Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure this morning to speak to Bill C-30 concerning the Mi'kmaq people. Because this is a technical bill and the product of many years of research, I will refer to my notes.
As an associate member representing the Bloc Quebecois on the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, I wish to comment on Bill C-30 at second reading.
The bill before us must be passed in order to give effect to an agreement signed by the chiefs of the nine Mi'kmaq first nations and the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia on February 14, 1997. This agreement provides that the federal government, by means of federal legislation, will delegate authority for education on reserves to Mi'kmaq communities.
The final agreement sets out the nature and scope of the powers transferred, including support for primary, elementary, secondary and post-secondary students. The agreement also defines the powers, responsibilities, functions and structures of the Mi'kmaw-Kina'matnewey, which would be the Mi'kmaq organization responsible for education.
Given all the discussions that have taken place between January 1991, when the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs was initially approached about setting up a Mi'kmaq organization responsible for education, and February 14, 1997, when the final agreement was signed with the Chapel Island first nation, it is altogether understandable that we should do our utmost to wrap this up quickly.
The Mi'kmaq have been calling for full authority over education during all this time. Apparently, all the prior stages having been completed, the bill before us must be passed in order to implement this agreement, which was approved, as I mentioned, by all the chiefs of the nine Mi'kmaq first nations and the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia.
Now that a tripartite agreement has been worked out between the province of Nova Scotia and the federal government, which has jurisdiction over first nations education, it seems to me that it is time to wrap things up and proceed to the implementation stage.
This has been in the works since 1991 in a kind of one-step-forward, one step back negotiation process. The first agreement between the federal government and the 13 Mi'kmaq chiefs of Nova Scotia dates from 1992. At that time, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development agreed to transfer educational programs to the first nations. Agreement after agreement followed and finally, on February 14, 1997, a final agreement was signed by 9 of the 13 Mi'kmaq communities, which stipulated that the first nations would have power over education at the primary, elementary and secondary levels.
I would remind the federal government, which is today wondering about the impact of such a transfer of powers to the Mi'kmaq communities or about the first nations' ability to assume the responsibility for educating their members, that there is a precedent in this area, the Cree school board which was created by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. That agreement was signed more than 25 years ago, on November 11, 1975. If the federal government is questioning this situation, perhaps it is because of its memories of the negotiations with the Cree.
I should also point out to my colleagues from Nova Scotia that they need to be very cautious about one thing. When the agreement with the Cree and the Inuit was negotiated, all points appeared to have been clarified, but Quebec ran into an obstacle nevertheless. That obstacle came from the federal government of the day. It is very certain that, when the famous tripartite agreement was signed, the federal government was acting in good faith. I will merely point out that my colleagues from Nova Scotia need to be very certain of the government's willingness to fulfil all conditions of the contract.
Aboriginal people perhaps do need to be given power over education, but it must be kept in mind that, in 1966, Quebec was forced to claim $119 million from the federal government as reimbursement of the federal share of the costs of educational services put in place by the northern Cree, Inuit and Naskapi communities. Although as we speak, the three parties appear to have reached agreement on all points in this matter, there may well be a flaw in this agreement, as there often is.
When Quebec and the New Quebec school board signed this agreement with the Cree and the Inuit, everything seemed to be clear. But surprises were still to come, particularly where capital assets were concerned. In order to remedy this situation, Quebec had to make investments, but when it came to foot the bill, Quebec had to wait to be reimbursed by the federal government. Quebec therefore had to wait from 1980 to 1996 before getting reimbursed for the federal government's share.
By the time the refund came in 1996, the federal government owed Quebec $130 million. We should therefore have assurances that, if necessary, the government will pay its share.
Furthermore, Nova Scotia should remind the federal government that it cannot speak from both sides of its mouth. It cannot, on the one hand, boast by saying “Look how nice we are, we have decided to allow the aboriginal people in Nova Scotia to take control over their children's education” and, on the other hand, hinder the development of Nova Scotia and its aboriginal people by denying them the large sums owed to them.
I remind this House that the agreement signed on February 14, 1997, has been approved by all stakeholders in the non-aboriginal population of Nova Scotia. All these groups, from the Assembly of first nations to the Nova Scotia Association of School Boards and the diocese, unanimously agree that this agreement, which is a historic one for the province, is a step forward and was the best way to go. This is an opportunity for the aboriginal people in Nova Scotia to demonstrate how autonomous they are.
As an opposition party, the Bloc Quebecois has intervened and continues to intervene in favour of aboriginal people. We have made statements in the House of Commons and through our involvement in federal politics we have been able to build ties with the first nations, the Metis and the Inuit. Our party advocates an ongoing dialogue with all aboriginal and non-aboriginal groups in Quebec's planned society.
The Bloc Quebecois believes it is important that there be focus groups like the forum with equal representation from Quebeckers and aboriginal people. The Bloc Quebecois recognizes aboriginal nations as distinct and, as such, entitled to have their own culture, language, customs and traditions as well as the right to develop their own identity. They should therefore enjoy greater autonomy. The bill before us today is a fine example of this.
We want to reach a consensus through non-violent means, based on the principle of peaceful co-existence between aboriginal nations, Quebec and Canada, both before and after Quebec achieves sovereignty. That is why Quebec asks that the Canadian government speed up all discussions and negotiations on self-government.
