Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to add the comments of the Canadian Alliance to the debate on Bill C-60, the specific claims resolution act. We share many of the concerns the minister spoke of earlier. I will outline some of these before the bill proceeds further. I will also highlight our concerns about the way the legislation may or may not work.
First, I will review the basics of the bill. The facilitation of the settlement of specific claims across the country is its stated objective, an objective the Canadian Alliance shares. Bill C-60 would establish a centre for independent resolution of first nations specific claims. The centre would have a commission division and a tribunal division, each with distinct functions. The commission would facilitate negotiations. The tribunal would resolve disputes. The commission would enable the resolution of all claims regardless of value by drawing on the entire range of dispute resolution mechanisms to assist parties to specific claims in reaching final settlements.
In contrast, the adjudicative tribunal would be available to first nations as a last recourse. It would make final binding decisions on the validity of specific claims rejected by Canada and on cash compensation for valid claims up to a maximum of $7 million. Judging from a review of the claims on hand, the majority are below $7 million.
I will share our party's position on these issues with hon. members. It is as follows:
Our position in land claims negotiations will be to ensure respect for existing private property rights, affordable and conclusive settlement of all claims, and an open and transparent process involving all stakeholders.
Unresolved land claims have been an issue between the aboriginal people and governments of our country for many decades. That is too long. It is a complex issue that has been a roadblock to building economies on reserves, a roadblock to building a greater sense of shared citizenship among non-aboriginal and aboriginal Canadians, a roadblock to individual aboriginal Canadians achieving the goals they have for themselves and their families, and in many ways a roadblock to economic development. We are trying to tear the roadblock down.
The government's intentions are valid. However there has been a longstanding corporate culture in governments of Canada under various political parties to delay resolution of these claims. Obstacles have been put in place whether bureaucratic, political or otherwise. At one time Indian bands in Canada were not allowed to use their own resources to pursue resolution of legal claims. As a consequence there is deep distrust between aboriginal leaders and communities and the federal government on this and other issues.
Resolving these claims is in everyone's interest. In this year's estimates alone the government has budgeted $122 million for grants to bands for resolution of specific claims. Let us review how this works. The taxpayer pays taxes to the federal government. The federal government gives some of the taxes to bands in the form of grants so they can work toward the resolution of claims. The bands apply to get the grants. They are given the grants. The bands then use the money to pay lawyers.
This is pretty much where the money goes. Lawyers get it. Lawyers are paid on the basis of how long they work. It is kind of like a taxi. The longer it goes the better it is for the taxi driver. In this case the taxi driver is a lawyer. The system could be seen as a bit biased toward preserving and perpetuating cases rather than resolving them.
That is as problem because it all starts with working people across Canada paying taxes. The taxes go to the government. The government sends them to the Indian bands, not to be used for housing, not to be used for improving the social conditions of reserve residents and not to be used toward any significant and immediate concerns that aboriginal people have expressed to me and many of my colleagues in the many consultations we have had with them. My colleague, the member for Wild Rose, spent a couple of years of his life meeting with aboriginal people, individuals and community leaders across the country. He shared with me the higher priorities of the aboriginal people. If people are having trouble supporting their family they do not care b about tinkering legislators working to resolve these issues.
The fact of the matter is that the two things are related. As long as these issues are not resolve, it is highly unlikely that the kind of economic development we would like to see on reserves and the lifting of those limiting factors that plague so many people who live in isolated aboriginal communities across Canada will be achieved. The two things go together.
We are not just tinkering here when we talk about these things. I understand that my aboriginal friends have higher priorities right now, like feeding their kids, building a better community, dealing with some of the health problems that face their friends and neighbours, and encouraging their young people to avoid a life of crime and to make better choices for themselves in the short and long term. I know they have priorities in the immediate days ahead but this is a topic we cannot avoid dealing with. We have avoided it for too long. We are paying the price today for the inattentiveness of our leaders to deal with these problems in the past.
I share the perspective that the minister expressed earlier. We cannot leave these issues to be solved by our children. That is a very good and valid observation. Our children should not be made to pay the price of our own inattentiveness to these issues today.
