Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak to the Nisga'a treaty, which is arguably, in my opinion and in the opinion of many of my colleagues, one of the most important bills the House will ever deal with, certainly the most important bill that I will likely deal with as a parliamentarian in my time in office and in my time in Ottawa.
I have spoken to the Nisga'a treaty in previous debates in the House at length. I have talked about many different aspects of it. I could go on today to talk about such issues as the costs of the treaty. The government originally tried to persuade us that the cost of the treaty would be $200 million. It now admits that it will be $500 million. However, an independent study indicates that in fact it is probably more like $1.3 billion and counting.
I could talk about such issues as resource allocation and forestry concerns in British Columbia. People in the forest industry have reviewed this agreement and they say, contrary to what the government says, that this agreement does not provide certainty, does not provide a level of comfort for the forest industry and in fact creates greater uncertainty than existed before.
I could talk about fisheries issues, such as the creation of a new Nisga'a only commercial right to fish, which will be exclusive. We have said to the government in the past that we have no objection to increasing Nisga'a participation in the fishery, but do it the right way, do it by buying existing boats and licences and conveying those so that everybody is participating on a level playing field, rather than creating a Nisga'a only right, based on blood lines, which will give the Nisga'a exclusive access to a resource which other Canadians will be denied.
The government continues to refuse to listen. It will not listen to advice from the official opposition. It will not listen to British Columbians. It does not care what British Columbians think. In an interview two days ago the minister said that this is not an issue about British Columbia, it is an issue that goes beyond British Columbia. We do agree with him on that, but the immediate impact is going to be felt in that province, which happens to be my province.
The minister said that he frankly does not care what British Columbians think, he is going to ensure that this treaty passes anyway. That is the height of arrogance. How does this government expect to win public support for this kind of initiative when the minister of the crown who is responsible for the treaty displays that kind of attitude?
I could talk about other issues, such as the fact that the agreement grants the Nisga'a central government legislative supremacy in at least 14 areas that go beyond the reach of this parliament or the provincial legislatures. Consider that for a minute. It goes beyond the reach of this parliament. That means that for all times Nisga'a laws will prevail over federal or provincial laws in the event of a conflict.
Our friends in the Bloc Quebecois have certainly picked up on this. In an interview yesterday the member who is the aboriginal affairs critic for the Bloc Quebecois said they are supporting the treaty largely because they see very interesting similarities between the Nisga'a treaty and what they see as their vision of sovereignty association for Quebec with the rest of Canada.
The government will rightly deny the Bloc and the PQ that kind of relationship, that kind of accommodation, but it will provide it to the Nisga'a people in northern B.C.
If the government truly believes it is a good idea, is it prepared to offer the same accommodation to Lucien Bouchard as it has offered to the Nisga'a people and the Nisga'a government in northern B.C.? Is the government prepared to offer that exact same accommodation?
I suggest there is no way that the government would offer that same accommodation. If it is good enough for B.C., why is it not good enough for Quebec? I will tell the House that the government will never go down that road when it comes to Lucien Bouchard and the sovereignists in Quebec, but it certainly is going down that road in British Columbia. The implications are enormous.
I could go on to talk at length about that. I could talk about the unconstitutional nature of the treaty. There are two separate legal challenges in British Columbia right now, with more coming. At the heart of this agreement is the constitutionality of it. The federal government, by agreeing to convey and cede legislative authority in 14 areas, is doing something that it has no constitutional right to do.
I would refer members of the House to a Supreme Court of Canada decision which was rendered in 1950 in the Lord Elgin Hotel case in which the supreme court said that the constitution of Canada does not belong to parliament, it does not belong to the provincial legislatures, it belongs to the people of this country and the parliament of Canada has no right to cede legislative authority in any area.
Sections 91 and 92 of our constitution exhaustively set out legislative jurisdiction and authority in this country between the federal government and the provinces. The Liberal government is trying to use extra constitutional means to get around that to provide supreme legislative authority to the Nisga'a central government in at least 14 areas.
