Mr. Speaker, as a member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development for the Bloc Quebecois, I am pleased to rise today and speak to Bill C-57, an act to amend the Nunavut Act with respect to the Nunavut Court of Justice and to amend other Acts in consequence.
The purpose of this bill is to amend the Criminal Code so that it reflects the realities of the new territory of Nunavut and to make it possible to establish an operational government before April 1, 1999, the territory's official launch date.
Bill C-57 is part of the process that began in 1992 with the territorial land agreement setting out the legal and political framework of the new territory of Nunavut. Approved in June 1993, the creation of Nunavut is a result of passage of Bill C-39, which we debated in the House last year and which provides for the holding of a legislative election, while facilitating the transition and legitimizing the process.
The bill before us this afternoon is part of this ongoing process. It is the last building block, as it were, in the political and legal structure that will allow the inhabitants of this territory to at last be ready for April 1999 and the challenges then to follow.
I can only express my satisfaction that legislation is being introduced in order to give the inhabitants of Nunavut all the political, and more particularly in the case before us today, all the legislative instruments they will need.
This will enable them to have a court that meets their needs and that is closer to them. We know that the establishment of institutions of law is vital to government autonomy. Bill C-57 will permit this to happen.
Everything indicates that the creation of Nunavut set for April 1, 1999 is well on its way. I recall that Bill C-39 on Nunavut and the Constitution Act of 1867 passed at third reading in June, changes the map of Canada's north with the creation of this immense territory.
Since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, Canada's borders have not been changed. This indicates clearly just what a historic moment the creation of Nunavut represents and also explains the importance of its creation to the people living there.
The Northwest Territories will therefore, with the creation of this territory, be divided into two separate entities. Nunavut includes the lands in the centre and east of the Northwest Territories, above the 60th parallel. It therefore covers some 2 million square kilometres, one fifth of Canada's land mass.
This immense territory is divided into three regions and includes 28 communities. The most southeasterly point of Nunavut meets northern Labrador. Nunavut is also bordered by water. Its most northerly part touches the shores of the Arctic Ocean. On the east, Baffin Bay divides Nunavut. In the south, Nunavut joins the waters of Hudson's Bay and Ungava Bay.
Eighty per cent of the population of Nunavut is Inuit, that is, some 17,500 persons of the 22,000 total population. So the Inuit are in the majority. In fact, the word Nunavut means our land in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.
Before I go any further, I want to say that the Bloc Quebecois is in favour of the principle of Bill C-57, which takes thousands of aboriginal people one step closer to strong, viable self-government. To put this bill into perspective, let me outline a number of element of Bill C-39 passed last year.
Bill C-39 enables the Inuit in the Nunavut to administer 1,9 million kilometres of their land through a legislative assembly elected by universal suffrage. It amends the Nunavut Act passed by Parliament in 1993. It provides for a transition period and for the powers of the federal and territorial governments to be devolved to the Nunavut territorial government.
This legislation provides, by amending the Constitutional Act, 1867, that the people of this territory will be represented in the House of Commons and the Senate. The primary purpose of Bill C-39 was to allow elections to be held so that the Nunavut Legislative Assembly would be established before April 1, 1999, so that representatives of the Inuit of Nunavut could to serve their constituents in an operational legislature when their territory was officially created.
In addition, Bill C-39 amends the Constitutional Act, 1867, to ensure Nunavut is represented in the House of Commons and the Senate, as are the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. It also authorises the transfer of governmental services from the Northwest Territories and Ottawa to Nunavut during the transition period.
The transfer of services and programs in culture, health and public housing should be completed by the year 2009. As members can imagine, much work has to be done by April 1, 1999. That is why I am pleased to notice that Bill C-57 is the final element in the legal and administrative component of the establishment of the Inuit territory of Nunavut.
A brief reminder before getting into Bill C-57: the Bloc Quebecois did not oppose Bill C-39. In fact, we voted for this bill, which was the outcome of years of negotiations in which the organization representing the Inuit of Canada, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, took part. This organization has been involved in the negotiation process since the 1970s.
I would point out that it took two referendums—in 1982 and in 1992—to establish the boundaries of the territory and for all to agree on them. The Bloc Quebecois did not oppose legislation that gives substance to over 25 years of negotiation and that permits the Inuit, one of Canada's great peoples, to assume its rightful place on this continent and to take its destiny in hand. In becoming masters of their own house, the Inuit will have all the political, economic and legal tools they need to grow and govern themselves.
In June, my colleague, the Bloc Quebecois critic on native affairs said in this House “Thanks to Bill C-39, the Inuit will be in control and they will have all the necessary economic, political, social and cultural levers to look after their development and government on their own. This way, they will be able to act in their own best interest, for the good of their community, ensuring the harmonious development of their territory”. I support and share these remarks.
