agencies which have to be financially independent to be able to exercise their jurisdiction. I do not think that it would serve the interests of Canada, Quebec or the Yukon first nations if the board established under Bill C-55 were ineffective because of inadequate funding.
You certainly can infer from my remarks that my party supports the adoption of Bill C-55. Obviously, we will examine a number of its provisions more closely in committee. After all, it is a complex piece of legislation. In all these situations, the average Canadian who looks at the issue wants justice to be served. The average Canadian agrees that aboriginal people should get all the guarantees they need for their collective survival and development. The importance of that has been well understood in Quebec.
The Quebec government did recognize the first nations in its jurisdiction through a motion passed by the National Assembly. There have also been new developments since the election of the Parti Quebecois. Proposals have been made, and, despite radical positions by first nations in Quebec that may be more negotiating positions or posturing for the media that anything else, a new spirit has emerged. The Quebec government has made firm proposals, and there will be more.
People in Quebec are open to the concept of making new proposals, and Canadians would also like to find a basis of agreement that would be acceptable to all peoples in Canada, whether it is the Quebec people, the Indian peoples or nations, or all other groups in Canada.
The bill should be examined closely in committee so that Canadians can be sure that their federal Parliament did its homework and that the content of the act is reasonable. In matters such as self-government and land claims, it is all too easy to be destructive. Passion and prejudice can come into play, and there is always a risk of disinformation.
Since I became a member of the Aboriginal Affairs Committee, I have a better understanding of the status of aboriginal nations in Canada, although like many Quebecers and Canadians, I was already very sympathetic and very receptive to certain aboriginal claims. Recommendations and requests submitted to the committee were linked with the very survival of these nations as such.
As a Quebecer, I am on very familiar ground when people talk about self-government, nations, territory and rights, because in Quebec, ever since I became aware of the political situation, at least since the early sixties, that is the kind of language we have heard. It is a language I understand, and these positions are ones I have taken myself. I think it is important for nations to keep their identity, to survive and develop their potential.
When a nation disappears, when a culture disappears and when an identity disappears, this weakens us all, because in today's world we must realize that uniformity and levelling differences are not the answer to our problems. The futur belongs to those who recognize the rights of others and that all nations, languages and cultures should be allowed to live and thrive.
When we consider this kind of legislation and discuss it in the House and in committee, we should carefully examine what is at stake. Obviously, all committees, whether we are talking about the Committee on Human Resources or the Defence Committee, are expected to do a good job, but when we are talking about aboriginal issues in Canada, I think it is very important for parliamentarians to proceed carefully in order to make the right decisions and do a good job of informing the public.
In fact, there are a lot of rumours and a lot of biased information going around. When I mentioned to my constituents that we had a land claim settlement agreement involving fourteen Yukon nations, they said: "What is going on? Are you splitting up the country, are you giving Canada and part of our taxes to aboriginal nations?" I told them: "Of course not".
Then you explain the situation. There are aboriginal nations in Canada who have certain rights. There are territories, and these territories must be shared. We have to live together, so we have to decide how and this means negotiating agreements, which is what happened in the Yukon. An agreement was negotiated and will now be ratified by the Parliament of Canada. We had the same procedure for James Bay. Today, agreements are being negotiated in Northern Quebec and with other aboriginal nations in Quebec.
In my region we have a Montagnais nation, the Lac-Saint-Jean Montagnais, who are negotiating a land claim settlement. Last year, they concluded an agreement with Hydro-Québec on payments in connection with power transmission. I think we are moving slowly toward a mutually acceptable way of life which will benefit all Canadians.
However, I feel we should keep people informed so that they can understand fully what is going on, what our goals are and within what framework we are going to proceed. Otherwise, people harden their position and oppose everything. They then set conditions which virtually amount to outright rejection. And so I think it is important to establish a framework, as we are doing in Quebec, especially on the issue of border immutability. I believe my party, the Bloc Quebecois, said it quite clearly recently. The Parti Quebecois also said it. The issue of negotiations with the native people is open, but when it comes to Quebec's territory and the future of its borders, that is not negotiable.
I trust that, just as an agreement has been reached with the native people regarding the Yukon, Nunavut and other regions of Canada, Quebecers will reach agreements with native peoples in Quebec, because we share a territory. Quebecers have lived there for over 350 years. Personally, my ancestors came to Canada in 1636. I do not come from France or anywhere else. I come from Quebec. I cannot imagine that I could live anywhere else or that I could not live on this land, which is mine.
I consider Quebec as my homeland, but I know perfectly well that some people in Quebec consider parts of that territory to be their own. Since we are together and we must live together, we must negotiate and come to an agreement.
I have every confidence that, throughout Canada we will reach agreements similar to the one that came about in Yukon. We will do the same thing in Quebec and we will finally find common ground. But in order to do so, we must express clear objectives and the agreements must be examined closely, and everything must be explained thoroughly. That is why we will study the bill carefully in committee. Many questions come to my mind and I certainly do not want to debate in this House topics that will be discussed in committee. We will want to clarify a few points; for example, we will want to know why one clause specifies that, if board members were in a major conflict of interest situation, they could not vote on a given issue. I feel that when you are in a conflict of interest, you should not rule on any matter whatsoever.
The Bloc Quebecois still supports the substance of this bill, because it will create an organization which will resolve or alleviate problems in the implementation of agreements that were reached on self-government and land claims. I think that it is important to create an organization which will be able to operate in the best interest of everyone.
That is what we will be examining in committee. We will ask some questions. From what I can see, first of all, we will possibly move some amendments so that the board can function in the best way possible. We do not want to use opposition to the bill, or to some of its clauses, as an excuse to indirectly cause the failure of the agreements that were reached in the Yukon. These agreements must be implemented. That is absolutely necessary. We do not have the right to disappoint some people, the Indian nations, to disappoint the people of Yukon who were expecting these agreements.
Let us keep in mind what happened on the Nelson and Churchill Rivers in Manitoba. I think that situations such as the ones that happened there should not occur elsewhere. That is why there must be some organizations that are able to rule on the implementation of agreements. And the bill before us is aimed at defining an organization such as these.
Rest assured that the Bloc Quebecois will do everything that is possible and imaginable to make that organization as functional as possible, as efficient as possible, so that the agreements that were reached in good faith between the government of Canada, the government of Yukon and the nations of Yukon are implemented to the benefit of the people of Yukon, of the nations of Yukon, of the people of Canada and of the people of Quebec.