We say that is a mistake. It flies in the face of what the Supreme Court of Canada said in 1950 in the Lord Elgin Hotel case. It flies in the face of what Canadians said in 1992 when they said no to the Charlottetown accord.
The government does not really care about what Canadians think and what Canadians say. That is obvious. Ever since the Charlottetown accord was defeated the government has been constructing backdoor ways of doing all the things in the Charlottetown accord that Canadians said no to. That is what this Liberal government is about. As a Canadian I am very offended that the government would act in that manner. I know that people in British Columbia are extremely offended.
I can tell members that in the debate on the Charlottetown accord in my province of British Columbia, leading up to the vote on the referendum, the major consideration for many British Columbians in deciding whether to accept or reject the Charlottetown accord was the aboriginal self-government provisions that were contained in that accord. If that clause was not contained in the Charlottetown accord it is very likely that support for the entire concept would have been much higher, certainly in British Columbia and maybe in many other areas of Canada.
The government is intent on constructing, brick by brick, the Charlottetown accord in the face of Canadians who said no to it. I do not understand how the government could be so arrogant as to do that, but that is what it is about.
I want to talk about how this is going to affect individual people. I heard the minister of Indian affairs say two or three times that the Nisga'a treaty is a way of bringing the Nisga'a people into Canada. I have to ask myself the question: Where were they before the treaty? Were they outside Canada? I do not think so.
On Friday evening I happened to have an opportunity to have coffee at the Vancouver airport with a lady by the name of Mazie Baker, who is a member of the Squamish band. She had the same questions for me. She heard the minister of Indian affairs saying that this was a way of bringing the Nisga'a people into Canada. She asked: “Does that mean I am not a Canadian? Does it mean that until the Squamish band signs a treaty with the federal government I am not a Canadian?” She was always under the impression that she was a Canadian and she wanted me to ask the minister on her behalf whether she was.
I do not understand how the minister could make a statement like that without thinking about how it would impact and how it would get people like Mazie Baker thinking. Mazie also asked me, as many other native women have in British Columbia, why the government is prepared to concentrate power in the hands of the Nisga'a central government or any government to the extent that it has.
This is a problem that does not exist with native people alone. We have the problem nationally. We always have to implement checks and balances whenever we have governments to ensure that power is not too closely held. As a matter of fact, that is one of the main planks of the Reform Party's policy. We think that power is too concentrated in Ottawa. We have some constructive ideas about how to decentralize and spread that power base out over a wider area, rather than having it concentrated in the PMO's office like it is right now.
Grassroots people ask us why the federal government is prepared to ignore our rights as individuals in favour of collective rights only. They have no problem with the concept of collective rights, but they want their individual rights to be recognized. They ask what they will get out of the treaty process as an individual, whether they will be able to own a piece of land and make personal decisions about what to do with that land with their family.
They want to know if they will get some kind of cash benefit that will be real and meaningful which they can use as a means of getting a head start and maybe starting a small business. They say that they will not get that. What they will get is a government above them which will have a tremendous amount of power and control over resources, land, cash and so on. They are not happy with that prospect.
We talked to native women from across Canada, but particularly in British Columbia. I met in the spring with Marilyn Buffalo, who is the head of the Native Women's Association of Canada. Marilyn expresses the view very well that aboriginal women in Canada, particularly those who live on reserve, do not enjoy very much in the way of rights. They certainly do not have the same rights as non-aboriginal women living off reserve.
In the event of a marriage breakdown, a non-aboriginal woman has the protection of the law for access to the marital home and a guarantee that she is half owner of family assets, including the marital home. On reserve, because there are no private property rights, there is no opportunity to ensure that those rights are guaranteed for aboriginal women.
In the event of a marital breakdown, most often it is the woman and children who are out on the street. The Nisga'a treaty, which is supposed to address the problems existing today in Canada, does nothing to address that. I argue that it will make it infinitely more difficult in the future for the federal government to correct the situation, if it ever chooses to do so, because of the legislative authority that will be granted under this agreement for all time.
I hear from native people all the time concerning their rights and the lack of accountability which they encounter. Many times we get calls, letters and faxes from grassroots native people living on reserve asking for our help. We have received serious questions and in some cases serious allegations about the misuse of band funds, the misuse of assets and about nepotism.
