Mr. Speaker, it is a very real privilege to participate in today's debate on Bill C-9, an act implementing the Nisga'a agreement.
I have before me the Indian Act which this bill will do away with. The Indian Act has a subtitle which states that it is an act respecting Indian people. That is probably the most erroneous title one could have for this piece of legislation, because it does exactly the opposite. It does not respect Indian people. It is an act filled with disrespect for Indian people.
The fact that the Indian Act will now become redundant at least in the Nisga'a territory of British Columbia is probably one of the brighter things that has happened in a long time. We say enough of this act that disrespects Indian people. As we approach the 21st century, we look forward to beginning a new era in aboriginal and non-aboriginal affairs. Let us face it. That has been long overdue.
Way back in 1887 the Nisga'a people paddled their canoes from the northern part of British Columbia to what is now known as Victoria. They asked the government for the opportunity to negotiate some kind of a settlement and they were rebuffed. They were told to leave, that the officials could not be bothered with that. After paddling more than 1,000 kilometres down to Victoria, they had to paddle more than 1,000 kilometres back home empty handed.
Here we are 112 years later in the Parliament of Canada wrapping up a debate that will eventually see the Nisga'a people become self-determining, self-governing and self-reliant. This has to be a major step forward for perseverance. We have to acknowledge that the Nisga'a people have been very patient. They have persevered. Others would have long since given up, but they knew they were doing the right thing. They knew they had right on their side, which is a great motivator.
As I said, 112 years later, and as we approach the new millennium, we are finally at the stage where we want to enact legislation that will see this treaty become law of the land. It is a treaty that was negotiated in good faith between the Nisga'a people, the province of British Columbia, because of the fact that it holds the resource rights, and the Government of Canada which has the fiduciary responsibility to support aboriginal people. The three groups got together and over a prolonged period of time negotiated a treaty which we are in the process of ratifying today.
To put this in some context, let us go back a few years to before the Europeans came to that part of British Columbia on the northwest coast. The Nisga'a people were there. That well established society had been there not for generations but for thousands of years. For thousands of years the Nisga'a people have lived in the Nass Valley and the surrounding area. They were a very highly sophisticated society, self-sustaining and self-reliant. They were self-sufficient and self-governing. They were prosperous and entrepreneurial. It was a dynamic society.
Europeans then appeared on the scene. I say with some hesitancy and with some reluctance, that a form of ethnic cleansing took place. At that time there were somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30,000 Nisga'a people. After a very short period of time that number was down to 800 individuals, the result of illness and all sorts of inappropriate behaviour on behalf of the European population. The Europeans set out to essentially exterminate the Nisga'a people. We call it ethnic cleansing today. They were almost successful.
Thankfully we can now say that there are 6,000 Nisga'a people in the area and they are making a major comeback. This legislation and this treaty is a major step forward in reversing this very negative process which took place over the last number of years.
A large number of people should be acknowledged today. I note that some of the speakers before me have done that. We should acknowledge some of the leaders in British Columbia and others from the Nisga'a people themselves.
I personally want to acknowledge Joe Gosnell, the Nisga'a Tribal Council chief, who said the other day that this was an example of the Nisga'a now making their way into Canada. Let us think of this, making their way into Canada. A lot of people have said that obviously the Nisga'a have been part of Canada. In fact, they have not been part of Canada like others have been part of Canada.
People say that they just want everybody to be treated equally, in other words, treated the same. It is clear when we look at our history first nations people were not treated the same as others. They were not treated equally.
When my ancestors first came from Norway many years ago, they were eligible to homestead on 160 acres of land virtually for free. They did and they built the family farm and it is still in our family today. They had that right.
Did Indian people have the right to do that? Could they go out and buy 160 acres of land? The answer is no. They were not even able to hire a lawyer to advance their cause for what they called their treaty rights. They were unable to hire a lawyer. It was actually against the law for them to do so.
Could they, living on a reservation, go to the bank and get some money to start up a business and so on? No. Could they vote? The right to vote in a general election is a fundamental right in our society. It is embarrassing to say this but it was 1960 before aboriginal people had the right to vote in our country.
