Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak on Bill C-9, the Nisga'a final agreement.
I spent the first five years in this country from 1957 to 1962 in the province of British Columbia. I continue to this day to visit twice a year and make it a point to consult with members of the first nations to gain understanding of issues of concern to them.
Their frustration at the snail's pace of the treaty process is one of their greatest concerns. So when members of the Reform Party call for more time for consultation, they are being disingenuous. They want to kill the bill. They do not believe in justice for our first nations.
Since my time is limited, the focus of my presentation will be the earlier part of the Nisga'a people's struggle for the social justice the agreement represents.
The passage of the bill will bring closure to unfinished business of the 19th and 20th centuries. The bill will lay the foundation of a relationship between Nisga'a people of British Columbia and our government.
The bill will address some our longest outstanding social justice issues in Canada and thus set the stage for the next millennium. We have an opportunity here today to restore trust and good faith and to truly begin the reconciliation process.
The Nisga'a agreement is not just a treaty that has been negotiated in this past decade that we are asked to ratify here today. The Nisga'a treaty is a symbol and its historical timeline is one we must acknowledge here today and we must understand in order for all of us to move forward.
British Columbia was the last part of Canada to be colonized. One hundred and fifty years ago the Hudson's Bay Company established a proprietorial colony on Vancouver Island. In exchange for all natural resources of that territory, it had to establish a simple infrastructure and governance system.
When the gold rush began, the colony of British Columbia was formed in 1858 with Governor James Douglas at the helm. It was then that a small attempt to sign treaties began. The areas where the Hudson's Bay Company did business were where the small colonial treaties were signed: at Fort Victoria, at the coal mines in Nanaimo and Fort Rupert, and the Fort Langley trading post. Fourteen small treaties in all, for a few blankets I might add.
Unfortunately the old colonial documents show a disagreement of who should pay for the cost of making treaties, and by the 1860s treaty-making was halted. If only Governor Douglas was to know how long the debate of who was to pay what would continue.
Rather than speak to the Nisga'a final agreement in Canada's historical treaty-making and policy development context, I want to speak to the Nisga'a people's living memory of this experience.
When B.C. joined confederation in 1871, article 13 of the Terms of Union stated that the federal government would assume responsibility for Indians and lands reserved for Indians. British Columbia agreed to provide lands for reserves and the Government of B.C. considered the land question to be resolved.
However, the Nisga'a did not, nor did they know that their lands and rights had been dispersed by a third party.
When the first surveyor entered the Nass Valley in the 1870s to gazette today's Nisga'a reserves, he was met by the grandfather of Frank Calder. The surveyor O'Reily was told to leave and that this was not his territory.
Within a decade of that encounter, the first of many delegations of hereditary chiefs travelled to Victoria to demand of the premier settlement of this land question. They demanded recognition of their title and affirmed the ownership of their territory since before the time of the flood. They journeyed home unsuccessful; the government of the day considered the land question resolved. The chiefs who had a direct link to each of their territories since time immemorial thought the land question had just begun.
In 1890, the first land committee was formed with its first members: the grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers of today's Nisga'a negotiating team.
Shortly after the turn of the 19th century, the land committee of the Nisga'a petitioned the privy council in England seeking to resolve the land question. Again their efforts were not successful.
All the time the communities of the Nisga'a raised money, penny by penny, to send representatives to the various governments, to hire lawyers to argue their cause. Over a century and a quarter of bake sales, raffles and donations have brought Bill C-9 to the Chamber today.
By 1884, the central organizing unit of aboriginal people in Canada was outlawed. The potlatch ordered the governance, religion and economy of the peoples for thousands of years and with the stroke of a pen the covenant between the Nisga'a and the creator was made illegal. As well as the loss of their land, the very social, governance and religious structures of the Nisga'a feast houses were legislated away by our government not to be repealed until 1951.
The original land committee saw the death of many of its members over the next century only to be replaced by their chieftain heirs, their sons and their nephews. The Nisga'a final agreement has been a cost to the Nisga'a people of generations of negotiators who dedicated their entire lives to their struggle.
