Madam Speaker, I am very proud to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-9, the Nisga'a final agreement, at third reading. I am proud to say that all members of the federal NDP caucus have supported Bill C-9, and have been very supportive of the process and the debate that has taken place. We have stood firmly in support of the Nisga'a final agreement.
I would like to recognize the work of our aboriginal affairs spokesperson, the member for Yukon. She has played a very positive role at committee with her thoughtful comments, her experience and her deep understanding of aboriginal affairs. I would like to pay special thanks to her for her very dedicated work and participation in the process.
Being from British Columbia, I would like to put on the record that the work of our provincial government on the Nisga'a agreement and on the negotiations which took place also needs to be acknowledged. Two former premiers, Michael Harcourt and Glen Clark, really made this a centrepiece of their agendas. They were personally very committed to seeing a redress of the wrongs that had been done in the past and seeking social and economic justice for the Nisga'a people. Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, Ian Waddell, the MLA who chaired the B.C. legislative committee that went around the province, as well as Dale Lovick, the current minister of aboriginal affairs for B.C., did a very good job.
It has to be recognized that they took on this job and were faced with a lot of political opportunism, which was seen to be more politically expedient than achieving justice, by the B.C. Liberal Party and the federal Reform Party.
I toyed with the idea of also thanking another former premier of British Columbia, Mr. Vander Zalm, who actually brought the provincial government to the negotiating table in 1991. However, after seeing what he did in the last few years I do not think I could thank him. He basically trashed aboriginal people and the Nisga'a agreement. When the committee was in Vancouver he played a role in the games that were played with his little demonstration. Mr. Vander Zalm brought in the people who hurled obscenities, while he sat there apparently in agreement. He has not played a positive role. He too has sunk to the level of his federal colleagues in the Reform Party in seeing this issue as political opportunism.
Most of all, I would like to thank the Nisga'a people for their patience, not just today with the entire process that has unfolded in the House, but for their patience over the last 20 years and that of the generations before them. If we look back and reflect on the oppression that aboriginal and Nisga'a people suffered and the fact that they had the faith to negotiate an agreement, we know that this is something that is very historic and needs to be acknowledged, particularly in light of what has been a very difficult debate. Horrific statements have been made and thrown at them.
I particularly want to thank Joe Gosnell, the leader of the Nisga'a people, as well as the teams of negotiators. As we were doing our business in the House they kept faith in the process. I am sure there were ups and downs. I am sure there were days when they thought that maybe this would not work and people had to compromise. The fact is that the federal, provincial and Nisga'a negotiators arrived at the agreement which is before us today.
Earlier we heard from Reform members that they believe part of the negotiation process which unfolded was somehow a stacked deal, that it was all done behind closed doors. We have said this many times on the record, and let it be said again: no piece of legislation has had as much scrutiny, examination, debate and public hearing as the Nisga'a agreement in principle as well as the final agreement. We know that for the 20 years that negotiations took place, especially the last few years, advisory committees were involved and public hearings were held by various organizations. For example, the labour movement in British Columbia was involved in the advisory committees. It held consultations with its membership on the treaty to get feedback. We have heard the same thing from the business community, as well as the aboriginal community.
The member for Skeena earlier today said that this was a stacked process which was carried out behind closed doors. I cannot think of anything further from the truth in terms of what really took place. Committee hearings were held in B.C. and in Ottawa.
We have to ask ourselves what this agreement is about. There are many ways to sum it up. I believe this agreement is important and significant. It provides the opportunity for the Nisga'a people to assert themselves as a people, to realize their rights, to undertake their own affairs in economic terms, in social terms, in cultural terms and in terms of equality.
The agreement allows the Nisga'a people to redress the wrongs of the past. It allows the Nisga'a people to develop a stewardship of the land and it allows them to develop resource based management from which all Canadians will learn.
The Nisga'a agreement is within the Canadian constitution. It burns me to hear Reform members spreading information again and again that somehow the agreement is illegal.
Earlier today we again heard the member for Skeena say that the Nisga'a final agreement is legislated segregation. In fact the member went on to equate legislated segregation with apartheid. This is really disgusting. I feel that it displays an astounding arrogance.
The member is suggesting to the Nisga'a people that they have accepted a system of apartheid. He has a lot of arrogance to say that after 20 years of negotiation. This agreement is about equality and social justice. This agreement is within the Canadian constitution. I do not know the response to these comments, but to use these terms, to use the word apartheid, to use the term legislated segregation, is a denial of what has really taken place.
