moved that Bill C-37, an act to facilitate the implementation of those provisions of first nations claim settlements in the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan that relate to the creation of reserves or the addition of land to existing reserves, and to make related amendments to the Manitoba Claim Settlements Implementation Act and the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to address the House on Bill C-37, the claim settlements (Alberta and Saskatchewan) implementation act. I welcome the opportunity to inform hon. members about the intent of Bill C-37 and explain how it fits into the government's broader aboriginal agenda.
Members will recall that the recent Speech from the Throne committed the government to strengthening Canada's relationship with aboriginal people, supporting aboriginal governance and bringing the benefits of prosperity to aboriginal communities. We are also implementing the pledges made in “Gathering Strength--Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan”, Canada's response to the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Bill C-37 is another important step in these ongoing processes, one of many we will take in collaboration with aboriginal people and other stakeholders in the coming months and years.
The proposed legislation addresses a number of goals set out by the government including, most fundamentally, fulfilling our historical obligations to aboriginal peoples to live up to the promises that have been made not only by our government but by others before us going back 200 years or more.
Bill C-37 is about strengthening the capacity of first nations governments to make decisions about their lands and communities. It would give them additional tools to pursue economic development opportunities that would generate jobs and income for first nations people. In this way Bill C-37 would protect and enhance the rights of other parties and lead to partnerships between first nations communities and private sector interests throughout the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Although the proposed legislation is somewhat technical in nature, its objective is simple: to facilitate the transfer of lands to reserve status in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Our goal is to improve existing processes which lead to uncertainty and missed opportunities for all parties and which can be unnecessarily time consuming and cumbersome.
Hon. members will be familiar with the rationale for the legislation from the debate respecting part 2 of the Manitoba Claim Settlements Implementation Act which was passed by the previous parliament. Bill C-37 would essentially extend the Manitoba process to the other two prairie provinces.
To put the issue into perspective, hon. members should be aware that the Government of Canada has numerous outstanding commitments to provide additional reserve lands to first nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan. These commitments have arisen out of two types of settlement agreements. Treaty land entitlement settlements are intended to address historical injustices involving more than 30 first nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan that did not receive all the land they were promised when they signed treaties.
Canada has also made commitments to expand reserve lands as part of 13 specific claim settlements in Alberta and Saskatchewan, most of which deal with alleged wrongs over the administration of first nations lands or assets under the Indian Act.
The government has been working to implement these settlement agreements for the past several years. We are making progress but it is clear to everyone involved that we need quicker and better ways to add lands to reserves. A million hectares, or 2.5 million acres, are yet to be added to reserves as a result of claim settlements in Alberta and Saskatchewan. More reserve expansion commitments are on the horizon as we continue to negotiate treaty land entitlements and specific claims in both provinces.
There are two principal reasons for the current backlog in reserve expansion commitments. First, in all provinces but Manitoba, thanks to the Manitoba Claim Settlements Implementation Act, creating reserve land under claim settlements requires an order from the governor in council. First nations have suggested that the process be streamlined. We agree with this objective.
More significant, however, is the need to accommodate existing third party interests when processing land selections. Canada's additions to reserve policy require that any such interests be either bought out with the agreement of the third party or somehow accommodated in a manner acceptable to Canada, the third party and the first nation. Only then could the land be transferred to Canada and granted reserve status.
Bill C-37 addresses both these issues as the Manitoba Claim Settlements Implication Act has done in Manitoba. First, Bill C-37 would empower the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development rather than the governor in council to grant reserve status to lands selected by Alberta and Saskatchewan first nations under claim settlements. This would replace the current process of obtaining an order in council and would shorten the time needed to approve additions to reserves. This would in turn allow any economic benefits associated with the lands to be more immediately realized by first nations.
Second, and more important, Bill C-37 would streamline the way third party interests such as leases or mineral rights are dealt with in lands selected for additions to reserves under claim settlements.
The changes proposed in Bill C-37 would essentially allow first nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan to agree to continue an existing third party interest or negotiate a new one on such lands before the lands became part of a reserve or were purchased.
This is not possible under the Indian Act. Although the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Act provides a pre-reserve interest granting power by way of what is called a designation, under that power first nations can only agree to continue existing interests. They cannot accommodate new development proposals that may arise while the land is being processed into reserve status. Moreover, this power can be used only in relation to treaty land entitlements and not to specific claims. It can be used only when the first nation has already purchased the land.
The pre-reserve designation power contained in Bill C-37 does not, I repeat, does not, have these limitations. The improved pre-reserve designation power could be used for all Alberta and Saskatchewan claim settlements and not just treaty land entitlements. It would give first nations access to a broader range of land that has development interests or potential. Because these lands could be selected and acquired more quickly, any third party interest associated with them would contribute more quickly to economic and social progress in the community.
These changes would obviously benefit first nations. However I would ask hon. members to consider the issue from the other side of the fence, so to speak. The new approaches set out in Bill C-37 would provide a higher level of commercial certainty for all concerned parties, not only first nations but private sector developers, land owners and people, companies or institutions that hold interests in land in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Bill C-37 would enhance protection for third parties by bridging the gap between non-reserve and reserve status for lands, thereby avoiding potential interruption of access to or use of the lands. In other words, the proposed legislation would provide businesses and investors in Alberta and Saskatchewan with certainty of tenure for any third party interest they might hold in lands to be added to a reserve.