No other time in Canada's history can we trace the lineage of active participants in a cause to direct lines for 130 years. This is not a modern treaty. This is a modern solution to a very old outstanding debt. The Nisga'a continued to lead the young province's aboriginal leaders, and in the early part of the 20th century were part of the allied tribes. The allied tribes united the diverse cultural tribes and nations of British Columbia into one goal, the land question. Chiefs from more than 50 languages assembled in an unprecedented way to peacefully question the legality of the land and its ownership. People of warring tribes, different cultures and customs joined peacefully in one overwhelming cause, the land question.
How did we as Canadians respond? We amended the Indian Act to make it illegal for Indians to raise money to advance land claims. We also made it illegal for lawyers to be hired by Indians for that purpose.
The legislation stayed on the books until 1951. Did that stop the Nisga'a? No, it did not. The Nisga'a land committee went underground and worked through other organizations, including the Native Brotherhood to advance their cause. Whenever a federal government official tried to attend any meetings that discussed land questions, most groups would launch into hymns in order to cover up their illegal activity. To this day, Onward Christian Soldiers is the battle hymn of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia, North America's oldest Indian organization.
When the legislation was repealed, the Nisga'a land committee resumed in public. In 1968, Chief Frank Calder led the Nisga'a tribal council on the land question to court. The council's lawyer was young Thomas Berger. Mr. Berger articled with Thomas Herley, underground legal counsel for the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia.
The delegation of people who stood on the steps of the Supreme Court of Canada to represent their people in the final stage were the third and fourth generation of those who posed before legislatures and courts to have their photos taken to record momentous occasions. Many of those who stood on the steps of the Supreme Court of Canada and later in Prime Minister Trudeau's office have since passed over and have been replaced by younger generations.
The Nisga'a chief negotiator, Chief Joe Gosnell's late father, Elijah and late brother, Chief James Gosnell, were both on those steps.
After a lengthy deliberation, the supreme court was evenly split on the decision for the Calder case, with one judge voting on a technicality of whether or not the Nisga'a could actually sue the government. Even though the decision was not a clear victory, aboriginal title was recognized and Prime Minister Trudeau reversed his policy on the land question. In 1973 he announced the comprehensive land claims policy.
Three years later, in 1976, Canada entered into a bilateral negotiation with the Nisga'a tribal council. British Columbia continued to deny that any aboriginal title still existed there, insisting that colonial legislation had dealt with it. However, on the heels of the Delgamuukw case and under the conditions of staying the Meares Island case, the provincial government re-examined its stand on the land question.
In July 1991, the task force to review aboriginal claims in British Columbia released its report. It contained 19 recommendations on how to negotiate the settlement of the land question in B.C.
On August 4, 1998, a canoe with Chief Frank Calder in it, grandson of Arthur Calder who met the first surveyor, was carried into the great feast hall. This canoe symbolized the many journeys the Nisga'a people made from the 1870s to the 1990s to peacefully assert their title to a land they had held since time immemorial. The journey was not just physical for the Nisga'a, it was spiritual and, at times when it buried the generations that had travelled in that symbolic canoe, it was transforming.
On November 9, 1998, members of the Nisga'a Nation ratified the final agreement through a ratification vote and on April 22, 1999, British Columbia passed the legislation it introduced to ratify the agreement. The British Columbia legislation was given royal assent on April 16, 1999. The final agreement was signed by the Nisga'a and the Government of British Columbia on April 27, 1999 and by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development on May 4, 1999.
Treaty-making is a quintessential part of the relationship between Canada and the first nations in the country. Negotiation and reconciliation are two pillars of the Canadian way. With the Nisga'a treaty, we reconcile the past with the present. We find a way to live together with mutual respect and understanding, a way to look forward with anticipation to the developments of the next century. The treaty is consistent with the federal policies on comprehensive land claims to self-government.
I respectfully urge all members of the House to support Bill C-9, the bill to ratify the Nisga'a final agreement. Justice must be done.