Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-49, an act providing for the ratification and the bringing into effect of the framework agreement on first nations land management.
This piece of legislation has been almost 10 years in the making beginning in 1989 as the lands revenue and trust review. That agreement encompassed a number of areas, land management being one of them. While that agreement fell through, a number of first nations persevered with negotiations for land management.
The bill was formerly introduced as Bill C-75 on December 10, 1996, but died on the order paper. Bill C-49, while similar to the original bill, has some important amendments to address the concerns of native women. I will discuss them in greater detail later.
I congratulate the 14 first nations that are signatories to the framework agreement. They are Westbank, Musqueam, Lheidli T'enneh, N'Quatqua and Squamish, all from British Columbia; Siksika in Alberta; Muskoday and Cowessess in Saskatchewan; the Opaskwayak Cree from Manitoba; the Nipissing and the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, the Chippewas of Mnjikaning and the Chippewas from Georgina Island, all from Ontario; and the Saint Mary's in New Brunswick. These first nations have worked hard to have this legislation reach this stage of the process and are anxious to see it become law.
Bill C-49 allows the 13 first nations who signed the framework on February 12, 1996 and the Saint Mary's from New Brunswick who joined in May 1998 to assume control of land management and move out from under the provisions of the Indian Act. This does not affect other first nations that are not signatories to the agreement. Nor does it diminish the authority of the Indian Act for areas other than land management.
The legislation is an incremental step toward self-government and should be a positive move for the affected bands as they have greater influence over economic development on their reserves. The framework agreement will allow the first nations the opportunity to manage their land and resources through the establishment of land codes.
The framework agreement may become a model for other such agreements on land management once the legislation passes and the first nations are given the opportunity to implement it. Thirty or forty first nations have already expressed an interest in the framework agreement. I expect many more to do so as they are able to see the benefits of the legislation.
We are all aware of the faults of the Indian Act. As I mentioned, the legislation will allow first nations to move out from under the restrictions of the Indian Act and provide opportunities for first nations to manage their own land and resources. This will be done through land codes that they will develop to meet their own requirements.
The first step for each of the first nations will be to develop that land code. It will outline the rules necessary for land management, covering such things as what land is affected by the land code, rules for use and occupation of the land, revenue collection, amendments and a dispute resolution process among other things.
Not only does this transfer authority from the federal government to the first nations, but through the land code it also encourages stronger community participation. Land codes must be ratified by the communities and voted on by first nation people living both on and off reserve. This is an onerous job but one that the first nations felt was very important and warranted the extra work.
It is worth mentioning that the land codes must be ratified by the community but not by the federal government. Following ratification each reserve must enter into an individual transfer agreement with Canada. The transfer agreement will include the development and operational funding to be paid by Canada to the first nation and the details on the transfer of administration. The community must ratify both the land code and the transfer agreement. First nations will manage their land and resources under Bill C-49 including the associated revenues, except for oil and gas revenues which remain a federal responsibility.
Only 14 first nations have signed the agreement, a very small percentage of the 633 first nations in Canada. One of the reasons for this small number relates to land management under the Indian Act. While it is possible under the Indian Act to request delegated authority from the federal government to manage lands, only 9 of the 633 first nations have done so. Dissatisfaction with the limitations of the delegated authority was the impetus behind the framework agreement and the legislation we are discussing today.
Another reason for the relatively small number of signatories to the agreement is concern by a number of first nations that these agreements would be similar to the proposed amendments to the Indian Act that have met with resistance. This agreement however is reserve specific, affecting only the bands listed in the agreement. Furthermore the agreement is not a treaty and does not affect treaty or constitutional rights of aboriginal people. The reserves remain a federal responsibility under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, and the lands continue to be protected from surrender of sale.
At the same time these 14 first nations will have the opportunity to manage their own land and the legal status to govern their own land and resources. The only difference from other land owners will be the inability to sell that property.
As I mentioned earlier, the legislation is long overdue and eagerly awaited by the first nations that are anxious to begin implementation. There are however some concerns regarding the legislation as outlined by the British Columbia Native Women's Society.
Although I have had some difficulty contacting the British Columbia Native Women's Society, it is my understanding of its position that it feels the legislation transfers responsibility for equality on reserve, particularly for native women upon the breakdown of marriage, from the federal government to first nations. It sees this as an abdication of federal power that demonstrates the government's lack of commitment to equality.
In addition, there is no minimum standard provided in the legislation for the division of property such as exists in provincial law upon the breakdown of marriage, which increases the possibility that inequality will not be dealt with in an acceptable manner perhaps by the first nations involved.
These are legitimate concerns that stem from the flaws of the Indian Act that established and perpetuated an inferior position for women in the legislation. The first nations that are signatories to this agreement listened to the concerns of the British Columbia Native Women's Society and drafted amendments to the framework agreement to address its reservations.
The amendments require the first nations to establish community process in their land codes regulating use, occupancy and possession of reserve land should a marriage breakdown occur. At the same time it places the onus on the first nations and their respective members to adequately provide regulations for division of matrimonial property. This ensures that the process meets the requirements of the first nations members and avoids the age old problem of having the federal government dictate to the first nations.
While I feel it would have been useful and informative to have met with the British Columbia Native Women's Society to discuss its concerns, my request for meetings were not answered. I look forward to hearing the society outline its position as we discuss the legislation in detail at committee.
While there are concerns with the piece of legislation, the objective or the impetus of Bill C-49 to allow first nations to move closer to economic independence is long overdue. As the Nisga'a treaty in British Columbia demonstrates, first nations want the opportunity to govern their lands and people and are prepared to accept the challenges of doing so.
The positive effects of such legislation will be evident as more first nations take steps toward self-reliance and independence.
The chiefs of the first nations with whom I have spoken have all expressed their support for this legislation and the opportunities it offers them and their respective first nations. As I have mentioned they are prepared to begin implementation of this bill once it completes the legislative process. Currently three first nations have land codes prepared and five more are in development.
I look forward to examining this legislation in committee. I welcome the opportunity to hear my colleagues' comments on this legislation, Bill C-49.
In summing up I would like to add a few points. The hon. member from the Bloc mentioned a concept which many of us take for granted, that of fee simple land ownership. I would dare to say that there are many people who sit within the halls of this parliament itself who do not understand the Indian Act. Certainly I am not pretending in any way, shape or form to be an expert on the Indian Act but I have read it and it is a terrible piece of legislation.
The whole concept of fee simple ownership that we take for granted is that one can actually own a piece of property. For instance the first nations reserves in Nova Scotia may have a piece of woodland of a couple of hundred acres that they may want to cut timber on but they do not have the ability to that. First they have to apply, they have to go on bended knee to the federal government to get permission to carry on work on property that they own but which is somehow being held in trust for them by the federal government.
This bill is about the whole concept of land ownership. It is about not having to apply to someone else if they want to have a gravel pit on their property, if they want to build a road to access timber resources, if they want to utilize those timber resources for the economic benefit of the reserve, if they want to look at the mining potential for the property. These are all things that private ownership takes for granted. It does not even think about because it is a foreign concept to think about it any other way, but first nations do not have that ability.
There are some problems with the bill and issues it does not address. However, it does address a very important point for economic renewal, the ability for first nations to have economic activity and bring themselves out from under the Indian Act and actually have some activity in Canada and take their place as equal citizens on the property which the rest of us take for granted.