We can agree with the government on the need to resolve these issues. We can agree with the government on the need to have a climate of economic and social stability on reserves but we should also recognize that other challenges do exist whether or not we solve these problems. The larger problems must be addressed as well.
In the government's urgent pursuit of aboriginal self-government, as it advances its agenda rapidly forward, what has been the consequence of advancing that agenda? The consequence has been that many bands have been pushed into a situation where they are financially challenged. The instability that results from that is that bands are pushed into third party management situations.
I reference comments made yesterday by one of my colleagues in the NDP who said that the Alliance was excessively concerned with the problems and the failures that face some aboriginal communities. I do not think we can be excessively concerned with serious problems. I think we have to recognize that they exist. Though third party management is not something that affects every band in Canada, it does affect several dozen and it does have a consequence when bands have to go into third party management. To ignore that and try to do the Walt Disney thing and pretend that everything is happy, which I think is kind of naive to the maximum, pretty much describes the agenda of the NDP on a lot of topics.
However in this case I think it is dangerous too. The reality is that while the NDP members are doing that Utopian and idealistic Marxist game, what they are doing also is ignoring the very real concerns that face real people.
For example, when a band goes into third party management, the third party manager stops being responsible for paying the bills that were incurred before he or she became the third party manager. Essentially that is what is happening right now.
I have several constituents in my own community who have been directly affected by that. They own small businesses. They have done business with the band. Some of them have done business with that band for many years. They are stuck now. One owner of a hardware store is owed $60,000. That is just one small business. He does not have the taxpayers of Canada to depend upon.
This small business person is not able to go into the coffers of the people of Canada to pick on their tax dollars to solve his problems. He is stuck with a $60,000 debt. He does not blame the aboriginal people for it. I hope his relationship with them will continue to be good and fruitful in the future but it tests a relationship when someone gets stuck with a $60,000 bill. He is just one of hundreds of businessmen who are in the same situation right now.
As opposed to some who choose to engage in a sort of class warfare agenda, I do not. We have a situation here where small, private business people who do business with aboriginal people do so in the spirit of mutual benefit. It has been that way for a long time.
However when we push an agenda forward, like the self-government agenda that is being pushed forward today, and we see an increasing number of bands put into third party management situations, there is a problem. We have to be careful that bands have the preparatory skills and the resources available so they are able to handle those management responsibilities.
I have seen some good progress made in that respect. I know the AFN has been working with the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada to build and equip the aboriginal accounting managers, who have some serious responsibilities in terms of reserve management, to upgrade their skills so they are able to do a better job of managing the books of the bands.
However some bands in Manitoba believe we are pushing this agenda forward too rapidly. I think 10 or 12 bands right now are in third party management in Manitoba. Tens of millions of dollars are owed to people who did business with bands before they went into third party management. Now they are stuck and cannot get paid. That does not just hurt business people. I am not here defending small business but I think small business is the principal engine of growth in the country and that is where we should be looking to create real long term jobs.
That being said, I am also concerned about the impact that will have on the future business dealings of aboriginal managers. When those bands go out of third party and come back into a situation of governance, like the minister is dealing with in another piece of legislation, there will be some ongoing concerns about who will supply the bands with the goods and services they need. Who will do that?
If the reputation that the system has is one where there is much higher risk associated with small businesses doing business with bands it will make it more difficult for band managers. They will have to pay more for goods and services because of the added risks and the risk premium that will be charged to them will be a bloody shame. The taxpayers will pay the price for that but the aboriginal people will suffer the consequences.
We must recognize that with push comes shove. Sometimes if we push too rapidly in a political agenda it can have very dangerous consequences on the other end, not just for small business people but for aboriginal communities as well. That concerns me and I think it is an issue we should be addressing.
This particular legislation is portrayed as fulfilling a 10 year old commitment that the government made in the red book. I guess our hope is that we can resolve most of these claims a lot faster than it took to fulfill this particular commitment.
In terms of self-sufficiency, many underlying factors go into promoting self-sufficiency, whether it is on an individual level or when we speak of reserve communities. We agree with the minister's comments that promoting self-sufficiency on reserves is a noble goal. We recognize that access to investment and business start-up money is critical to the success of aboriginal communities in building and creating future jobs.