We have to ask ourselves why there has been such a vitriolic response. Even today I was still receiving e-mails full of hatred, viciousness, meanness and racial overtones. I ask myself where this information is coming from. We have to admit, unfortunately, that some of the information comes from the media, which has bought into certain arguments of the Reform Party and its cohort in British Columbia, the B.C. Liberal Party. These messages have been repeated over and over until the people have begun to believe them.
Within the media there has also been some very reasoned, thoughtful and reflective debate which has tried to present the agreement as something that can be examined. Yes, there are some criticisms and there are some issues. This is not a perfect document. We should acknowledge that in the sea of misinformation and a campaign full of misrepresentation and divisiveness some members of the media have tried to ensure that there was a balanced debate.
Today we heard the member for Skeena say that the Reform Party was trying to shed light on the Nisga'a final agreement. What does that mean? I came to the conclusion that Reform members have not shed any light on the Nisga'a final agreement; they have only shed darkness. That is what has been very upsetting about the process which we have gone through. Misinformation has been peddled to the media and the message has gone out again and again that somehow women's rights will not be upheld, that this is a constitutional amendment through the back door, that it will be taxation without representation, that it will be legislated separation, that it will be apartheid, and on and on it goes. That is not shedding light; that is conducting a campaign of fear.
When are Reform members going to stop putting out information that is incorrect, information that is designed to divide people and exploit people's fears about change and about what is taking place? From that point of view, it has been a process that has in some ways brought out the best in terms of public debate and certainly has been a model of what negotiation should be about. However, it has also been a public process, regrettably, that has brought out the worst in some people and the worst in some members of the House.
I have supported this agreement from the beginning. I have to say that the Nass Valley is many hundreds of miles from my riding of Vancouver East. I do not have a direct physical connection with that part of British Columbia. However, I feel that there is a very significant link between what happens in the Nass Valley to the Nisga'a people and what happens in my riding of Vancouver East. My riding also contains a very large population of urban aboriginal people. As we know, something like 60% of aboriginal people live off reserve because they have been oppressed by the system, by the way we have conducted affairs through the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
This agreement provides a way to open up a new door. It is a way for government to sit down in equal partnership with aboriginal people and say that it is going to change the way it does business, that it will be on the basis of equality and that it will be on the basis of justice.
I support the Nisga'a final agreement. To me it is a step forward. However, it is not the end of the road. In some ways it is only the beginning. I am not saying that the agreement is a “one size fits all” for all of B.C. or all of Canada. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The process is important. The process that was conducted needs to be repeated in terms of arriving at negotiated settlements; not conflict and litigation through the courts, such as we have seen on our east coast.
Taking that step forward is a sign of hope. It is a sign that federal representatives, provincial representatives and aboriginal representatives can sit down, work out very complex issues and arrive at something with which we can all live. I hope that we continue along that path. I hope too that we recognize that urban aboriginal people are also in great distress and that their issues need to be addressed.
I ask the government to consider that. We had the royal commission on aboriginal affairs. I do not know how much dust the report is collecting, but it is a job that we need to get on with. There are people in my riding who are literally dying on the street. There are people who are suffering from addiction. There are people who are living in substandard housing. There are people who are living far below the poverty line and are struggling to survive each and every day. It takes a lot of courage and survival skills to do that.
It is important that we see this agreement as a step in a process, a step along the road in dealing as well with those other issues that are very important.
When the member for Skeena concluded his remarks he said that the Nisga'a final agreement was not a good deal for the Nisga'a people. I thought about that. I assume that the member believed what he said, that it is not a good deal for the Nisga'a people. We have to be very careful about the kinds of conclusions we come to.
This is not something that was put together over a few days. This is not something that was prepared by the federal government, the department or the provincial government, which then said “Take it or leave it”. This was a process in which an agreement was negotiated. It was the Nisga'a people themselves, their leadership and the members of that community, who finally at the end of the day decided that this was a good deal. Maybe it is not all they had hoped for. They made many compromises, but it is an agreement they can live with and an agreement they can build their lives with. It is an agreement they can pass on to their children and say that they did the right thing, that they are building and creating their future.
The member for Skeena is dead wrong when he says that it is not a good deal for the Nisga'a people. He needs to go into that community and talk to people. He will find out that it was approved by a very large majority. History will show us 10 or 20 years from now that this was the right way to do something, that it was far preferable to conflict in a legal sense and in a political sense.
I am very proud today that I and all of our members in the federal caucus are supporting this agreement. There has been a lot of stuff out in the media. We have all had responses from some people, but at the end of the day it is important to stand up and do the right thing. The right thing here is to support the agreement, say that it is a step forward and that it is the right step forward.