Mr. Speaker, as an associate member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs for the Bloc Quebecois, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-49 and to share my comments.
The aim of this bill is to ratify and implement a framework agreement signed on February 12, 1996 by a group of first nations and the federal government. This agreement concerns the management of first nations' lands and is intended to enable them to establish their own land code to manage the lands and resources.
This agreement is necessary to permit the first nations that are party to the agreement to withdraw from the application of the sections of the Indian Act governing the management of lands.
First nations and governments all agree that the Indian Act gives the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development discretionary power. It also gives public servants too much leeway, thus preventing aboriginals from exercising direct control over the management of the lands within their reserves. It is in order to rectify this situation that a bill to ratify the framework agreement was introduced.
We tried to introduce legislation addressing this issue in the previous Parliament. Bill C-75, as it was then called, was passed at second reading, but the process came to an abrupt end when Parliament was dissolved. Last year, my party pushed to have this bill put back on the agenda. It was introduced in its new form as Bill C-49. I am pleased that we are prepared to go ahead with second reading today.
It is vital that the signatories to the agreement be given the tools they need for their cultural and economic development. This bill recognizes the fundamental right of 14 first nations to manage their lands and their resources and constitutes another important element in their self-government.
The first nations are also glad to have the opportunity to exercise greater control over the lands and resources within their respective reserves and say that these changes will enable them to react more rapidly to opportunities for stimulating their economy. Control of the decision-making process will therefore enable them to improve management of reserves. In other words, we feel that Bill C-49 is essential and very consistent with the recommendations for self-government made by the royal commission on aboriginal peoples and self-government.
Furthermore, several native leaders have supported the bill and indicated that they are in favour of its speedy passage through the House. Being of the same opinion and wanting to see first nations exempted from the sections of the Indian Act concerning land management, the Bloc Quebecois and myself therefore support Bill C-49 in principle.
Second reading of this bill nonetheless provides me with an opportunity to address certain aspects that we feel pose problems. We are worried about one aspect in particular, and it concerns protection of aboriginal women.
Naturally we support the principle of giving back to first nations control over the management of lands that until now have been under federal jurisdiction and governed by sections of the Indian Act. It is essential that first nations be able to manage the lands and natural resources within their reserves themselves. The requirement for a community process to establish land codes is also an important and promising one.
The bill provides that rules on use, possession and occupation of lands will be arrived at through a community consultation process. In theory, all the members of a first nation living on or off reserve will be able to take part in the decision-making process through this community mechanism. However, certain groups of aboriginal women are opposed to Bill C-49, saying that it would be disastrous for them. Their fears have to do with the bill's wording with respect to the division of interests in cases of breakdown of marriage.
They say that the clauses on this issue do not protect them at all, that the framework agreement contains no provision on the division of property in the case of separation, apart from the community consultation process mentioned in clauses 6 and 17.
The British Columbia Native Women's Society is lobbying vigorously to show the weaknesses of the bill in the area of the division of marriage property. They criticize the government for not having done its homework in this matter, despite the gross injustices criticized more than 12 years ago.
They add that no effort has been made to resolve the problem even after the establishment of the charter of rights and freedoms to ensure equality for all. This is why last year they asked the federal court to issue an injunction against this framework agreement on land management.
Even though the bill comes from their own department, the minister of indian affairs and her officials also seem to think there may be an injustice. In June, the minister appointed an investigator to examine the impact of marriage breakdown on property rights. An independent inquiry is therefore set to study the matter.
In other words, the government recognizes the existence of a legal void in the matter and the negative consequences it may have on the protection of women.
However, the government says it has changed the former C-75 so that the new C-49 requires a community process to manage the division following the breakdown of a marriage, which, in their view, resolves the problem. According to clause 6, a community process is one of the requirements associated with the adoption of the land code, which is to be defined collectively by each of the 14 first nations.
However, a closer examination of the matter reveals that, despite this clause, native women have no protection whatsoever.