We recognize that which is why I am addressing the concerns about third party management and the issue of outstanding debt to business people who have dealt with aboriginal bands with the expectation of being paid. There is a consequence when one defaults. Access to investment in business start-up capital becomes an additionally onerous requirement because more money is needed to do business on a reserve if the premium for risk is excessively high, as it is right now in many aboriginal communities.
I want to back up and do a bit of historical referencing to the specific claims process. I was doing some historical reading and found a 1982 publication called “Outstanding Business”. It is a government document. It states:
--a specific claim is one based upon a “lawful obligation” of Canada to Indians.
Claims based on unextinguished Aboriginal title are expressly excluded, as were pre-Confederation claims until 1991. A specific claim, from the government's point of view, is little more than a claim for compensation.
The concept of lawful obligation is important here. Most Canadians want to see a resolution of the lawful obligations that the government has to aboriginal people because they perpetuate divisions in our society. They would also like to see them resolved in the interest of fairness and in the interest of unlocking the potential that does exist for the aboriginal people and the aboriginal communities.
The Department of Justice, however, assesses the validity of claims in terms of their chances of success in court and applies technical rules of evidence. Thus, legal validity informs the government's assessment of whether a claim properly falls within the scope of federal policy. This assessment is further informed, if not defined, by the examples of lawful obligations set out in the policy itself.
What does that mean? A lawful obligation can arise in any of the following circumstances and these define what specific claims are: first, the non-fulfillment of a treaty or agreement between Indians and the crown; second, a breach of an obligation arising out of the Indian Act or other statutes pertaining to Indians and the regulations they are under; third, a breach of an obligation arising out of government administration of Indian funds or other assets; and fourth, an illegal disposition of Indian land.
In addition to those, we have a situation where the government's determination of validity involves, in the estimation of many aboriginal people, a conflict of interest. The government's role in determining what in fact is a valid claim conflicts with the government's fiduciary obligation to aboriginal people and that the government itself should not be the arbiter and determiner of the nature and validity of claims. What this tries to do is set an arm's length mechanism in place that will assure those who participate in the process that they will be treated fairly and that the heavy hand of government will not be excessively brought to bear on the process itself. That is the intention.
The policy interpretations and practices have created that perception for a long time. What I think the legislation tries to do is change that perception for the better, but the reality is, in the minds again of many who participated in this process, that they see the process as somewhat arbitrary, self-serving and operating without due regard to established law. Negotiated settlements are meant to be achieved according to a broader range of rights and obligations than those otherwise enforceable in a court of law.
What we have to recognize is that federal policy has to set a clear standard by which their validity can be determined. If the Department of Justice has a problem with this, I would not be surprised because the reality is that government departments have been in conflict about how to resolve these types of issues for a good long time and probably will be for a good long time in the future.
I want to go back to that document again. I know it is a few years old but it gives a bit of a perspective. It states:
Of an estimated 600 specific claims in Canada as a whole, approximately 100 have been settled under the specific claims policy. As is often the case, however, these statistics do not reveal the full story. Most of the specific claims settlements have been made during the past five or six years....
This was written in 1986. It goes on to state that quite a few of the claims were settled in Saskatchewan and B.C. It also states:
As noted by the Indian Commission of Ontario, about one settlement a year is made in central and eastern Canada; several hundred claims remain to be dealt with across the country.
We have a problem in Canada, not just because of the number, of the 500 or 600 claims right now, but because of the potential for many more. This is in the category of concerns that the Canadian Alliance has about this particular legislation but we obviously agree with the need to expedite the claims.
According to INAC, approximately 1,200 specific claims have been submitted since 1973 when Canada started to address such claims. Some of them have been resolved. The minority of them have been resolved through negotiation. Some of them have ended up in court which as we alluded to earlier is a tremendously expensive process. It costs the taxpayers of Canada a great deal, but so does it cost the taxpayers of Canada a great deal for these issues to remain unresolved. We have to recognize that.
The Alliance has serious concerns about the bill as it is proposed today.
