Madam Speaker, it is indeed a pleasure to rise today and speak to Bill S-24, an act to implement an agreement between the Mohawks of Kanesatake and Her Majesty in right of Canada respecting governance of certain lands by the Mohawks of Kanesatake and to amend an act in consequence.
Let me go on record today on behalf of the Canadian Alliance that we will be supporting Bill S-24. However I have a number of concerns that I wish to address both today and as this bill moves through the committee stage.
The Mohawks of Kanesatake have been faced with a unique situation. For those that are not familiar with the Kanesatake Mohawk land claim, let me just take a moment to summarize. Departmental officials have described it as “perhaps the most difficult Indian claim which the Canadian government inherited from pre-Confederation administrations”.
The history of this unique situation goes all the way back to the year 1717 and the French crown. More recently, in 1945 the government attempted to resolve the land claim through a series of land purchases. The lands purchased resulted in a patchwork quilt effect of Mohawk and non-Mohawk lands scattered across the Oka area. This chequerboard approach continued with land purchases in the 1960s and the 1980s. Past attempts to deal with the land claim through court actions have also been unsuccessful.
While I contend that the Indian Act is an archaic and discriminatory piece of legislation that should be eliminated over time, until now the Kanesatake Mohawks have not even had the few benefits of this legislation, as their lands have not fallen under the bylaw provisions of the act. Nor have they ever been recognized under subsection 91(24) of the 1867 Constitution Act.
It is my understanding that this agreement will provide similar powers as subsection 91(24) of the 1867 Constitution, but not as a reserve as defined under the Indian Act.
I have several questions regarding some of the nuts and bolts of the agreement. Some of the details concerning bylaw harmonization between the municipality of Oka and the Kanesatake Mohawks, environmental issues, the issue of willing buyer willing seller on lands in the area and the voting process are just a few of the issues that are far more appropriate to deal with at the standing committee rather than during second reading in the House of Commons.
There is a larger issue also at stake here today that I want to bring to the House. That is the due process that the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has used to bring the bill before the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister has mused publicly about parliamentary reform in the broadest terms possible. He has been chided by his own colleagues and a past Liberal prime minister to let the MPs have a voice in this Chamber. The government has been under pressure to bring parliamentary reform into effect into the House of Commons, and the actions surrounding this bill exemplify why it needs to take place.
The Canadian Alliance has suggested a number of efforts to make this Chamber more accountable to all the people of our constituencies, not just those who voted for us. We have suggested such revolutionary things as free votes, an ethics counsellor who reports to parliament not just the Prime Minister, secret ballots for the selection of committee chairs, improvements to House of Commons debates and empowering MPs to vote freely on behalf of their constituents.
Underlining all of these issues is the willingness of the government to adhere and participate in an open and transparent manner through the entire legislative process. Without that willingness for change on the part of the government, all the talk by the government amounts to so much empty rhetoric.
Unfortunately, over the years we have seen far too much empty rhetoric from this government. The willingness to create change must acknowledge that the status quo is not acceptable. It must acknowledge that the old way of doing things cannot continue if improvements and positive steps forward can be made.
Let me go a step further in this. Changes by the minister of Indian affairs will affect the lives of many native people. I believe that native people in this country need and deserve change. The status quo is not working for our native people. Yet without the creation of these changes in an open and transparent manner, those involved will always have a suspicion that there was a hidden agenda. Trust is earned, it is not legislated.
For these reasons we must ensure that all of the right steps are taken as we proceed through the bill. We must ensure that those who are in favour of it fully understand it. We must ensure that those who are opposed to it have the opportunity to voice their concerns. We must ensure that those who are affected by the changes in this bill, both native and non-native alike, are fully apprised of it.
To some it would seem that these words are an attempt to slow this legislation down. That really is not the case. However in this case the minister has his procedural process backward.
We should all note that the bill introduced here today has already been through the other place. The chamber of so-called sober second thought has already called its witnesses and debated the matter. The very nature of this process upsets me. How can the other place have a sober second thought when the bill has been through there first?
I believe the minister does not understand the correct process of bringing legislation through the House. I note his comments in the other place on April 25 when he said:
Without being too derogatory to my own colleagues in the House, maybe things will go better if I send them here first. Perhaps that is a good trend to continue. We will test it for a while. We have other pieces of legislation that will be coming your way in the next year that we may have some discussions about and consider, with the approval of the House leadership.