This group has written a manifest on the future of relations between aboriginals and Quebeckers. We hope that similar initiatives will foster a better understanding of our vision of a sovereign Quebec.
Moreover, the Bloc Quebecois critic on this issue, the hon. member for Saint-Jean, and the leader of the Bloc Quebecois have initiated discussions with aboriginal groups. A series of meetings are underway between the Bloc Quebecois and the leaders of the Assembly of first nations, including Phil Fontaine and Ghislain Picard, from the Quebec section.
Of course, in the bill before us, the government will have to be vigilant in transferring legislative and administrative responsibilities for education to these nine first nations. If this bill allowed the Mi'kmaq to put in place education systems and institutions that would preserve and respect the values and traditions of their culture, it would still be important to ensure that the programs are in line with those offered in other Nova Scotia schools so as to facilitate the transition from these schools to institutions that are under the jurisdiction of that province or any neighbouring province.
As a matter of fact, the agreement says that school results obtained under the education standards specified in the final agreement must be transferable, without penalty, to any other Mi'kmaq or Canadian teaching institution. If this bill applies to the preschool, primary and secondary levels, members of the first nations who want to pursue their studies should be able to do so without having to readjust.
Canada's action plan on aboriginal issues recognizes the important role played by education in ensuring a promising future to aboriginal communities in general, and to young people in particular. If the bill is passed, we will have to ensure that these young people—who will have attended elementary and secondary schools run by the first nations—are prepared to make a smooth transition to post-secondary institutions. I do not have to tell you how hard it is nowadays for people to find work if they did not get a proper education.
If the bill becomes law, the three parties involved, namely the federal government, Nova Scotia and the participating first nations, will know how to make a success of this initiative. While the federal government should not have to hold the hand of those who will run the new institutions, it will have to form a partnership with aboriginal people, until they are fully able to look after their own institutions.
In any case, the federal government is only involved in education when it comes to aboriginal communities, since education is under provincial jurisdiction.
Nova Scotia agrees with transferring to the Mi'kmaq jurisdiction over education on the reserves. We must now ensure that the federal government takes into consideration the province's co-operation and agreement regarding this issue.
The consultations that led up to the bill took a long time. The consultations with Nova Scotia's first nations alone lasted 18 months. The Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey did everything necessary to distribute the information to all the first nations concerned. It not only informed those directly involved, namely aboriginal people, but also all the stakeholders in Nova Scotia's education system. All agree that this must be done, and nine of the 13 Mi'kmaq communities, which represent about 8,900 people, are prepared to go ahead with the project.
I just used a term we should use with great care. I am referring to the word “community”. I wonder about the definition of that word in the bill. Does it mean that a band council does not represent only one community? Also, in French, do the words ”collectivité” and “communauté” mean the same thing? There is a reference to negotiating with band councils, but the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People recommended that agreements be negotiated with nations, not band councils.
I would like to draw the attention of the House to the costs that will go along with implementation of this system if the bill is accepted. It is said that, in order for the signatory communities to be able to exercise their powers under the final agreement, the parties will have to reach agreements providing financial resources. There is talk of $24 million from the financial framework already in place within the department. Is this a one-time payment, like a separation payment, or is it a recurring amount, to be paid for by all of the taxpayers, year in and year out?
As well, I hope that the scenario proposed is for there to be a single school board for all nine communities, or some sort of consolidation of boards if there is not just one, so as to minimize expenses and avoid the taxpayers' having to pay for unjustified infrastructures.
If this is not the case, allow me to point out that the Government of Quebec, in its desire to put public finances on an even keel, is doing absolutely everything within its power at the present time to reduce education expenditures.
The educational field has been hard hit, as have many others, and decreasing the number of school boards by combining a number of them into one has not always been the best solution.
But rationalization is the new watchword, and school boards have bowed to government demands. In my riding of Manicouagan alone, the five school boards have been reduced to three. The distance between cities is enormous in some cases. The Fermont school board, for instance, has been merged with that of Sept-Îles. The only means of transportation between these two cities is by air.
Quebeckers would therefore take it very ill if their tax dollars were used to fund small school boards.
I also draw the House's attention to the precedent that could be set by this new bill. It would not be surprising, in fact, if other first nations were to call for the same powers with respect to education. Although the Mi'kmaq live within a well-defined and fairly limited area, at least in Nova Scotia, the same is not true of aboriginals such as the Montagnais, who are scattered throughout Quebec.
Aboriginals are calling for increasing autonomy and, as I mentioned a bit earlier in my speech, the Bloc Quebecois has heard the message loud and clear. To those who have perhaps not taken it in yet, I will quote something the late René Lévesque said at a historic meeting with aboriginals in 1978.
Mr. Lévesque said:
Because we do not know each other, we cannot know what, in each other's identity, we must respect. We cannot know what aspirations and ideas to respect because they are unknown to us.
Nothing can be built on ignorance.
In closing, I would mention that the Bloc Quebecois is in favour of Bill C-30, which deals with the transfer of jurisdiction over education from the federal government to the nine first nations in Nova Scotia that signed the February 14 agreement, but would remind the House that all aspects of the bill must be examined and analysed.
In my speech, I referred to the fact that the Bloc Quebecois is still in favour of autonomy for provinces and aboriginal peoples, and especially for Quebec. We feel that education and the health system are the purview of Quebec alone. The federal government has pulled out, taking the money with it, and told the provinces: Make it work. We are keeping the money and leaving you to look after the education system.