The bill puts an arbitrary cap of $7 million on the amount of the claims that could be dealt with through this process. The Assembly of First Nations has raised a number of concerns about how that cap technically would be determined. What would be included in it? Would legal fees be included in that or just the amount of the claim itself? These questions have to be addressed but certainly our concern is more fundamental than that.
Our concern is that the bill has the potential to create a two tier system for dealing with claim settlements. This is a view that has been expressed by a number of people. Calgary lawyer Ron Maurice, a Metis who has acted for bands on land claims, feels that the tribunal's cap would severely limit the tribunal's mandate. The bill is too narrow to deal with many of the 500 outstanding land claims. It reduces the tribunal to the equivalent of a small claims court.
A great many claims, probably the majority of the claims across the country, exceed, and in some cases far exceed, that amount. What about the more than 500 outstanding claims that we know of today that exceed the cap? Would the facilitation of the small claims result in a delay in the resolution of the larger? Would the process, by defining on the basis of size and that small goes faster, discriminate against the larger? Would the process ignore the validity of the claims? Would the process be able to deal with frivolous claims, expedite them and remove them from the process quickly?
Would the process give weight to the nature of the length of time with which the claim has been dealt? In some cases claims have been kicking around for decades. Would those claims be dealt with expeditiously? Obviously it seems if there are over seven million they would not. What would this do to deal with those longstanding issues of concern many aboriginal people have?
What we do not want to see are unnecessary and costly delays as a result of our attempt to facilitate the smaller claims. In so doing, the net benefit of this change may be very little where the gross benefit appears to be large, because the loss between the gross and the net would be the fact that specific valid, longstanding and larger aboriginal claims would not be dealt with expeditiously. That has been the case in the past. We are concerned about fairness here. We want to make sure that the process is fair.
There is another question that has not really been addressed and which I recognize cannot be addressed in legislation but should be considered in preparing legislation at least. It has to do with the issue of resources.
How much would it cost to resolve and run the tribunals and commissions? What would the costs actually be? I have not seen anything on that. We would need to see that information to do a full and proper evaluation of the nature of the process. The cost consequences go far beyond the costs of providing bureaucratic support and paying for personnel to be in these various positions.
What about the fact that by expediting small specific claims it encourages other claims? We have never made estimates. I met with National Chief Coon Come. He estimated 500 to 600 additional claims would come forward as a result of this process being put into place. Others have estimated it to be over 1,000. Does the government know?
The government did not know the cost of Bill C-68 when it brought it in. It estimated low and it was wrong. The government did not know the cost consequences. I do not believe it has fully evaluated the cost consequences to farmers and landowners of the species at risk legislation, or the animal cruelty act, a well established farm practice. I do not believe the government has considered those perspectives. It needs to consider them in the debate around this bill.
What would be the consequences of encouraging other claims to come forward? They have to be dealt with. Would we have a backlog? How long would it take for that backlog to be dealt with? These are questions that have to be debated and discussed.
There is another fundamental and difficult question which should be addressed. It has to do with the problem faced by aboriginal people on reserves whose lives all too often are governed by hopelessness. They believe that at some undetermined point way off there in the distant future they are going to be the beneficiaries of one of these specific claim settlements and boy, that will solve all their problems.
We have to expedite the valid claims but there is a danger that we perpetuate a culture that says to people that the problems they experience in their home community can be solved by somebody else, that they can be solved by that big government in Ottawa and by golly, that is the way they are going to solve their problems. There is a danger with that.
We do not want young people who are growing up on reserves to believe for a second that somebody here in this building will solve their future problems. We want them to understand that their problems will best be solved by the people in their own communities, their own families, their own friends, their own leaders and their own support groups. The people at the community level are the people we want them to depend on, not somebody here in this building, not somebody in Ottawa.
That psychology of externalizing the solutions is dangerous. The first thing is to look within oneself. That is what I encourage my children to do and I encourage aboriginal children to do the same. Many aboriginal parents have expressed that concern to me in meetings. They want to be sure we do not substitute the real measures that individuals can take. This is what they are saying to me. If we do not substitute those real measures they can take it home to their own communities with the solutions that Ottawa may or may not arrive at. It will benefit them at some distant point down the road.