We did however raise a cautionary note in June, that of Nunavut representation in the Senate. The Bloc Quebecois has nothing against that fact that the Inuit want representation. However, in the preceding parliament, we in the Bloc took steps to abolish this outdated and ineffective institution known as the Senate. It is needlessly costly to Quebeckers and Canadians. It is archaic. The Senate functions thanks to political paybacks. Political appointments take away all the credibility and objectivity need in the processes of legislating and sanctioning legislation. This objectivity is vital. However, despite these reservations, we proposed no amendment, unlike the Reformers, who tried to get a Senate reform through an amendment to this bill.
I might mention another point we raised last year, which continues to concern me. It involves the coastal islands in James Bay, at the southern end of Hudson's Bay and north of Nunavik, Quebec. Since 1977, the James Bay Cree and the Nunavik Inuit have been wanting to negotiate with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada the recognition of their rights over the waters, the surrounding ice and resources.
Negotiations were broken off in 1977. It appears this was because of a dispute concerning compensation and the status of the regions. With the creation of Nunavut in the works, the Crees and Inuit of northern Quebec would like to resume their dialogue with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
The September 24 announcement by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs that a chief federal negotiator had been appointed to deal with the offshore claims of the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec is a good sign. Let us hope that negotiations will indeed resume and that, this time, they will lead to constructive decisions.
Representatives of the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec appeared before the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development last spring, during consideration of the Nunavut bill. They expressed their concerns regarding this bill, as it affected their own claims.
Although they say they support the creation of Nunavut, they would like the Indian Affairs minister to demonstrate a serious commitment to the resumption of negotiations designed to recognize their rights within the boundaries of the new territory.
I therefore hope that this appointment represents a clear undertaking by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and her officials to negotiate with the Crees of Quebec.
Let us now return more specifically to Bill C-57. In order to be ready by April 1999, Nunavut must have at its disposal all the necessary legislative instruments now. This is what Bill C-57 is all about.
The transfer of certain jurisdictions of territorial and federal governments to Nunavut is not a simple matter. This transfer is nonetheless vital and responds to the needs of the far north.
Indeed, Bill C-57 responds to a request made to the Minister of Justice by those who worked to ensure self-government, with the support of Inuit organizations in Nunavut. The bill establishes a single-level trial court system for the territory of Nunavut.
This tribunal, to be known as the Nunavut Court of Justice, is created to provide an efficient and accessible court structure capable of responding to the unique needs of Nunavut while, at the same time, maintaining rights equivalent to those enjoyed elsewhere in Canada.
So, we will have the Nunavut Court of Justice in the new Nunavut territory. This tribunal will replace the existing Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories as the superior court, and the territorial court as the lower court. Bill C-57 amends once again the Nunavut Act, which was passed in 1993, under the Progressive Conservative government.
The bill also amends the Judges Act to provide for three superior court judges on the Nunavut Court of Justice and also to provide for full membership in the Canadian Judicial Council for the senior judge of each of the territories.
Indeed, given the expanded jurisdiction of that tribunal, it is important to make sure that the judges will be competent to hear cases from the lower and superior courts, with the exception of those cases that come under the jurisdiction of specialized and administrative tribunals.
The bill also amends the Criminal Code to provide for new structures and procedures for the Nunavut Court of Justice in the following areas: jurisdiction of the judges; summary conviction appeals; a new statutory form of review; judicial interim release; and elections as to mode of trial.
Bill C-57 also amends the Young Offenders Act to ensure adequate structures and procedures for a single-level trial court, consistent with those in the Criminal Code and with various other federal statutes.
The creation of this court of justice will ensure a flexible and efficient legal process for the whole territory of Nunavut. By making the court competent to hear any case, whether it involves a minor wrongdoing or a serious criminal offence, we give the people of the territory access to a service that is more consistent with its reality.
From now on, when a judge travels to some small community in Nunavut, he will have broader powers. It must be understood that the multiplicity of jurisdictions, in other words a multi-faceted court system, useful in high density urban centres, is not necessarily useful in the proper administration of justice in a territory such as Nunavut.
This is why legislation must be passed on this issue and to permit the necessary changes to be made to the various laws that, up to now, have granted various jurisdictions authority to hear various cases. Bill C-57 provides the changes needed for the establishment and operation of this court of justice.
The structure of the court reflects the peculiarities of the eastern Arctic. The judges of the Nunavut Court of Justice will therefore be able to hear all criminal, family and civil cases. In other words, this new court structure is simpler and better suits the needs of the people of the new territory.
In closing, I would like to add that we will, in the coming weeks, study in greater depth this bill, which appeared suddenly on the legislative menu. A meeting with the officials of the Department of Justice would be most appreciated once we have started the process of examining the bill. It would enable us to better target the issues in this legislation and the many implications for existing legislation.
We would be further enlightened by meetings with the principle stakeholders. The law establishing Nunavut and subsequent legislation permitting good political, administrative and legal management of the territory, are the product of 25 years of effort and struggle by the Inuit to regain control over their land.
We can only praise these efforts, and like my colleague who is the Bloc Quebecois critic in this area, I wish them success in meeting the challenges that they will face.
In conclusion, I repeat that we support this bill and that we will continue to support the principle of action that, like Bill C-57, enables peoples to acquire what they need to enable their identity to grow to its fullest.