Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak today at third reading of Bill C-14, an act respecting an agreement with the Norway House Cree Nation. This is a bill that concerns the Norway House Cree but, like any bill having to do with aboriginals, there are implications in other areas, even in the immediate region to which this agreement will apply.
This part of northern Manitoba has undergone many ecological changes as a result of the introduction of dams, and the harnessing of major waterways in the region. Other aboriginal communities have been affected by these changes.
The reason I mention this is because later on I intend to give the background to the northern flood agreement. I think it important to name the communities which already have agreements: York Factory, Nelson House, and Split Lake. For these communities there were bills to give legal effect to the agreement.
We now have the agreement with Norway House and that would leave Cross Lake, which would signal the completion of this hydroelectric project, with its disastrous impact on the environment.
I should not restrict my criticism to Hydro Manitoba because many detractors, some of them in English Canada, have pointed a finger at the James Bay agreement. They told us that the ecological impact of the bill and the James Bay agreement in northern Quebec is terrible.
Having studied the files on Norway House and the other communities I have mentioned, I can respond to these detractors that we in Quebec have no need to feel guilty about what has happened in northern Quebec, when we compare it to the situation in northern Manitoba.
In northern Manitoba, the Churchill River was re-routed to empty into the Nelson, in order to have a stronger flow. A whole string of dams and other structures was built in order to harness the current to generate hydroelectric power.
The impact in northern Manitoba was greater, judging by the figures we have before us: 2,134 square kilometres of land affected, 67 of those within the reserves. I would, moreover, remind hon. members that this bill also covers the aspect of the expansion of Manitoba's reserves, in order to save the honour of the crown and to be able to tell the aboriginal people “We flooded part of your land, but we are going to compensate you for it. For every acre flooded we'll give you four elsewhere”. This is more or less what the bill we are looking at today does.
Moreover, the Bloc Quebecois expressed the opinion on second reading that it might be worthwhile making this into two bills, one dealing with compensation and the other with the creation of reserves.
This has been an ecological disaster and has had a direct negative impact on the aboriginal peoples' traditional way of life, including their hunting and fishing. Also affected was their full enjoyment of their natural environment, something that is very important to them.
When we consider the flooding that occurred in northern Manitoba, and are somewhat familiar with the aboriginal issue, we realize this has had a major impact on their way of life. Everyone knows that flooding affects the forests and that, after a while, this will give rise to considerable mercury in the waterways. This necessarily creates a fishing problem, members will agree. In this regard, I must say that we are no better than anyone else; in northern Quebec, we had mercury poisoning too, but not to the same degree as in northern Manitoba.
Native commercial and recreational areas were also harmed, areas that they had traditionally occupied. Archaeologists are saying that the Cree, the nation affected, could have lived in this part of northern Manitoba for 10,000 years. This means long before the Europeans arrived in North America.
Therefore, these people had a way of life, of fishing, of hunting and of enjoying themselves. All of this has upset the traditional ways of doing things. There are therefore fewer fish for the reasons I have just given. Many fish did not survive the flooding because of the high levels of mercury and those that did contained mercury and, accordingly, the native people were denied their traditional subsistence fishing practice, which is extremely important to them.
Drinking water was also contaminated because, as I said earlier, about 67 square kilometres of land in these reserves were flooded. Artesian wells were contaminated and aboriginals experienced a lot of problems. In fact, the agreement signed at the time includes provisions stating that the government must provide drinking water to aboriginals, since they could no longer use the water found on their reserve.
It also became more risky to travel by boat because of the lower water level. It goes without saying that if we divert a river into a bigger one, the level of water in the first river will necessarily be lower, since the water is diverted into a bigger river. This also had an impact on the ice level.
As we can see, when man plays with nature, it can sometimes be dangerous. Unfortunately, the first victims of that situation are the residents of Norway House and those living in the five communities to which I referred earlier. This even had an impact on Lake Winnipeg's water level. The result was that some reserves found themselves with a lot less water around their territory. This had a major impact on people living in northern Manitoba, particularly aboriginals.
The reason we are here today dealing with this bill—and I believe the Canadian Alliance member mentioned it earlier—is because it has been almost 23 years since the Manitoba northern flood agreement was signed.
I say it was signed, but that is not entirely accurate. At a certain point, the government agreed to let these five communities sit down and say “Listen, the bill before us will certainly have an impact on each of our communities and it would perhaps be a good idea to organize a round table so that, if we decide to move, we will do so together so that we can take into account the impact this bill will have on each of us in our individual reserves”. This was the strategy for a number of years.
With its policies on funding during negotiations, the government agreed to give money to the parties to the agreement so that they could work on their negotiations with the government.
The government realized that it was creating a sort of common front. People were working well together and at a certain point the government said it no longer wished to fund the northern flood agreement.
The reason is very simple. The government simply wanted to break down this common front. It began to work on each of the communities. The first was Split Lake, I think. I recall that one of the first speeches I gave here in the House, during the last parliament, concerned Split Lake.
The government said “We are prepared to come to an agreement with you. This is how we want to settle the matter”. Finally, it introduced a bill to give force of law to the agreement it had entered into with the people of Split Lake.