To say that everyone has been treated equally over the years could not be further from the truth. First nations people have been treated very shoddily.
I mentioned a form of ethnic cleansing that took place in the western part of our country. I suppose the best example of ethnic cleansing is in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador where first nations were completely eliminated. Not a single person was left from those early cultures.
There is a lot of catching up to do. One thing this bill and this treaty moves us toward in my judgment is that it will bring some stability and certainty to the decision making in that part of British Columbia. It is not going to be the answer. There is still a long way to go and much negotiation to complete. However, it is the beginning of bringing certainty to the landscape.
If there is one thing that capital does not like, it is uncertainty. Capital will flee uncertainty. If there is anything insecure about a particular place, we can rest assured that capital will not stay there very long. That is one of the things happening in our country today. A lot of good economic investment is not being made because of the uncertainty that surrounds the whole issue of land and the jurisdiction over land.
I say with some pride that I come from an area of British Columbia that is often referred to as the Shuswap nation, represented by the Shuswap people. A number of reservations and a large number of people living in the towns and urban areas in this area have their tradition from the Shuswap central part of British Columbia. They are very progressive bands on very progressive reservations and are doing relatively well. Even in this area a number of issues remain outstanding because there is no effort at the moment to negotiate some kind of settlement.
Yes, there is a treaty process in British Columbia. As an aside, some people have asked why we are concentrating so much on British Columbia. As the European population came in contact with aboriginal peoples from the east coast, through the central part of Canada and out toward the west, they negotiated treaties with the native people. The understanding was that with these treaties certain rights would go to the aboriginal people and certain rights to the newcomers.
However, that did not take place in British Columbia. There were no treaties signed for all intents and purposes. The European population basically came in and told the native people they were going to live on a little crummy piece of land while they would take all the rest. Obviously the aboriginal people did not like that but the Europeans said that it was too bad because that was the way it was.
We had all sorts of forced relocation. People were taken from their traditional territory and their traditional lands and told where to live. Rest assured that although today those lands might be well located, in those days they were always the crummiest pieces of property, the most remote, swampiest and rockiest places that the others did not want. That is where the first nations people ended up. We forced them onto those lands.
I heard an awful lot about the great treatment the first nations people have experienced, of all the things they have received and about how we should all be treated equally. If there is one aspect of growing up in recent times as a first nations people it was that period of time when, in the best interest of our churches primarily, they decided that children should not be part of first nations families, that the children should be taken out of the families, by force in many cases, and put into residential schools to get rid of their aboriginal, traditional and cultural ways and to drop their language.
Can anyone listening and watching television today imagine what it must have been like in those thousands and thousands of aboriginal families to have someone with a European background, who looked maybe like me, come in and say “I am taking your children away from you for the next 10 months and putting them in a residential school where they will not be able to ever speak their language?”
Year after year those children grew up with no parents. Not only did they grow up with no parents, they developed no parenting skills. The parents were devastated and the children were devastated. This went on time and time again.
Let us face it, people who have had that kind of violence perpetuated on their families will not just drop it and forget it quickly. It will probably be many generations before that kind of evil behaviour will be overcome.
When we talk about aboriginal peoples being treated equally and fairly, let us remember what we perpetuated on those people. We took their children away from their homes, their parents, their grandparents and their loved ones and put them into a military style residential school. We cannot understand the incredible human, emotional, psychological and spiritual impact that must have had on all those people. However, that is what happened.
Today we are trying to do what is right. We are sitting down with aboriginal people and offering to negotiate a fair deal for everybody. That is what Bill C-9 is all about. Is it a perfect piece of legislation? I have never seen a perfect piece of legislation, and since human beings negotiate legislation, I do not suppose we ever will.
However, the Nisga'a people on balance have said they like the deal with 72% of them voting in favour of it. The duly elected Government of British Columbia said it supported it. Today we are being asked whether we support it.
What I can gather from the speeches being presented in the House, four out of the five political parties, representing the vast majority of the citizens of Canada, say we support implementation of the treaty.
Let us acknowledge right up front that the treaty is not a perfect document. However, I ask those who are naysayers to the process, I ask those who will one day vote against the legislation, what is it that they propose? If we tell the native peoples of the country that we will not negotiate any treaties and will not acknowledge the uncertainty and instability that exists from coast to coast in all sorts of matters, then what do they propose?
