Mr. Speaker, it gives me great honour to participate in this debate and also to recognize a process which should have been resolved many, many years ago. It has taken a long time to get the recognition we deserve as First Nations in this country we call Canada, which happens to be an Indian word. I do not know if Reform members know what that means. Certainly they need to understand the real history of the country which today we call Canada. If it was not for the kindness and the generosity of the First Nations and its people this rich country would not benefit anybody.
I know we are talking about the land claims settlement agreement and also self-government but often times we combine the two because that is our philosophy, our way of thinking. We cannot isolate the land from day-to-day life. Our existence depends on the land and it is very important that people understand that.
If I go back to the time of the first European contact the governments that came to this country were met by First Nations on the shores of the St. Lawrence River or on the west coast of British Columbia or on Hudson Bay and Winnipeg. The First Nations met these people and that relationship has never been concluded, has never been finalized. Certainly across the country there have been many agreements and treaties made with First Nations and that process has extended to areas where treaties have not been made such as the Northwest Territories and Yukon.
I always say that the first order of business has never been concluded with the first people, the first inhabitants, the First Nations.
The treaty making process is about establishing relationships. When the crown or the Queen's representatives came to this land they made treaties with the First Nations. What does it mean when you make treaties or agreements with the First Nations? It means that we entered into agreements. We established a relationship and these treaties and the modern day agreements are those agreements.
Treaties that were signed many years ago and today are about establishing relationships, how we are going to live with each other. Certainly the treaties that we signed in western Canada hundreds of years ago are still an ongoing process. They have not come to an end. Governments still have outstanding promises, treaty promises. We still have outstanding treaty land entitlements. We still want to resolve some of the issues like education that were promised to the Indian people.
Those things are ongoing. The treaties were signed years ago but it is an ongoing process because it is about establishing a relationship.
As I have said many times, we have never surrendered or extinguished the right to govern ourselves. As a matter of fact when the treaties were entered into, the Queen's representative, the crown, never questioned the authority and the jurisdictions of the First Nations. They respected it.
That is the fundamental relationship that the First Nations have with the Government of Canada, the treaty relationship. No other group of Canadian people have that relationship. It is a special relationship that we hold sacred and we bind the government to honour those commitments. Our elders tell us those are sacred agreements.
It is not something that was given to us. Our way of thinking, our philosophy, is to share what we have. Certainly in terms of land, our philosophy is that we cannot own it but rather we could only share it with the newcomers to this country.
There was conflict over the different value systems that the Europeans, when they came to this land, wanted to impose. They had a different value system such as land tenure which was quite foreign to us. Somehow they conferred that title on to us and
later negotiated it back so that they somehow would justify their occupation of this country.
If one looks at the Indian philosophy, our way of thinking, governments did not need to do that because our way of thinking is to share what we have, including the land and resources that we signed in our treaties, including in the Northwest Territories and today in the Yukon settlement.
We have been very patient, very generous, very kind and we have never rejected anyone who came to this country. As a matter of fact, we extended our hand to the rest of the world for the kind of country this can be, this great country that we call Canada today.
Sometimes I cannot fathom the thinking of the Reform Party in which it questions the land that is being claimed and settled with the aboriginal people. Our people never questioned their generosity to the rest of the people. We never questioned that because that is our way to extend a hand, to share what we have. That is our greatest strength as First Nations people.
What is happening today, what we are trying to retain are parts of the country, parts of our territory, so that we can continue to live traditionally and with the rest of society. If one looks at the relationship from day one and if one looks at the European people who came into this country, they were out to look for treasures, to conquer the world, to seek the riches of the world.
They came to this land and found the First Nations people who were very kind and generous here. They never knew the concept of land tenure, to own the land. The concept is as foreign as owning the air. That is how foreign that concept was to our elders at the time when we signed the treaties.
Treaties are about establishing relationships so that we would live with each other, so that we would live side by side with each other, so that we would honour each other, so that we would respect each other and not to dominate each other such as the case has been over the past hundreds of years.
Many of the people who were signing treaties went back and started implementing a policy of the government which totally dominates us today as First Nations people. They passed an Indian Act which has been in place for a hundred years. It affects us on a daily basis as to whom we are today. It defines us as Indians. It even contributes to the conflict and chaos in our communities.
With the new Bill C-31 we have many categories of Indian people. We have status people. We have non-status people. We have treaty Indians. We have Bill C-31 Indians. We have band Indians. Governments have tried to define us, but we have always said that we are First Nations. The definition of membership should belong to the First Nations government. It should define who are its members.
People often wonder why we are not improving our lives in the communities or the conditions we live in. We still have poor housing conditions. We have no running water. We have no electricity. Infrastructure is terrible. If we look at the statistics in terms of illnesses and hospital use by First Nations people, they are high. The suicide rate would be four times as high, four times the national average. Our children drop out of high school at an early age. Oftentimes they are symptoms of the social conditions we live in, symptoms of the lack of control in our communities.
We are not asking the government to give us something. We are asking the government to share what we have, to respect our governments, to respect our ability to control our lives and to respect that we are able to determine our own future. This is not about living in a different world because Canada belongs to everybody. To the aboriginal people it is not about separating. There is no threat of separation in the country.