Madam Speaker, I would say that perhaps it was not purposeful, that it was not intentional but that it was perhaps systematic. I think I will go to that safe ground and continue.
Moreover, Bill C-9 affirms this provision of the final agreement and notes that our constitution is the supreme law of Canada. This agreement does not and cannot alter our constitution. To suggest otherwise is nonsense. The rights contained in the agreement, including the governance rights of the Nisga'a, will be protected by section 35 of the constitution but the protection of these rights does not alter the constitution.
Brian Slattery, professor of law at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, agrees. He says:
There is nothing in section 35 (or indeed elsewhere in the Constitution Act, 1982) to suggest that such treaties and agreements must be implemented by constitutional amendment in order to take effect or to receive constitutional protection.
Peter Hogg, a recognized constitutional law expert and dean of Osgoode Hall, has also publicly said that in his opinion “it would be undesirable to hold a referendum every time a treaty is entered into with aboriginal people”. It is worth repeating that at the beginning of the formation of our country, when the British crown signed treaties on behalf of the King of England there was not a referendum back in England or even a vote for that matter in the House of Commons.
He continues by saying:
These treaties are intended to provide clarity and certainty to aboriginal rights that have been held by aboriginal people since before European settlement. The treaties are long, complicated documents reflecting years of negotiation and much compromise on both sides. It would be very difficult to communicate all the issues in a balanced way in a province-wide referendum.
This was stated by Canada's leading constitutional expert.
How does the opposition party propose to reduce a 500 page legal document to one question? I can just imagine how loaded its over-simplified—and we have seen this after six years in the House—question might look, especially since it appears to be debating a different document than 80% of the rest of us in the House.
What is the point of negotiating treaties at all if the opposition party would have its way?
Mr. Joe Easingwood wrote in the Victoria Times Colonist that “considering it has taken some 30 years, plus intense, complex and emotional negotiation to work out this proposed Nisga'a treaty, how can anyone with an ounce of credibility suggest that the issue can be boiled down to a single question on a referendum?”
A referendum is a totally inappropriate way to deal with a large complex package of provisions such as the Nisga'a treaty. And, the people of British Columbia have already had a voice in negotiations. The Nisga'a negotiations included one of the most extensive consultations and public information exercises ever conducted in the context of treaty negotiations in Canada. Approximately 500 meetings were held in relation to the negotiation of the agreement in principle and final agreement.
Much of the advice from these consultations is reflected in the document before the House. For example, those consulted indicated that they wanted the treaty to represent a final settlement with the Nisga'a people. The final agreement is a full and final settlement of the Nisga'a aboriginal and treaty rights.
Third parties wanted conservation to be a priority in the areas of fisheries and wildlife. The Nisga'a final agreement contains provisions to ensure that federal and provincial ministers retain their overall authority. I will say that again. The federal and provincial ministers retain their overall legislative authority to manage fish and wildlife. Conservation, public health and public safety are identified in the final agreement as top priorities.
There are other provisions contained in the treaty that allow Nisga'a lands to be registered in the British Columbia land title system. We have heard a lot of hollering and yelling about communal systems. This is not true. These provisions are a direct result of third party advice that we have heard, listened to and acted upon.
We also found through consultations that it was important to third parties that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and federal laws such as the criminal code continue to apply. Those do as well.
Third parties in advisory committees also indicated that they wanted all citizens to be subject to the same taxation regimes. Through the final agreement, the Nisga'a will pay taxes in the same way other British Columbians do after a transition period of eight years for sales tax and twelve years for income taxes. And the Nisga'a government receives a tax exemption similar to that provided to municipal governments. What could be more fair? Do we not say that we want all people to be equal? Is this not an important provision that the people of British Columbia would accept when we say that for the first time in Canadian history we have a treaty where the first nations people are saying to the federal and provincial crowns that they will pay those taxes the same way anyone else does? I think that is an honourable and very dignified compromise.
In the past, the federal and provincial governments have entered into many agreements and passed many laws that have far more consequences on the majority of Canadians than will the Nisga'a treaty. Let us take the North American Free Trade, the original Free Trade Agreement or the Columbia River Treaty. None of these were subject to a referendum.
Where referendums have been used in the past, they have been in respect of a single, or at least a relatively narrow set of issues. Compare, for example, the complexity of the Nisga'a treaty with the single question that was posed to the people of Quebec in the referendum on separation.
The Nisga'a treaty is complex. It deals with dozens and dozens of different issues. Within each of these issues there are many complex provisions, compromises and specific arrangements. This sort of package is not conducive to an all or nothing consideration demanded in a referendum vote.
Mr. Ken Georgetti of the B.C. Federation of Labour recognizes the ramifications of a referendum. In his words:
The Nisga'a Final Agreement is one of the most important social and economic developments of the last century—A referendum on the Nisga'a Treaty would be analogous to requiring a public sector union to submit its collective agreement to a province-wide vote.
Of course, to all Canadians this is unacceptable.
The real goal for a referendum is to block the treaty.
