Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my party I am pleased to have the opportunity to address this act to implement the framework agreement on first nations land management.
This bill is a long overdue step forward in the process of returning to first nations control of the land that is rightfully theirs. It is also a major advancement to the eventual goal of first nations self-government.
The New Democratic Party has long supported first nations inherent right to self-government. We have supported the First Nations through this century while successive Liberal and Conservative governments have pursued shameful and reprehensible policies of assimilation.
The official policy of assimilation may be a thing of the past but it cannot be denied that aboriginal people are still an oppressed minority.
If we look at any social indicator, whether it be income, life span, disease rates or suicide rates, aboriginal people make up the bottom rung in virtually every category. These social problems are wounds that still have not been healed.
It is a testament to the strength of the first nations cultures that they have survived and persevered through all these generations of oppression.
I support this bill because it is a ground breaking step in giving first nations the rights they deserve and have so long been denied. Turning control of their lands over to first nations governments will go to a long way toward restoring self-sufficiency.
I would particularly like to extend my thanks and congratulations to the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, signatories to this framework agreement, and to Chief William Lathlin as well as former chief and now Grand Chief of MKO Francis Flett.
Both these first nations leaders have been tireless in their efforts to improve the lives of their people both in the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and the whole of the MKO region of northern Manitoba. Their leadership in bringing the Opaskwayak Cree Nation into this agreement was important to its progression to this stage.
I am sure members of this House will join me in congratulating Chief Lathlin as well as Grand Chief Flett and in wishing Grand Chief Flett all the best in his recovery from recent heart surgery.
The contributions of Chief Lathlin and Grand Chief Flett are particularly noteworthy in light of the efforts of the Reform Party and others with a right wing imperialistic agenda who have been trying to undermine the legitimacy of first nations government.
Like wolves in sheep's clothing, Reform cloaks its anti-first nations rhetoric in populist language. But Reform's true intention toward the first nations is clear. Reform's real intention is the assimilation of the first nations. That is why Reform constantly tries to undermine first nations governments.
The Reform Party and their right wing allies try to take extreme examples and try to paint all first nations governments with the same brush.
Chief Lathlin and Grand Chief Flett are two of the many excellent first nations leaders who proved the Reform Party's generalizations about first nations governments to be dead wrong.
This bill is a rare moment of fairness to the first nations by a government that has otherwise chosen to ignore them. I want to make it clear that I support the bill for the contributions it makes toward the eventual goal of self-government.
However, there is an important outstanding issue that the bill before us today does not address. The Dene people of northern Manitoba have a longstanding concern regarding their land entitlements in Nunavut. Long before Europeans set foot on this continent, the Dene hunted caribou on lands that will soon become part of Nunavut.
As members know, caribou herds migrate vast distances throughout the year. Traditionally the Dene were a nomadic people and followed the caribou herds.
One of the Canadian government's most abhorrent crimes against any first nation was when it forced the Dene into reserves back in the 1950s.
Forcing a nomadic people into a settled, sedentary way of living is social engineering of the worst kind and represented one of the lowest points of Canada's shameful policy of assimilation toward first nations.
The social problems caused were staggering and, as I have said in this House before, still require compensation from the federal government.
Besides these tragic social consequences, another outcome was that the Dene people were divided. Two bands, the Sayisi Dene First Nation and the Northlands First Nation ended up in Manitoba south of the 60th parallel.
I should not have to remind the House that caribou do not recognize provincial and territorial borders. Even though these two Dene bands reside in Manitoba, their traditional hunting ground extends north to the 60th parallel into the territory soon to be known as Nunavut.
This bill establishes a framework to transfer land management power to bands but what needs to be clarified and guaranteed is the Dene people's right to apply this framework in their traditional lands north of 60 as well as south. I am looking forward to addressing this shortcoming when the bill goes to committee.
The government should not take my accolade and support for this bill to mean that I think its duty toward first nations people will be met with this one piece of legislation. This is far from the case.
The social problems facing many first nations continue to exceed anything experienced in the rest of Canada and each problem requires the government's immediate attention. Housing conditions are third world standard in many communities, with no running water and inadequate sanitation. Disease levels are significantly higher than in the rest of Canada, with HIV, diabetes and kidney disease particularly serious problems. There is also a chronic shortage of qualified health care professionals.
Unemployment levels in many first nation communities are astronomical, exceeding 90% in some areas. These issues need to be properly addressed.
A report was recently released by MKO, the Manitoba ministry of family services and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada that looked into food and nutritional problems in isolated first nations communities. This report paints a distressing picture. It states that the high cost of perishable food and the inadequacy of social assistance food allowance to cover the cost means that the availability of fresh nutritious food in remote communities is very poor.
The impact on health in these first nations is massive. The report states that to cover the cost of nutritious food for a family of four will require a 35% increase in monthly social assistance food allowance. Adequate nutrition is a basic necessity that the government must ensure is provided for every first nation person. There is no reason why the conditions in first nations communities I have listed should exist in Canada. They are of third world standard and are totally unacceptable in a country of the relative wealth of Canada.
I recently sent a letter to the minister of Indian affairs requesting her to implement the recommendations of the MKO report. Today I have not received a response and I cannot help but question, despite the advances in this bill, whether the Liberal government has any serious intention of meeting its responsibilities to the first nations.
I take this opportunity to respond to some of the comments I heard from previous speakers, certainly from the member of the Reform Party.
With his comments about everyone in Canada being one people, I cannot help but wonder how veterans felt when they came back from the war and had to give up their treaty rights and their right to be part of their own first nations. The speeches by the governing authority given in residential schools in Regina commented on the fact that when these men came back from war they would want to be treated as equals and we just could not do that. No wonder we have the feelings we have in first nations today.
The concerns raised by the native women's group are valid and should be addressed to their satisfaction. I also believe that had there not been interference by previous governments in Canada in the past the equality they are fighting for would have happened already.
Reform's comments that the majority of aboriginal people do not want this process are just not valid.
Opposition parties have questioned this government on its patronage appointments, its wasted dollars, its misplaced priorities and even the credibility and integrity of its solicitor general. Would I suggest we throw away the right of Canadians to democracy and to elect their own representatives? Never. I will put my faith in Canadians to see this government for what it is, a government shirking its responsibilities to Canada and Canadians.
I trust the members of first nations are taking an active part in electing their leaders. Turning land management powers over to first nations is an important step toward self-government. I offer my support for this bill, but let us be clear that this is no substitute for tangible action to alleviate the horrific social conditions to which many first nations people are subject. There are still many wounds to be healed.