Madam Speaker, I am extremely pleased to speak to the House today in support of Bill C-9, the bill introduced by the government to implement the final Nisga'a agreement.
The Nisga'a people live in the Nass valley in northwestern British Columbia and have lived there for hundreds if not thousands of years. When the European settlers reached their land, they found a well-organized and self-governing society. That society met its own needs by harvesting the abundant resources of the land on which it lived and by trading with its neighbours. It boasted a rich culture and traditions.
When British Columbia became a province and joined Canada in 1871, aboriginal people made up the majority of its population, yet they had no recognized rights in the political decision making process.
Passage of the Indian Act resulted in the introduction of a band-based administrative regime being imposed upon the first nations, which were henceforth required to submit to close supervision by federal representatives. Potlatches were also outlawed by the government, despite being a tradition at the core of the political and social system of the first nations. As well, children were separated from their families and sent far away to Church residential schools.
Despite these dramatic changes, the Nisga'a and other first nations of British Columbia have survived as a culture and as a people. They cherished their traditional values and their identity and held on to their profound belief that they still held the rights of ownership over their traditional lands.
As early as 1880, the leaders of the first nations demanded treaties that would establish a fair relationship between their people and governments. The Nisga'a were at the forefront among the first nations of British Columbia in exerting pressure on the governments to negotiate treaties. I would remind the members of this House that the Nisga'a have always used diplomacy and peaceful means to achieve this end, even though governments continued to reject their requests.
In 1927, parliament amended the Indian Act to make it illegal for Indians to spend or collect money in order to advance their claims. Thus, native people were denied a right enjoyed by all other Canadians.
When these provisions of the Indian Act were repealed in 1951, the first nations began again to organize themselves in order to pursue their claims for recognition and the ability to negotiate treaties.
In 1968, the Nisga'a, under the leadership of the chief at the time, Frank Calder, initiated proceedings in the courts that led in 1973 to a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. In this decision, which was extremely important, the court found that the Nisga'a could have had ancestral titles at the time before settlement. However, the justices were divided equally on the matter of the continued existence of these titles.
Further to this decision, the federal government adopted a policy on global land claims, and in 1976 began negotiating a treaty with the Nisga'a.
In 1982, when the Canadian constitution was patriated, the rights of the native peoples of Canada were finally recognized. Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, recognized and confirmed the existing ancestral rights and the treaty rights of the native peoples of Canada.
However, section 35 does not contain a definition of the rights included in “existing ancestral rights” that remain to be determined through negotiation or recourse to the courts.
The purpose of these treaties is to reconcile the historic rights of native peoples with a contemporary context, recognizing that they were living here and governing themselves before the arrival of the Europeans.
Yes, Canada's native peoples have unique rights, which are protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. These unique rights have to do with their earlier occupation of this land.
Those who claim that the Nisga'a treaty establishes a government that creates inequality should take a closer look at what it has really accomplished. This treaty spells out clearly the rights the Nisga'a will have in the future.
It was pointed out that Canada's first nations were among the most disadvantaged groups in our society. In all areas, especially literacy, employment, health and development, conditions in their communities were far below Canadian standards. It is inexcusable that a group of persons should be at such a disadvantage in a country like Canada.
The Nisga'a treaty will help ensure that the Nisga'a truly have access to the benefits and privileges to which they are entitled as Canadians, while retaining their identity as aboriginals.
This is what the Nisga'a treaty accomplishes. This treaty recognizes that the history of the Nisga'a precedes the establishment of Canadian sovereignty and it does so in a manner fully consistent with the equality provisions of the charter.
It confirms the unique rights of the Nisga'a, while respecting the rulings of the highest courts of the land. In so doing, it establishes a fair balance between these rights and the interests of other Canadians and makes these rights an integral part of Canada's constitutional and legal framework.
In my view, Canada is not a country where native peoples must stop being native peoples in order to be Canadians. By means of this treaty, we will show that it is possible to be Canadian, while continuing to live in the Nisga'a culture. That is my vision of Canada.
This treaty establishes the rights of the Nisga'a in a number of areas, particularly those having to do with land and resources. It also sets out a practical set of legislative rights to which the three parties to the negotiations, the federal and provincial governments and the Nisga'a, have agreed. The Nisga'a government will be subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Criminal Code of Canada will continue to apply on Nisga'a territory, as will federal and provincial legislation.
The legislative jurisdictions set out in the treaty are designed to enable the Nisga'a to protect their culture, their language and their property.
Equal rights for women, for example, will be protected by both the Charter and the treaty itself, regardless of what the hon. member has just said in his speech. Provincial divorce legislation will also continue to apply.
The Nisga'a Final Agreement protects the rights of the Nisga'a while recognizing the rights of the non-Nisga'a. The legislative powers of the Nisga'a will be restricted by the provisions of the final agreement, which will also guarantee that special mechanisms are in place to protect the rights of the non-Nisga'a living on Nisga'a land.
Criticism that this treaty gives the Nisga'a the power to take away the rights of other Canadian citizens is simply absurd. For example, the final agreement calls for the Nisga'a to be entitled to a water reserve. This water supply represents only 1% of the average flow of the Nass River. In order to use this water, the Nisga'a must apply for a permit from the British Columbia government as any person must. Anyone can apply to use the other 99% of the flow.
As regards fisheries, the Nisga'a's treaty guarantees the sharing of this resource between the Nisga'a and Canadians. In fact, under the provisions on fisheries in the Nisga'a treaty, the Nisga'a's right to fish is itself subject to preservation measures.
If, for example, conservation measures required a moratorium on fishing, the Nisga'a would not fish, even for domestic purposes, because the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans has the final say on managing fisheries in the Nass region. The Fisheries Act will continue to apply to both the Nisga'a and other fishers. In each of its provisions, the Nisga'a treaty protects the rights and interests of all those who work and live in the Nass region or visit it.
The government knows very well that ratification of the Nisga'a treaty is the step that must be taken in order to look to the future rather than remain prisoners of the past.