Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-55, the last in a series of three bills aimed at implementing the provisions of agreements in respect of certain lands in Yukon, negotiated by Yukon, Canada and Yukon first nations.
To give an indication of the importance of adopting this kind of bill, I would like to start by putting it into the context of the broader issue of aboriginal land claims, not only in Quebec and Canada but throughout the world. We all know that the rights of aboriginal peoples have become an issue in many countries: in North America, South America and Asia, where since the 15th or the 16th century, Europeans came to settle lands that were occupied by aboriginal peoples.
The Europeans became established either through conquest, colonization or various other ways, and as their numbers increased over the centuries, aboriginal populations were pushed into a minority position. In the past 20, 25 or 30 years, aboriginal peoples have become aware of the importance of surviving as a people and maintaining their identity. They drew up land claims so that, in certain regions, areas or countries, they could continue, as much as possible, to live according to the traditional ways of their ancestors, or otherwise obtain the requisite political and economical leverage to be able to perpetuate their identity as a people on a viable basis.
The bill before the House this morning is part of this vast endeavour to satisfy the land claims of the aboriginal peoples, while bearing in mind the hard cold fact that other people now live in these territories as well, and in some cases, have done so for many centuries, and also have the right to live there.
Canada and Quebec have initiated negotiations with various first nations on their territorial claims. In Canada, a number of agreements have already been concluded, such as James Bay in 1975, the agreement on Nunavut in the MacKenzie River Delta, and now Yukon.
As a member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, I have, of course, been involved in the proceedings of this committee, and since I also have a personal interest, I read up on the situation in Yukon and what had happened so far, and I realized that it was imperative and absolutely essential to ratify these agreements as soon as possible.
As you know Yukon is in Canada's north. It was originally part of the territory that was given to the Hudson's Bay Company by the Crown and that included all of northern Canada and northern Quebec. This immense tract of land became the property of a private company. The Hudson's Bay Company took
advantage of the territory's resources, especially through its involvement in the fur trade.
Aboriginal people in Yukon came into contact with the white man in the person of the employees of the Hudson's Bay Company. They were also exposed to influences from the south, in a perhaps more brutal manner, during the famous gold rush in the Klondike at the end of the 19th century. At the time, many people came from the south to look for gold in Yukon, disrupting the traditional ways of the aboriginal peoples in this region. There was also the construction of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s by the United States, to connect the U.S. territory with the territory of Alaska.
The result was that Yukon was brutally invaded by people from the south. We are not here to pass judgment. It happened long ago, people behaved the way they were used to, and I do not think it would serve any purpose to dwell on the past. However, we have to realize that injustices were created and that new arrangements must be put in place if the people who live there are to develop in harmony, and if their economic, social and political needs are to be fulfilled.
I think that we have to watch our language carefully. When we look at what happened in Quebec over the last 20 years and what is happening now, we realize that governments and people are demanding that we settle the outstanding issues. Except it is extremely fragile. Negotiations are often difficult because the issues are complex. There are important constitutional and economic questions involved. There is also a basic political dimension.
When we talk about self-determination, self-government or sovereignty, we deal with emotionally-packed concepts and all sorts of reactions from the people. We just have to recall the reactions to the recent declarations of a Quebec native leader in New York, where the word "racist" was bandied about. I think that it is rather inappropriate to use such a word in that particular context. We are in a negotiating context, where you must keep your cool to be able to come up with something which will be fair to all involved.
When issues like racism are raised, a notion so emotionally charged because of the long racist history of mankind-just think of what happened to the Jews and the Gypsies during the Second World War-we are often taken aback, stunned and disappointed to see it surface in the papers, in the minds and in conversations, and being applied to situations occurring in Canada.
We cannot say that the situation in Canada is one of racism. I believe that no one among native people and non-natives is going to form a particular opinion about a specific group because one member of this group is of a different ethnic origin or race.
One must be very careful in Canada when using the word racism. One may talk about ethnocentricity, prejudices or many other similar things-there is no shortage of terms-but I believe that accusations of racism must be avoided because it could trigger a chain reaction with far-reaching consequences, especially with respect to negotiations which have been going on for years and could fail because the negotiating parties might see in each other all kind of sinister intentions.
I wanted to get this off my chest before dealing more specifically with Bill C-55.