The final point I would make is a concern that is raised by many Canadians which is the lack of aboriginal involvement in the process. A major dispute going on right now in British Columbia is a referendum about the treaty in British Columbia. Without getting into the minutiae of the debate, the fact is that many people feel they were not involved early on in the process. That lack of involvement is not something that should be addressed just on the aboriginal side. The minister has taken some flak because his consultations did not reach out in the way they should have to women, to reserve residents and to many other people. The point I would make is the consultation in respect to the governance act has failed at least in part because non-aboriginal people were not involved.
We are in this together. The less we focus on what separates and divides us and the more we focus on the fact that we belong to one another in this country, the better it will be. The fact remains that non-aboriginal people view themselves as people who are in a sharing position with aboriginal people. For the most part they support the goals aboriginal people have for a better life. They want to solve these problems in partnership. They do not want to be shunted aside and just asked to pay up. Rather they would like to feel they are making a real contribution to solving the problem. They should be consulted early. Failing to do that creates a division and a sense of separateness that really taints the discussion.
I have aboriginal friends who say it is none of my business, just pay my taxes and they will take the money because it is owed to them. Some of my friends have that attitude. On the other side, non-aboriginal friends of mine say that they do not like that attitude and why should they just pay their taxes and shut up? When there is that kind of divisive tone in a debate, not much gets done. The perpetuation of that kind of racial divide is dangerous to our country.
It is very dangerous here and we are seeing it in British Columbia with the referendum debate. If credible opportunities are not given for non-aboriginal people to be involved in the process, then the point is being missed. Aboriginal people matter in the debate as well. The key in this is fairness, a word the minister used. The government does have communications people who I am sure contributed greatly to the minister's speech today, but the word fairness was used. The government uses that word quite a bit. Balance is a close second. Those are good noble word. The reality is the process has to reflect that but it is missing here.
Why is it missing? Because the federal government broke its promise. What it promised to do a decade ago in that red book was create an independent claims body. The promise went further in the red book. It said that it would be jointly appointed by the government and the first nations.
That is not what this will do. What this does is it gives the power to appoint the counsellors and the members of the commission to the Prime Minister's Office. It shuts out the aboriginal people from the process of determining who those people are. We could get into a debate about the merits of that, pro and con, but the fact is that commitment was made. A promise was made; a promise was broken. It is not the first one but I hope, and I think most aboriginal people hope, that it will be the last that is broken.
The appointment process, according to National Chief Matthew Coon Come, is this. He says:
The appointment process makes the entire process open to possible patronage nominations. This will not serve Canada or First Nations well.
Those are wise words. The national chief is right to express those concerns. We have those concerns as well.
The grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations says:
The appointment to the tribunal must not be done unilaterally by the Crown. We want some input into the criteria of who is selected to sit on the tribunal to ensure that it is independent and the process is seen as meaningful by First Nations and all Canadians.
These are legitimate concerns expressed by legitimately elected aboriginal leaders at the national level and the provincial level. We share these concerns. The process has to be fair and it has to be seen to be fair or it will not work.
The government is putting more control in its own hands, in the Prime Minister's hands, through this process despite its earlier commitments to share that control and that selection process with the aboriginal people. That is a broken promise and is a disappointment to many aboriginal people.
Finally, June 21 is coming up fast. Not fast enough I expect for many of the members here. June 21 is National Aboriginal Day. This piece of legislation stands as an example, in words at least, of the government's intention to resolve one of the longest standing areas of dispute between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians. In that respect, it is our sincere hope that we can, with amendments, make this legislation work effectively to achieve its stated goals.
I know that on June 21 many of us will be joining our aboriginal friends to celebrate their great contribution to this country. When we celebrate the uniqueness and the great contributions of aboriginal people, we will not be celebrating our differences, we will be celebrating our shared qualities. It is those shared qualities on which the Canadian Alliance wants to build. We recognize that we belong to one another and we will ensure that we do everything possible to stand up for the rights of individual aboriginal Canadians and for the great contribution that aboriginal societies have made and will continue to make to our country.