Mr. Speaker, on August 4, 1998, I had the great honour and privilege of witnessing the signing ceremony for the Nisga'a treaty. At that ceremony in New Aiyansh, Chief Joseph Gosnell said:
Look around you. Look at our faces. We are the survivors. We intend to live here forever. And, under the Treaty, we will flourish.
I looked around at the faces of the people at that ceremony. I looked at the elders, many of whom had tears in their eyes, tears of joy that their long journey was finally coming to an end, although to be sure another was beginning.
I looked at the faces of young people and children and I saw hope, hope for a future, hope for a new beginning, hope for decent economic conditions.
Chief Gosnell spoke of that journey. As my leader indicated, that journey started many years ago. The Nisga'a people were in the Nass Valley when the Europeans first arrived. Their lands and resources were stolen from them with no compensation or due process.
They started the journey for compensation and justice many years ago. In 1887 the chiefs journeyed in a canoe to Victoria but the doors were closed.
Nisga'a leaders worked tirelessly over the years on behalf of their people, even when it was illegal to do so. From 1927 to 1950 it was illegal for the Nisga'a people, or any other aboriginal people in Canada, to hire a lawyer to pursue their land claims.
Finally in 1973 the Supreme Court of Canada in the Calder decision involving Frank Calder affirmed some very fundamental rights of the Nisga'a people. The present Prime Minister, then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, agreed in August of that year to embark on a process of negotiation. Here we are many years later.
I pay tribute to a number of lawyers who have worked tirelessly, arm in arm, side by side with the Nisga'a people: Tom Berger, who argued the original Calder decision to the highest court of the land and others who have followed in his path like James Aldridge who has been there for many years tirelessly defending the rights of the Nisga'a people.
I remember as a young new member of the House sitting on the historic constitution committee in the winter of 1980-81 and hearing the eloquent plea of the Nisga'a leadership, people like Chief James Gosnell, Rod Robinson and others pleading for justice. They were not asking for any kind of special rights or treatment but for equality and justice, for healing and reconciliation.
I am very proud that it was the former leader of the New Democratic Party who stood in the House on February 17, 1981, to announce that an amendment would be accepted by the government which would ensure that aboriginal and treaty rights of first nations people would be as firmly entrenched in section 35 of the constitution as all other rights. Ed Broadbent, the New Democrats and the Liberal government of the day can be very proud of their accomplishment.
Let us be clear. The Nisga'a treaty does not in any way involve an amendment to the constitution because under the provisions of section 35 the aboriginal and treaty rights of Canada's first nations are recognized and affirmed. The aboriginal rights which have now been translated into treaty are the fundamental rights to land claims and self-government of the Nisga'a people.
Some people including the Liberal Party in British Columbia and the Reform Party federally say that there should be a referendum on this issue. Not only is that deeply offensive, as the concept of fundamental minority rights should not be subject to a referendum, but who would vote in that referendum?
Let us not forget the federal government is paying 80% of the cost of this treaty settlement. It is one of those rare examples in which the federal government actually transfers funds to British Columbia. In order for there to be a referendum there would have to be a national vote. Frankly it is outrageous that the people of Ontario alone would be able to outvote the people of British Columbia on this fundamental issue.
I acknowledge and salute the personal leadership of provincial New Democrats including former premier Mike Harcourt, former premier Glen Clark, as well as a number of ministers of aboriginal affairs, John Cashore, Andrew Petter, Dale Lovick and others.
The treaty has strong support in British Columbia from many diverse communities. It was ratified by the B.C. legislature in a free vote following the longest debate in the history of the British Columbia legislature. There were extensive public hearings across the province of British Columbia. The aboriginal affairs committee of the B.C. legislature, ably chaired by a former federal colleague, Ian Waddell, gave people an opportunity to be heard on the issue. The treaty was ratified by 72% of those Nisga'a who voted. Sixty-one per cent of all eligible voters supported the treaty.
I wanted to say a word about that because the member for Skeena attacked the ratification process. He said in a letter to the Globe and Mail in May that almost one-half of the Nisga'a people did not support the treaty. In addition to the fact that is blatantly false I point out that the member for Skeena was elected with a percentage of 42.4% of the eligible votes cast and got 27% of all votes in his constituency. By his own criteria three-quarters of the people who could have voted for him did not vote for him. Reformers are steeped in hypocrisy in their approach to this treaty, and the people of British Columbia know it.
The Reform Party critic, the member for Skeena, has not even had the decency to meet with the leadership of the Nisga'a people since the treaty was signed. These are his constituents and yet not once has he met with them since the treaty was signed. He said that he debated Chief Joe Gosnell in 1995, but that was four years ago. Where has the member for Skeena been since then? He has shown total contempt for the Nisga'a people and for other aboriginal peoples in his community.
I mentioned the strong support for the treaty from a very broad cross-section of the British Columbia community. The business community is seeking certainty at long last. The labour community, IWA President Dave Haggard, sent a strong and eloquent letter to the former minister outlining the support of working people for the legislation, along with the British Columbia Federation of Labour and many others. There is strong support. Faith leaders as well strongly support the legislation and the treaty.
I will quote from a message to the people of British Columbia by former premier Glen Clark who said that the Nisga'a treaty was not about politics but about people, a people who lost the land of their ancestors without ever signing a treaty; a people who saw their children taken away to residential schools, their culture systematically dismantled, their families decimated by the ravages of disease, alcohol and dysfunction; a people who are still subject to being governed under an antiquated Indian Act; a people who negotiated peacefully, patiently and in good faith for many years; a people who want to be part of Canada, who have negotiated their way back into Canada and who are prepared to surrender over 90% of their traditional territories and their tax exempt status to achieve that dream.
The treaty is about politics. It is about people. It is about justice and it is about time.