This is where things started to get a bit touchy, because some aboriginal communities said “There is an agreement with Split Lake, but not with us. Not that we absolutely insist on an agreement right away, but if work is begun that will have an impact on Split Lake and they get compensation from you, just think of the impact your project will have on us, to whom you are not yet giving any compensation”.
This is how the government managed to destroy the common front of the five communities. It is a pity, because basically the government tried to settle with one community as cheaply as possible and now it wants to apply the same scenario to the others.
There is, moreover, one agreement that has not been dealt with, and that is the one with Cross Lake. I have just been listening to the words of the former chair of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, who was saying that she had heard many witnesses voice the opinion that it was very important for the bill concerning Norway House to be passed. Indeed it is, but there were others who came before the committee and said that some changes had to be made. In fact, I tried to introduce some of those in the form of motions and amendments yesterday. Unfortunately the House rejected them.
I will return to this point later, since I had just 10 minutes for all my motions of yesterday. I feel that the matter of rights is extremely important. It is, moreover, one of the reasons the Bloc Quebecois will not be able to support this bill, because the importance of these rights is not recognized formally.
The community in Cross Lake, in fact, was the last native community to be covered by a bill. The bill concerning Norway House is currently before us.
The government does not know when the Cross Lake people will arrive. They certainly appeared before the committee, though. I was there. They said “Listen, this makes no sense. There were incredible gaps in the bill. We do not agree to your settling with these people and then leaving us on the sideline”. That is the government's strategy. That was the strategy from the outset. They break a common front, try to settle for as little as possible and, if the last group demands too much, they are told “Listen, we are not going to settle with you, you are asking too much”.
In my opinion they are not the ones asking too much. Perhaps the government took advantage of an opportunity, of its divide and conquer strategy, to arrange to isolate the people. Today, they have a hard time resisting on their own.
Yesterday, I unfortunately did not get very far in my speech, because I had only 10 minutes, and the motions were grouped together. I think it important, however, to take a few minutes on the question of rights.
The Cree of Quebec and the natives in Cross Lake came to tell us that it was important to have the bill provide somewhere that the ancestral and general rights of native people are not threatened by this bill and the agreement referred to.
Naturally, there are a number of people who said “We can consider this a treaty and therefore it is covered by section 35 of the Constitution of Canada, by the Constitution Act, 1982”.
I read an excellent article by Mel Smith, which explained how inclusion of section 35 within the Canadian constitution was negotiated. It is an absolutely incredible story.
It took place over the telephone. There has been pressure to add the term “existing” to “treaty” in section 35 of the Canadian constitution.
Now, some people are telling us that this is covered under section 35 of the Canadian constitution, but, according to Mr. Smith and several experts, we still do not understand the full scope of section 35. It was not enough to say that it is covered under section 35 and that there is no need to be concerned.
At the time, we endorsed the view of aboriginal people who told us “If, as you say, it is already covered under section 35 of the constitution, then why do you not add the term right to the bill? You yourself are saying that it does not change anything”. Yesterday, the government rejected the amendments proposed by the Bloc Quebecois to that effect. It is important to explain why we insisted on the issue of rights.
As I said yesterday at the beginning of my speech, when we tell someone “I have a right to do this”, it is certainly because there is a legal basis and some legislation somewhere. If there is legislation, some may say that it is flawed, that it does not go far enough, that there are grey areas. These people are free to appeal. This is regularly the case with aboriginal issues. I would be curious to know how many cases involving aboriginals are now held up before the courts.
Some laws give rights to aboriginals, but the Supreme Court of Canada has certainly gone the furthest with respect to aboriginal rights.
Yesterday, I spoke about a number of decisions and their impact. I described the evolution of aboriginal rights. I often criticized the government's failure to act. In my view, it is clinging to an outdated piece of legislation, the Indian Act, which is over 120 years old. It is trying to tell us that it will sort out the aboriginal issue today with a piece of legislation that has been around for 120 years.
I am not a legal counsel, but this must be one of the few instances when the government has decided to enforce such an ancient statute. It is ridiculous. This must be one of the only areas where this is being done.
I do not think, in the case of the economy where the banks and takeovers are concerned or any other sector that lawmakers are called upon to discuss, it would be acceptable for them to say that, in the context of the year 2000, the third millennium, they are going to continue to operate with statutes that go back 120 years. It is preposterous. Naturally aboriginals are forced to turn to the courts for justice.
That is why it is important for them to talk about rights. That is why things are getting out of hand, as they are in Burnt Church right now. That is why aboriginals believe that it is important for the word right to appear in bills like this one. It is so that they will not be told that they have given up their ancestral rights.
There have been precedents, people who have paved the way in the courts for aboriginals. I think it important that we look at this, because it has an impact on the bill before us.
Yesterday, I paid tribute to Frank Calder, a Nisga'a. In my opinion he really paved the way in the courts for aboriginals. In 1973, the supreme court finally recognized the existence of aboriginal title. Before that, it had never existed. The federal and provincial governments believed that it was their prerogative to pass laws and that there was no special law for aboriginals—