Bill C-37 would also provide the certainty, stability and predictability first nations and businesses needed to negotiate new commercial arrangements and economic development partnerships. This is clearly a win-win solution to the legal uncertainties and delays inherent in the current process for adding lands to reserves.
These new mechanisms to deal with third party interests and the ministerial authority to grant reserve status are the major thrust of the proposed legislation but I would like to bring a couple of additional points to the attention of the House.
The first point is that individual first nations will be able to elect whether or not to adopt the provisions of Bill C-37 in relation to their claim settlements. For existing settlement agreements, all that will be required is a simple resolution by the first nation council to opt into the new processes.
Settlements negotiated after the legislation comes into effect will need to state explicitly that the first nation wishes to adopt the provisions of Bill C-37.
As well, it is important to note that this opt-in provision will apply only on a settlement by settlement basis. In other words, any first nation that has both a specific claim settlement and a treaty land entitlement settlement must make a separate election for each settlement agreement and is free to make a different election in each case. In this way maximum freedom of choice is afforded to individual first nations.
As I noted earlier, Bill C-37 is modelled on the recently enacted Manitoba Claim Settlement Implementation Act. During the process of developing the current legislation, we saw an opportunity to bring needed minor improvements to the language of the previous bill. Bill C-37 therefore proposes to amend the Manitoba Claim Settlement Implementation Act to make these language improvements so that the two bills remain consistent with each other.
The proposed amendments are minor in nature, either removing a grammatical ambiguity or bringing precision to the post-reserve administrative regime that would apply to third party interests.
These amendments have the support of the aboriginal association representing Manitoba first nations most effected, namely the treaty land entitlement committee of Manitoba which represents the 20 first nations that are party to the 1997 treaty land entitlement framework agreement for that province.
Similarly, Bill C-37 proposes related amendments to the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Act of 1993. One amendment would ensure that any agreement, past or future, to release the province of Saskatchewan from its obligation to provide unoccupied crown land as part of a treaty land entitlement settlement is expressly confirmed by the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Act.
As hon. members may know, this obligation dates to the natural resources transfer agreement negotiated between Canada and Saskatchewan in 1930. Saskatchewan was released from this obligation respecting certain first nations in 1992 under the terms of the Saskatchewan treaty land entitlement framework agreement and the Nekaneet treaty land entitlement agreement, and this release was recognized in the 1993 Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Act. We are simply extending this legislative confirmation to any similar releases, whether given before or after the coming into force of this act, which are concluded as a result of post-1993 treaty land entitlement settlements in Saskatchewan.
Bill C-37 would also amend the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Act as it relates to the pre-reserve designation power I mentioned earlier.
As I have noted, Bill C-37 would provide a similar but improved mechanism for granting a third party interest in land before the land has been set apart as a reserve.
The proposed amendments to the Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Act would establish clear rules for determining which mechanism will apply depending on the first nations' opt-in decision I alluded to earlier.
I want to make it clear that Bill C-37 would not give effect to any claim settlement in Alberta or Saskatchewan. Nor does Bill C-37 create new institutions of government, new regulations or new financial obligations for Canada.
The goal here is simply to ensure that claims agreements, including those that may be negotiated in the future, can be implemented more quickly and efficiently.
There is nothing contentious about this proposed legislation. In fact it was developed in close consultation with the affected stakeholders.
The underlying principles for the bill were first discussed with first nations in Alberta in 1997 when Canada was negotiating treaty land entitlement agreements with the Alexander First Nation and the Loon River Cree First Nation.
It should be noted that Bill C-37 has since specifically been endorsed by both of these Alberta first nations whose treaty land entitlement settlements included commitments by Canada to recommend such legislation.
Given the level of support for the proposed approach in Alberta, our government seized the opportunity to make the same mechanisms available to first nations in Saskatchewan.
To that end, we initiated discussions with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the government of Saskatchewan in December 1999, and again we received a very positive response.
To broaden the consultation process, a draft of the proposed legislation was distributed in February 2000 to all Alberta and Saskatchewan first nations which currently have claim settlements with reserve expansion commitments to implement.
The governments of both provinces as well as Alberta treaty organizations and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations also received this draft. An updated version was sent out in April of this year to all these same stakeholders.
Some minor improvements have been made to Bill C-37 based on feedback received from these stakeholders. I am pleased to say that the proposed legislation now has the full support of all parties from the provincial governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan to first nations and their treaty organizations in both provinces.
As I noted earlier, the minor amendments to the Manitoba Claims Settlement Implementation Act are also supported by treaty land entitlement first nations in that province.
Between them, the Manitoba Claims Settlement Implementation Act and Bill C-37, will cover fully 97% of existing reserve expansion commitments under claim settlements across Canada.
We are proceeding with the legislation in Alberta and Saskatchewan for the same reason we went forward in Manitoba: we know a better process is needed and there is strong consensus among stakeholders in these two provinces that this approach is reasonable, responsible and effective.
Bill C-37 would benefit first nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan and would benefit third parties that hold interest in land selected for additions to reserves under claim settlements in these two provinces. It would also move Canada forward in fulfilling our outstanding commitments to aboriginal people.
It is the right solution for everyone and I trust we can count on the support of hon. members from all sides of the House in voting to send the legislation to committee for review.