This piece of legislation seeks to set up a board to settle disputes that might arise between parties to the agreements reached in Yukon. As we know, last June this House passed Bill C-33 and Bill C-34, which were enacted in July. These acts give effect to land claim agreements concerning Yukon and deal with certain matters relating to self-government for native people in Yukon Territory.
Negotiations prior to these agreements had been going on for over twenty years. There were many difficulties. The negotiation framework was hard to develop. People took a very strong stand at first, one party wanting everything while the other was reluctant to yield anything, vetoing the claims, so to speak.
Little by little, over the years, people learned to know one another, setting up the framework for the negotiations. These negotiations finally ended in the early 1990s. The agreement before us this morning is simply to ensure that there are arbitrators are appointed when disputes arise between the parties to the agreement in the Yukon.
Before getting further into the consideration of Bill C-55, I would like to take a second to remind the hon. members that both bills we have passed recognized that Yukon aboriginal peoples did have rights over certain lands, that is to say surface and subsurface rights over some lands and surface rights on others, lands that can form the basis for a certain economic life so that these peoples will no longer be dependent upon federal government subsidies.
Like me, Mr. Speaker, you have no doubt read the Auditor General's report and noted the rather explicit criticism of the social assistance provided to the aboriginal peoples of Canada. It is reported that approximately 40 to 45 per cent of natives in Canada depend on social assistance. On certain reserves, it is up to 80 or 85 per cent of the population. That is a huge percentage! There is an enormous problem there. The Auditor General tells us that it costs $1 billion, because that is how much is paid out to the people, the people who are running the reserves, and that insufficient control is exercised over the use made of these funds.
I agree with the Auditor General that tighter control is required. But what the Auditor General is telling us in his report is that control over this $1 billion may not be perfect. At the same time, he says that $1 billion is paid out to aboriginal peoples because they are really having a rough time on the social, economic, health and education front.
In such circumstances, I do not think that the thing to do would be to say: "We need a billion dollars. We will take this billion and use it for something else in the budget and let these people manage on their own". We must think instead in terms of creating conditions where they will no longer need social assistance.
I think that the kind of agreement we have reached respecting the Yukon, and those respecting other parts of Canada such as the Mackenzie Delta, the Nunavut, the James Bay area in Quebec-and there are more coming-all these agreements will enable the aboriginal peoples concerned to lay the economic foundations required to no longer depend on government assistance for their social and economic development.
I think that this is essential and that is why agreements such as this one must be encouraged and legislation to implement such agreements be passed as quickly as possible.
As my colleague from the Reform Party said earlier, certainly it is quick. At the Indian affairs committee, we considered both Bill C-33 and Bill C-34 in June. These were complex bills. There are often concepts involved that are very difficult to grasp. While the committee may not have been pressured, it certainly had to make haste.
This committee even sat all night on one occasion. This unusual experience shows that important decisions were made. I think that sitting all night on this committee will be a highlight of my life as a parliamentarian. Representatives of Yukon first nations came and spent the night with the committee to show us how crucial this bill is to them.
It is sometimes ill-advised to move too fast; however, when dealing with important issues, it is often pointless and even harmful to drag things out. That is why we must act now so that the representatives who negotiated in good faith in the hope of improving the lives of their people will not be disappointed. In such cases, when an agreement is reached after 20 years, we cannot afford to disappoint people by unduly delaying its adoption. Especially when we know how hard it is for a standing committee and even for the House of Commons to challenge agreements negotiated with the help of many experts and lawyers over a number of years.
I think that we must put some trust in those who negotiated the agreements and those who reviewed them, like the Bloc members on the standing committee who, after examining the entire bill, did not find anything that would justify unduly delaying its passage.
Of course, we can improve any bill by proposing amendments to it. With respect to Bill C-55, I might have had some concerns, like my colleague from the Reform Party, about how committee members are chosen. It might have been better to ensure as much as possible that committee members are not appointed because of partisan considerations-if that can be done within the party system prevailing in Canada.
Canadians increasingly feel that the people appointed to government positions should be chosen for their personal ability and not because they belong to a party. I think that people in Yukon will be especially sensitive to the quality of those appointed to this board.
I am pleased to support this bill. I hope that the people of the Yukon will implement it as soon as possible so that they can ensure their own development and that we as Quebecers and Canadians can establish the best possible relationship with them in the future.