Mr. Speaker, I am please to speak to Bill C-49. People have explained what the legislation says. Reform MPs have expressed their concerns about it.
My debate on the legislation will focus on the aspect that the legislation will give more power to chiefs and councils without first ensuring an increased level of accountability. When I speak about improved accountability I am talking about the area of fiscal accountability. In other words, the people on the reserves should know where the money comes from, how it is being spent and get the chance to have some input into how it should be spent. I am also talking about democratic accountability, starting with having fair elections and having some way of ensuring that elections are fair.
For that reason alone I cannot support the legislation and I will not support it. In fact I will do everything I can to prevent the bill from passing, including supporting the amendment to postpone the bill for six months so we can debate it, improve it and make it something we can support. I support the amendment to the bill.
I want to talk about something that happened over the past year which led me to know that my party and I and the government should not support legislation like the legislation before us. About a year ago I started representing the new Lakeland constituency. About two-thirds of the Vegreville and Beaver River constituencies were put together into one constituency. I had no reserves in the Vegreville constituency but eight reserves become a part of my Beaver River constituency. As soon as that happened I started getting phone calls from aboriginal people both on and off reserve expressing their concerns. Some of the calls were very disturbing.
One of the first ones I remember was from a man who said he was a grandfather of several grandchildren. He lived in a two-bedroom house in which were living 27 members of his family. He said they could not live like that. It was so crowded that the house was falling apart. They could not go on like that. The chief and council on the reserve would do nothing to try to improve the house or to provide housing that better suited their needs.
In pursuing this matter I found that the chief, council and families in the inner group were living in wonderful houses. Many drove new cars. They seemed to have money. Then people started telling me exactly what was happening, that the money was not getting to the people on that reserve who needed it most.
After receiving literally dozens of these calls, after about a year I decided that as the member of parliament I would try to do something about it. I did not really know what to do. I started by going to the local native friendship centres and speaking with the people. I asked what we could do. They expressed the desperate need for something to be done. They said that things were getting worse. They had been getting worse over the last 30 years. They were in a crisis situation. The things I heard were not uncommon to us. We hear them all the time.
I got a group of about 20 aboriginal people together at a native friendship centre in one of our towns and asked them what we could do. We decided to set up a small task force that would not study for years but would listen to the concerns of the aboriginal people in my constituency.
We started with four aboriginal members and me on the task force. One member left shortly after so we had three aboriginal people and me. We went through a three step process. We started by meeting confidentially with people who would come to the friendship centres in the various communities around the constituency.
We listened to 55 people in this confidential way. Many said that even by coming to the centres they risked some action being taken against them by the chiefs and councils of their reserves. They were at a point where they were willing to accept that risk because somebody had to do something to try to change the situation.
I will never forget in my lifetime what I heard from these people. I heard articulate people express their concerns about what was happening. They gave the task force recommendations as to what they thought should happen. It was am experience I will truly never forget. I am thankful to those people, some of whom I believe are my friends now.
The second phase was to put out a questionnaire in the area, on the reserves and in the towns near the reserves. I did that and received over 50 responses. The third phase was to hold public meetings. I held three public meetings in the constituency. The largest meeting was in St. Paul with about 70 aboriginals in attendance. It is the town nearest to two of the reserves. That was the process.
I will talk about the task force members to acknowledge the time and the money they contributed on their own. None of them have much money but I had no way of covering their expenses. They had to cover the costs themselves and they were willing to do that. They gladly did that because they believed that finally somebody would listen to their concerns.
There were three aboriginal people on the task force and me. There was Agnes Gendron who works at the Grand Centre Canadian Native Friendship Centre as the children's first family outreach worker. She has worked as a social worker for at least 20 years. In fact she worked for the department of Indian affairs for several years so she knows what goes on there. She understood very well some of the problems within the department and some of the problems with the Indian Act that were preventing change from happening, change which must happen to improve the situation.
The second member was Gina Russell from the Cold Lake First Nation. She also works at the friendship centre in Cold Lake. She has contributed her time to the youth justice committee, to victims services and to the Lakeland Native Parents Education Committee. Gina is presently the director of the Grand Centre Canadian Native Friendship Centre which is one of the few non-funded native friendship centres in Canada. It gets no government money and it is doing good work. I commend both these women for the work they are doing.
The third member was Ralph Whitford from Lac La Biche, a town council member who understands well how municipal politics works. He had great input in our discussions of what type of government would work on reserves. He has an incredible background. I will just mention a few things. Ralph has held several senior community positions including director of Beaver Lake Wah-Pow Detoxification and Treatment Centre. He was a member and supervisor of the Lac La Biche-St. Paul District Native Counselling Services of Alberta and he is now actively working as a member of Awasisak and Family Development Circle Association. His background is absolutely noteworthy.
I wanted to mention all these people who agreed to give their time to become members of the task force. They wanted to try to do something valuable for the people they care so much about, their families.
I have talked about why I initiated the task force. I have talked about the three stages that were involved in this process that we went through and I have talked about the members of the task force. We heard many concerns and complaints. Many were aimed at chiefs and councils. Some were aimed at the community outside of the reserve and many were aimed at the department of Indian affairs.