Leaders from all walks of life recognize that the Nisga'a treaty is the result of more than 20 years of intense negotiations. The treaty represents a delicate balancing of interests and reflects the compromises and trade-offs made by British Columbia, Canada and the Nisga'a people. It is not possible to re-open or attack one portion of the treaty without undermining the entire agreement.
Early on during the negotiations, Canada, British Columbia and the Nisga'a agreed at the negotiation table on a specific process they would use to ratify the final agreement. We are now, thankfully, in the final stages of that process.
The Nisga'a have ratified the treaty. The province of British Columbia has ratified the treaty with the historical debate in the provincial legislature, some 120 hours of debate, the longest in the history of that legislature.
Now it is Canada's turn to go through the ratification process. This government is committed to concluding treaties with Canada's first people. Treaty making is a federal responsibility under subsection 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1857. The province's involvement is necessary in order to ensure that land and other resources are properly dealt with.
However, the legal reality is that treaty making is a national responsibility that transcends the interests of individual provinces. This is reflected in the fact that the federal government is providing the great majority of money that represents the costs of the treaty. The member for Burnaby—Douglas made that point earlier in the debate today. There is therefore no basis for a provincial referendum in which British Columbians alone would determine whether or not this national endeavour would go forward.
The Nisga'a final agreement represents a fulfilment of more than 20 years of negotiations. The opposition party would have us withdraw our commitment to it. Honourable governments must continue to be honourable. They must follow through on agreements negotiated in good faith. Perhaps the opposition does not share this.
The community of Terrace is the closest neighbouring community to the proposed Nisga'a lands. We heard this morning, this afternoon and throughout the debate that the mayor came to the hearings in Terrace. He appeared before us and under cross-examination we asked him if it was only his view to support it because, as the the member from Skeena says, he is a Liberal. No, that was not true at all. In fact, his six councillors debated a motion put forward by one of them several months ago whether to ratify or not ratify the treaty. It was unanimously agreed to by the Terrace council. It was unanimously agreed to by grassroots politicians to accept the deal.
Further, Joanne Monaghan, regional chair of the district in the Nisga'a area representing 45,000 people and some 40 to 50 politicians in that catchment area, appeared before the committee too. Again under cross-examination, so that we could be very clear about the intentions of local people and grassroots people, she told us that unequivocally and categorically, having thought about it for years and originally not a supporter of treaties, that she supported it. It was good for her, good for her people, good for the area and good for the Nisga'a people. She believed as well that it was good for British Columbia and Canada.
A referendum would be just plain unfair to the Nisga'a people. When the negotiations commenced and when framework agreements were entered into among the parties, the understanding was that the final agreement would be ratified by votes of the Nisga'a nation, the provincial legislature and parliament. We agreed to that and we will have our vote in parliament. The Nisga'a agreement in principle included this understanding. There has never been any suggestion that the Nisga'a final agreement would be passed outside that process.
Why would we subject the Nisga'a to this process at two minutes before the hour? No treaty or land claim agreement in the history of Canada has ever been subject to a provincial or national referendum. By the time all land claims in British Columbia have been settled 30 to 50 treaties will have been signed. Is the opposition saying that it would subject each one of these agreements to a provincial or national referendum? What nonsense. Reasonable people understand how unfair and how foolish it would be to arbitrarily impose such a hurdle on these first nations people.
Canada is a parliamentary democracy. The federal government is composed of members who are elected and accountable to our voters, including the decision that was made on how the Nisga'a treaty would be ratified. The people of Canada elected this government to do the right thing, and we are doing the right thing. We are honouring the terms of the ratification we made with the Government of British Columbia, the people of British Columbia and the Nisga'a people. We are honouring the obligations bestowed upon us by the people of Canada who elected us.
Reformers would have Canadians wrongfully believe in their mythical treaty and renege on their word to the Nisga'a people and the Government of British Columbia. What are they really asking us to do? Are they asking us to perpetuate the status quo in continuing uncertainty in British Columbia? The opposition has proven adept at creating myths and continue to fall flat in making its intentions known for clear and viable alternatives to present to the Canadian people.
It is just not fair. We have an agreement that will work. It is one that is fair and equitable. It was negotiated in good faith. We have every intention of keeping our promise to the Nisga'a people, to the mayor of Terrace and to the politicians in that region who support it. We will keep our promise generally with the people of British Columbia through the legislature and through their due process where this was debated. We will keep our promise to the House and the honour and dignity of the House to do the right thing through both substantive and procedural justice so the treaty will come to the floor of the House.
Reform Party members on the other side will be standing alone with the 21st century only 39 or 40 days away on one of the last pieces of business we will do before returning to our ridings throughout Canada. They will wear the badge going into the new millennium as the only party in the House to oppose progress, to oppose peace among Canada and the first nations people, and to oppose moving them from the backwoods and the doorsteps into the front with all Canadians in the 21st century.
On behalf of my colleagues I want to say that we will not have anything to do with it. We are doing the right thing. We will not be on the side of wrong.