When they write a letter to the minister of Indian affairs he writes back telling them it is a matter for the band to resolve. The government takes a hands off approach, but at the same time that same ministry is directing huge blocks of funding into that same band leadership with very little in the way of strings attached or accountability. Most often the grassroots people who we hear from have difficulty getting the money together to make a phone call because they are so broke. They do not have resources and they are not getting access to the resources on reserve. They are not getting the accountability they are looking for.
I cannot understand why the government time after time ignores the pleas and cries for help from those people. In having coffee Friday evening with two members of the Squamish Band, Mazie Baker and Wendy Lundberg, I could sense their level of frustration when they asked “Why is it that when we write to the minister it falls on deaf ears? Why is it that we cannot be heard?”
They came to Ottawa in the spring when Bill C-49 was debated to testify before the Senate committee on aboriginal peoples. They tried to encourage the Senate to make amendments to that legislation which would protect their rights. They made a very cogent presentation to the Senate and to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Both committees ignored them. Their rights were not protected. The amendments they proposed were not accepted. They travelled all the way here and went back empty handed.
They are still crying out for help. They want their individual rights respected and protected but they are not getting it. They have told me they have looked at the Nisga'a agreement. They see it as a further entrenching of the status quo, making it infinitely more difficult to ever see their individual rights and the individual rights of other people respected.
Increasingly we see grassroots Nisga'a people writing letters to the editor and expressing their views. When the ratification vote took place it was a mere two months after the deal was publicly unveiled. Until that time it was secret deal. Neither the grassroots Nisga'a people nor the rest of the non-aboriginal people in British Columbia had any real idea of what the deal contained.
They had a period of only eight or nine weeks after the deal was unveiled to consider an agreement that was 220 to 230 pages long, with 400-odd pages of appendices, before they were required to vote on it in a referendum.
I remind the House that the vote showed that just over 60% of the Nisga'a people supported the deal. It is very important for members of the House to be reminded that many Nisga'a people had trouble with the agreement for one reason or another and did not support it.
It is beyond me why the government wants to think of the Nisga'a people, or any aboriginal band for that matter, as some kind of homogeneous group that thinks the same way, wants the same things and agrees on the same set of principles, conditions and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are every bit as much individual as we are.
That leads me to the main point I want to make. The government and previous governments have encouraged aboriginal people over a long period of time to see themselves as separate and apart from the rest of Canada, to the extent that aboriginal people, particularly aboriginal leaders, look at the principle of equality as some kind of a threat or negative thing.
This is unfortunate. Nothing could be further from the truth. True equality is not only the best way to preserve harmony in society. It is the very best way that we know of to guarantee democratic rights to individuals, to provide individuals with economic opportunity, and to ensure that native people are treated in a manner that allows them to get on with their own lives and to make personal decisions about what they want to do instead of being herded on to reserves and told that if they want to be identified as a Nisga'a, as a Tsimshian or a Tsuu T'ina they have to live on reserves with no property rights and in abysmal conditions. That is the only way they can maintain their identity.
We say that equality is about equality in law and allows plenty of room to respect and celebrate cultural differences. I do not think there is a person in this place who does not respond to the fact that we as Canadians have a very rich heritage. The unique languages, customs and traditional dress of aboriginal people are part of our Canadian culture. We see it expressed in many different ways, but celebrating one's cultural diversity should not lead to segregation in law, which is what the federal government's position has been for a very long time.
As my leader pointed out this morning in his speech, in 1968-69 the federal Liberal Party under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau seemed about to break from that kind of thinking. It seemed to be on the verge of a new way of proceeding forward but lost its courage. In losing its courage it has broken faith with grassroots aboriginal people. Many of the very serious and abysmal conditions we see on reserves today could have been avoided had the Liberal Party not done that. We urge its members to reconsider following through on 19th century thinking.
As my leader said this morning, we should think outside the box and look for another alternative that puts individual rights over collective rights and puts the opportunities that may be accorded by the federal government in the hands of individuals, not in the hands of collectivities.