Imagine, that is what he said that in the other place. I do not think there was any consultation with our House leader on this. It certainly did not receive the approval of the Canadian Alliance to start in the Senate.
I am not upset over the work that the other place did on the legislation. Indeed senators spent far more time in committee than we will be allowed in the House. However to my knowledge they did not call for the legislation to come to them first. It was taken to them by the minister. I believe that was wrong.
What kind of hidden agenda did the minister have to start the life of the legislation in the other place rather than the House of Commons? Was it a make work project to keep our colleagues there busy because the government's legislative agenda this session is so thin that the wind could blow through it? It was simply rehashed legislation from the last parliament, brought to a halt when the Prime Minister called that unnecessary election which cost the taxpayers of Canada millions of dollars and settled very little.
The government also attempted to proceed through all three readings of the bill today without even taking it to the Indian affairs and northern development standing committee. This is an insult to the role of the House of Commons and its duly elected members. The minister should be ashamed of himself for instituting this process.
I have to wonder aloud if this is the same level of transparency and accountability that the minister is planning to employ throughout the process of the first nations governance act he is proposing. I agree there needs to be greater accountability on the part of chiefs and councils to band members and that the Indian Act needs to be dramatically altered and eventually eliminated. I agree with a grassroots consultation process. We are certainly the party in the House that exemplifies the grassroots democracy of this country. We know all about this. It is not easy to be grassroots, but it is democracy.
I believe there is a strong correlation between the pace at which the minister is attempting to approve and implement Bill S-24 and his proposed first nations governance act. Native Canadians are not fooled by the minister's actions. They believe, and I share their suspicions, that the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is already well on its way to drafting the text of the bill prior to the consultation process even beginning.
However, today there are thousands of native Canadians who are refusing to participate in the consultation process the minister has proposed. The minister has proposed to do in mere months what in all likelihood will take years to fully consult, draft, debate and legislate, and so it should.
The minister has gone on record in his own riding that I, as a member of parliament, fail to understand the consultation process and that more than just the Internet will be used for feedback for grassroots band members. I understand what I think he fails to understand. While he may be talking about a meeting with native leaders perhaps over the Internet, and yes they certainly need to be consulted, I have been meeting and talking with the people who are potentially affected by the bill that he proposes, the native governance act.
The grassroots people who I have talked to are not sure how they will pay their next telephone bill, let alone have access to a computer and the knowledge of how to use e-mail or chat rooms. Where are the priorities of the minister and the department?
We are talking about thousands of people who do not have access to potable drinking water. We are talking about people who do not have adequate housing for many months of the year. We are talking about people who cannot receive adequate health care.
There are many good examples across Canada. There are band chiefs and councils who have their members' best interests at heart and act upon them. However the House must wake up to the harsh reality that thousands of native Canadians face daily. Yes, they do want self-government but what does that really mean? If we talk to 10 different people we will get 10 different answers. They want to fulfil their right to self-determination. They want decent education and health care for their families. They want to control their own facilities. Why should they not? The rest of us do.
If the minister were truly listening to the cries of band members he would hear something else. He would hear that many band members are scared of taking control of these services before they are ready. Many band members wonder aloud how people with a poor education can be in charge of their bands' education authorities. They wonder how some of their leaders can lead them into the 21st century when trust and accountability is lacking today.
I have been talking with native Canadians from seven provinces who are facing serious issues, such as third party management, health care funding mismanagement, electoral and voting discrepancies and education funding allocations. These are the issues that band members, including elders, truly want addressed. Rhetoric about consultation means little when children do not have quality health care and houses have no running water.
Let us get our priorities straight for those who cannot comprehend an end to the relentless barriers placed upon them.
I return to the specifics of Bill S-24. I have had the opportunity to meet with grand chief James Gabriel and discuss what the legislation means to Kanesatake Mohawks. I understand why it is important to him and to many of his people. I have assured him that the official opposition will not needlessly oppose the bill.
However, and I am sure he understands, we need to ensure there is not only due process but the appearance of due process. All voices must be heard, both pro and con. At the end of the process even opponents who do not agree with the outcome must feel they have had an opportunity to express their opinion. The end result of the process must be seen as a progressive move forward by the majority who will be affected by the legislation.
I trust that the minister will seriously reconsider his words in the other place and attempt to follow what I believe to be the correct procedure. Perhaps the minister is wary of open and honest debate in the House. He should not be. He should want to ensure that all legislation that impacts on the lives of native Canadians is viewed in the full light of this place by all hon. members. We look forward in the coming days to discussing the bill in committee.