These people got beyond that. They gave us recommendations for change that would improve the system. That is what I want to focus on.
There were nine recommendations the task force accepted and put in the report which we presented to the minister of Indian affairs in September. The task force met with the minister and I will talk about that at the end of my presentation.
I would like to first talk about five of the nine recommendations. They are the five that deal with accountability, really the lack of accountability on reserves now. In category one we talked about financial accountability. The first recommendation is the government must enforce more comprehensive and transparent financial reporting by band and settlement administrators. This information must be freely available to all members and to the general public. This recommendation, as did all of the others, came from the aboriginal grassroots people we heard from.
These recommendations are not all supported by Reform policy. I do not support completely all the recommendations. But I was not there to put a Reform platform into this process. What I was there for was to hear from the people, what they thought could be done to improve things for themselves and for the people they care about, aboriginal people in the constituency.
That was the first recommendation. There are some notable quotes we have in this report from people who spoke to this issue. I will read one from Charles Favel from Saddle Lake reserve: “Nobody on the reserve is told how much funding is received from Indian affairs. As a result, administrators on some reserves and settlements are able to show favouritism in distribution of funds”. That was heard from several participants. Mr. Favel went on to say: “All the money benefits are certain family groups. Some living conditions on the reserve are so bad they are not even fit for an animal. Yet some families that benefit from the funding drive new cars, have new homes and have new clothes”. Mr. Favel in his presentation spelled it out about as clearly as one can. The way the money is spent on his reserve is not right at all. The money is not getting to the people most in need.
The second recommendation, again in the area of fiscal accountability, is that to ensure sound financial management on reserves and settlements the government must provide better financial management support for aboriginal councillors and administrators.
Many chiefs, councillors and administrators really do not have the knowledge they need and the understanding they need to properly account for the money they handle and which is being spent. They made no excuse for this. They said that does not mean they should not be held accountable for improper spending, because they understand when the spending is improper. But they need help to properly account for funding. They ask for that help to come from the department of Indian affairs, which makes sense. They said it is not coming now. Part of the help they need is very clear guidelines that really put in place responsible accounting for the money being spent.
I quote one of the participants on this recommendation: “Problems on reserves are the outgrowth of a system that at one time prevented people from leaving reserves and at one time starved them”. This is from George Forsyth from the Onion Lake Band. “You can't go from a system where people are watched over every minute to one where they are totally on their own and expect perfect accountability”.
This is an individual who was mad as heck at his chief and council, but he acknowledged that it was hard to move from the one system to the other quickly. He said it was insanity to move to more self-government before the proper fiscal accountability is in place. This is exactly what this piece of legislation is doing. He made it very clear that he wanted no part of this.
The third recommendation, again in the area of fiscal accountability, is the government, together with councillors and administrators, must ensure there are effective, regular and ongoing consultations with band and settlement members.
One participant on this issue said the solution may be to require band meetings where the people approve a forecast budget. This person, who previously worked in an administrative role with a band outside of Lakeland, said the crucial process was not yet in place on that reserve. This is how people reacted to that concept being presented to them. He said: “You should have seen the administrators' faces the first time I brought up the idea. They said `it is not normal that you should have people discussing how the money might be spent”'. That is how out of touch the people on his reserve were with this concept of accountability.
I will never forget a meeting held in St. Paul attended by 65 to 70 participants. All but about five were aboriginal people. I was clearly getting the message they were concerned about the movement toward self-government. I heard it so much that I finally had to ask a question. This was a meeting recorded by two television cameras. I asked how many of the people at this meeting would support moving toward self-government on their reserves.
As no hands went up on the question I wondered if they understood the question. I then put the question another way: “How many of you here are against any further movement toward self-government until the problems of fiscal accountability and electoral accountability are dealt with?” Only one person was in favour of any further movement to self-government before the accountability was in place.
That person then said that the reason she put her hand up was because she did not know what I meant by self-government. My response to her was good point. The definition really has not been put forth.
Another thing that came up at this meeting was when someone said: “Ron Irwin sent a memo out to reserves saying that no one would be forced to take self-government until everyone was ready”. They are concerned that is not what is happening.
I have just gone through the three recommendations having to do with fiscal accountability. I will have another chance at third reading to talk about the electoral accountability.
When the task force members met with the minister of Indian affairs she said “we have heard all this stuff before, it has been in the various commissions we have heard from before, this is not new”. I said “so why haven't you done something about it?” The other task force members reinforced that. I said let us take one bite sized chunk. Let us take one of the recommendations that came under the democratic accountability thing, let us have Elections Canada monitor elections on reserves. This was very simple.
The minister's response to this was “There are some chiefs and councils who do not support that concept. We have been talking about it. Until I have the support of all chiefs and councils I cannot move forward with that”.
Clearly this government will not move forward with anything if it is waiting for the support of every last chief and council because many of these things will make it so that it will have to act in a responsible and accountable way in governing on the reserves.