Mr. Speaker, I am proud to continue the debate on second reading of Bill C-49, the first nations land management act.
This bill gives us the opportunity to deliver on a vision that the government articulated in January when we responded to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. This is a bill that puts into action the vision outlined in “Gathering Strength: Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan”. We said that gathering strength was about addressing the needs of communities. We said it was about building a real partnership with aboriginal people. We said it was about working closely together with aboriginal peoples to define that relationship and shape a common vision of that relationship between us.
The bill before us delivers on that vision. It seeks to ratify the framework agreement of first nations land management signed by the first nations who have been working patiently, persistently and with tremendous commitment over the past seven years to establish this new land management regime.
The framework agreement was negotiated government to government by the department and these first nations. Provincial governments directly impacted by the framework agreement were consulted closely throughout the process. The agreement will end the control imposed by the Indian Act on how these first nations manage their lands. It is about putting the daily management of their own affairs into their own hands. In other words, it is about empowerment.
The Indian Act is a complex piece of legislation and first nations feel very strongly about it. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recognizes that complexity in its own report. The Indian Act is paternalistic. At the same time, it confers recognition that first nations have, contrary to what the hon. member was suggesting here earlier, a unique legal position in Canada which includes a special relationship with the federal government.
There are always ways to get away from some of the more intrusive provisions of the Indian Act without changing that special relationship and that is part of the purpose of the bill before us. It ratifies a framework agreement on first nations land management in which 14 first nations move out from those sections of the Indian Act dealing with land management. The regime represented in this legislation would provide first nations with control over their land and indeed natural resources.
As outlined in this bill, first nations will develop a land code that will set the basic mechanisms for governance, laws that govern land, accountability and interest in lands and resources. Each first nation will enter into an individual agreement with Canada to determine a level of operational funding for land management and to set out the specifics of transition to the new regime. Once this bill is passed and once the land code is in effect and the agreement in place, the land management provisions of the Indian Act will no longer apply to these communities.
First nations authority will apply on first nations land. First nations will control the issues of leases, licences and other interests in their lands. They will also have the commensurate and compatible authority to enforce their laws by creating offences punishable on summary conviction and a range of remedies. They will be able to establish enforcement procedures including the appointment of justices of the peace to deal with offences against first nations land laws. First nations will retain and manage revenue money from the land transactions for which they will be accountable to their members.
The bill withdraws the expropriation provisions in section 35 of the Indian Act. It ensures there will be no loss of first nations lands through sale or expropriation.
In negotiating the framework agreement, first nations have provided for a series of democratic accountability that will ensure that communities will have a vote before the land codes are implemented.
For the first time the agreement will also provide for the implementation of environmental regulations on their land. These regulations will be harmonized with those in effect in the province in which the community is located.
For these first nations the framework agreement ends a system where officials in my department have considerable involvement and authority in day to day land management issues. It ends a system where ministerial approval must be sought even for routine transactions such as the issuance of licences and permits.
The Indian Act contains provisions regarding the purposes for which lands may be used. It controls the rights of individual first nations peoples in possession of reserve lands and the surrender and designation of reserve lands. It controls the management of reserves, surrendered and designated lands and other matters. It gives the minister wide ranging discretion regarding the use of reserve lands and resources. It gives the governor in council the right to grant a first nation powers to control and manage land in the reserve. However, at the same time it may withdraw that right at any time.
The land management provisions of the Indian Act have caused delays for first nations that want to proceed with economic development projects in their communities. Some have wanted, for example, to develop forest companies. We are told that even today possibly up to 50 memorandums of understanding exist between first nations and mining companies to exploit these opportunities in their communities.
Others have wanted to develop shopping centres but because of the red tape imposed by the Indian Act, first nations, the federal government and third parties, in other words business interests and private interests, have often been frustrated by these interminable delays. Transactions that off reserve might take a matter of weeks can go on for months when they involve first nations land.
As a result, many opportunities are lost and communities are denied the chance to realize their hopes for economic prosperity and freedom within the boundaries of their own communities.
There is no reason why the minister needs to be involved in these day to day operations and in the management of these reserve lands. Those decisions ought to be made at the local level.
The framework agreement in this legislation gives the community the option of taking control over the reserve lands and resources. These first nations want to get on with creating jobs and economic growth in their communities without having to turn to the minister or my department for approval.
This regime places first nations in the position of managing their lands and resources to strengthen and sustain their communities. This is what the framework agreement gives them the authority to do.
With respect to the Indian Act, I realize there is a legislative gap concerning matrimonial property issues. Therefore to address this very important matter, on June 9 the minister announced the establishment of an independent fact finding process to investigate the issue of matrimonial property as it relates to reserve lands. Letters of invitation have been sent to our partners to participate in the meeting where in partnership we could define the terms of reference and the time lines for the process. We look forward to making a further announcement on this initiative in the near future.
I remind the House that although the framework agreement applies to first nations that have signed it, other first nations are watching closely to see how effective the new regime will be in getting those communities out from under the paternalism of the Indian Act and creating positive opportunities in their communities.
The provisions in this agreement and the legislation before us could well become a model for other agreements in the near future.
As a result of the interest expressed by other first nations to participate in the new land management regime, a provision has been included to permit other first nations to be added to this bill through order in council.
However, before the regime is open to other first nations we will review the language of the bill.
As this House is aware, federal laws must apply equally in both common law and civil code in both official languages. None of the 14 first nations are in the province of Quebec and therefore the civil code does not apply to them.
My department has agreed that the formal review will be undertaken during the 12 months and the revision to the legislation resulting from this review will be included in the harmonization act which my colleague the Minister of Justice will introduce.
However, this will not take place until the provinces have been thoroughly and properly consulted and we have reviewed this regime within 12 months of its operation.
In the meantime, it is important that first nations get on with the job of developing and ratifying their land codes and individual agreements with the government. It is important that first nations get on with the job of building their economies on the strength of the new land management regime.
The benefits of this legislation will be far reaching. It will affect not only first nations communities but will also benefit the people, businesses and government that have sought to build a stronger relationship, a stronger partnership, with these first nation communities.
Most of all, this legislation will benefit the first nations themselves. It will give them greater autonomy and control over land and revenue monies. It will create new opportunities for economic development and strengthen the capacity and expertise in first nations communities across the country. It will help create a foundation of self-government and in this way it delivers on the commitments made in our aboriginal action plan “Gathering Strength”.
I want to say a few words in appreciation for the first nations leaders, some of them in Ottawa this week, who have negotiated the framework agreement and seen it through. They have my deepest respect and admiration for their tenacity and determination. The first nations leaders had a goal and they did not waver in pursuing it. The leaders led this process. This is a first nations initiative driven by leadership, vision and commitment to their own people.
I urge the House, particularly the Reform Party, to support this legislation which ratifies the framework agreement that makes the first nations vision a reality.