This may not be the perfect process, but if the bill and the treaty do not proceed what kind of signal will that send out to aboriginal leaders, particularly militant aboriginal leaders, who are really frustrated at how slow the process has worked and is working across the country today? This slowness has resulted in all sorts of things that we have seen in the last few weeks, in particular with the east coast fishery.
What choice do we have? We have to do something. This is what is before us. For those who say that they do not want to support this, I challenge them to say what they are proposing we do as a country to resolve these outstanding issues and, most importantly, to bring certainty to aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people alike. I think that is a fair challenge to put, particularly to my colleagues who are going to be voting against this and who do not like what the process is all about.
In spite of what others have said, this is not a template. This is not a border plate piece of negotiation that is going to apply elsewhere because first nations groups will not support it. I represent the Shuswap area of my province. Most of the bands in the Shuswap Nation do not support the Nisga'a agreement. They agree that it is what the Nisga'a want and respect their right to decide on their own future, but the Shuswap Nation wants a lot better deal. They want things that will be much different for them because they have a different culture with different expectations, requirements and so on. This is not a template nor a border plate piece of legislation that we can apply willy-nilly to any piece of negotiation across the country. I felt this was one point that ought to be made.
Second, have we had adequate input into the process? I know the debate today is on second reading, which is the way legislation proceeds. From there it will go to a committee where experts, from a variety of backgrounds, will comment on the pros and cons of the treaty. They will point out some of its strong points, presumably some of its weak points and some of the concerns people have. The bill will then come back to the House for debate at report stage and then a final debate at the third reading stage before it goes on to the Senate where it will go through the same process.
It is a fairly thorough process. It has already gone through a pretty thorough process. In my own area, we had a lot of meetings on the Nisga'a agreement. There were over 500 consultations on the Nisga'a agreement throughout British Columbia. Yes, people have strong feelings. Yes, many people have deep concerns based on, in my judgment, a lot of misconception because they have not studied the document carefully. They have also been sort of conjuring up a mythology attached to the treaty.
The Nisga'a treaty was achieved within Canada's existing constitutional framework. The Nisga'a government will be a democratic government for the Nisga'a community. It will protect Nisga'a language, culture and property, promote the future prosperity and well-being of the Nisga'a people, and give the Nisga'a the control over their lands and destinies that most of us have had for a long time and have always taken for granted.
It will not create an order of government apart from Canadian law and society. As many people have indicated, the charter of rights and freedoms will continue to apply to the Nisga'a people. Federal and provincial laws, such as the criminal code or B.C.'s family relations act, will apply.
The treaty lays out those areas where the Nisga'a government will have the right to enact laws. These laws will only prevail in matters internal to the Nisga'a people, important to their culture and essential to the operation of their government. In general, federal and provincial laws will continue to prevail. If there is a conflict between Nisga'a law and the laws of Canada or the laws of British Columbia, there is a dispute settlement mechanism that will be invoked.
One of the areas I want to emphasize in this agreement that non-aboriginal people in particular want to hear about is the issue of taxation and the extent to which certain aboriginal peoples do or do not pay taxes. There is a lot of mythology around this area, but the reality is that in most cases people who work and make their livelihood from enterprises on the reservation do not pay income tax.
The Nisga'a agreement will eventually end this. After a 12 year phase-out period, Nisga'a people will pay taxes the same way other Canadians do. If nothing else, this has to be an incredible breakthrough in terms of breaking the kind of mindset that exists between non-aboriginal people and aboriginal people.
The reliance of the Nisga'a people on transfers will be reduced over a time. I suppose we can say that if there is a final goal it will be that the Nisga'a people will be as economically self-reliant as any other Canadian as a result of economic development and wealth growth in their territory.
I am particularly proud to be part of a group of people who, after the process is completed, will vote in favour of the enabling legislation. It is a good day for Canada, a good day for the Nisga'a people and a good day for the province of British Columbia. The treaty will move us toward an element of certainty, predictability and stability in areas which are, at the moment, woefully wanting.