Mr. Speaker, thank you for your admission and concession. I appreciate the rules of the House and your diligent application of them in fairness to all of us.
As I was saying, cases take longer when they are dragged through the courts to no end. They have the effect of delaying the time when a final decision is brought down, postponing the time at which the government is required to pay out the claim for decision made in favour of the claimant.
We believe this kind of strategic stalling by the government is not an example of fiscal prudence. I am a fiscal conservative and I think taxpayer dollars have to be watched carefully and closely. When we drag it out through the court system, which is the other route to go, it serves no one. In fact it is very negative in terms of getting disputes resolved in a very difficult area.
Surely, the minister understands that this cap gives government officials much greater leverage for claims than is to be expected in the ballpark of $10 million. Let us use an illustration to make the point.
Take a situation in which the claimants believe their claim has a value of $13 million. In this scenario the government refuses to accept the claim and negotiations collapse. The claimants therefore have to decide whether to lower their demand to only $10 million in order to proceed to the tribunal or to insist on their demands for the full amount. In this case the claimants have to start from scratch all over again in the court system, drag it out to no end and add a great length of time. That is even if the band has the funds necessary to launch a court case.
This illustration demonstrates how the existence of a cap, and such a low cap at that, can greatly benefit the government victimizing the claimants all over again. In some of these cases it is quite heart-rending to read of how Indian agents took advantage of a first nation and pocketed the money themselves. There was great injustice. The first nations in an earlier time, in a different era, did not have the means to defend themselves and they were victimized. Now they are being victimized all over again.
Does the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development really believe that this kind of policy is helpful in building a culture of trust and mutual respect between the Canadian government and first nations people?
There is another aspect to the cap, and I think it is a trap, that troubles me. It is not addressed by any Senate amendments, but it was discussed as an observation in its report to the House, and it was a topic of debate in the Senate.
The government could deal with the matter if it chose to do so by amending the Senate report that was delivered to us rather than simply accepting the Senate amendments as written. The troubling aspect of the cap revolves around the fact that Bill C-6 requires a claim to be heard twice by the commission and by the tribunal if the claim cannot be resolved through the commission.
It first has to go through a validity phase which is designed to determine the validity of the claim. After that claim is deemed valid, if the government decides to negotiate it or if the tribunal rules that the government must negotiate it, the claim then has to go through a similar process to determine compensation.
What is astonishing to me is that $7 million, or if we take the Senate recommendation to amend it to $10 million, that cap, whatever it is, applies to both stages. In other words, just to have the tribunal determine the validity of a claim prior to any consideration of the value of compensation that might be determined through compensation related negotiations, the claimant is then expected to waive the right to a payout higher than $10 million.
There is absolutely no good reason why the potential value of a claim should have any bearing on the right of the tribunal to consider it for the purpose of determining its validity. That is another question. The validity and compensation amount are so interwoven, so inseparable that I think it does hurt the process.
Requiring a cap at the validity stage of the process greatly weakens the potential usefulness of the proposed claim centre. Since the bill clearly separates these two parts of the process, it should be relatively easy, we would think, to eliminate the cap requirement for the validity stage. Is it valid or is it not? Let us not get into the issue of the compensation at that point, but is it a valid claim?
In committee the Canadian Alliance introduced an amendment that would have done that but, unfortunately, there was no intelligent discussion of the amendment nor any give and take. There might have even been some adjustment on our part to hear some wisdom in respect to that, but it was just summarily swept aside.
In the Senate, the hon. Nick Sibbeston, an aboriginal senator who was supporting the bill, indicated that this matter was raised with the government by the Senate committee examining the bill. According to Senator Sibbeston, the response the committee received was to this effect. He said:
--the government sees the situation as putting a system in place. No one is perfectly sure how it all will work--
I admit that because that is the way it is with most bills. He goes on to state:
--and it wants to see how the system works before it makes more improvements.
The last part is the telling part. The government will use this as a guinea pig, a trial and error kind of system, not having any sense of the degree to which it will be effective and how it will work before it makes more improvements.
What kind of answer is that for the government to say that it is the government and therefore it will give it a shot. It will simply see what kind of mistakes there are, what kinds of messes are left and then it might take a look at it later. I do not know if this is too strong a word but I think it is a bit of arrogance when that attitude is taken and it oozes from the remarks in that statement.
What is wrong with the government in this respect? Has it lost its ability to think clearly and seriously consider reasoned amendments from others around the House? All wisdom does not reside in any one party. It does not reside on the government side or any party on this side. I would be the first to admit that but why does the government have to assume that it is all on its benches?
Has it lost any interest in developing effective, responsible, workable legislation? That is the role of members in this place. The role of the opposition is to constructively and positively go after these things and try to get a better piece of legislation and a better result.
If the government cannot defend an aspect of its legislation, but only say that it will try it out and see what kinds of messes and problems we have, what on earth is it doing here? If it does not have a reasonably good sense or projection that it will work, and that is the only response when questioned in respect to the perceived flaws in the bill, then what is going on in this place?
I want to read into the record the brief statement that the Senate made on this aspect of the bill because its observations following committee hearings are very instructive. It states:
The Committee frequently heard, both from First Nations and neutral observers, that the requirement for claimants to waive their rights to compensation above the specified cap (as set out in Section 32) in order to obtain a Tribunal ruling on the validity of their claim was the single most significant flaw with the Bill. The government expressed concern that removing this requirement would pose undue and unpredictable financial risk and might imbalance the overall operations of the Commission and Tribunal. Given the safeguards built into the legislation (Section 71), this seems to reflect an excessive concern with risk aversion.
That comes right out of the brief statement that the Senate made on this particular aspect of the bill. Those are not my words. Those are not the words of a possibly perceived partisan individual. Those words come from the Senate's report on this aspect of the bill. It says that it is the single most significant flaw in the bill. Those were not the words of the Assembly of First Nations, a member from the opposition side, some other native group nor somebody with a bigger axe to grind. The senators are telling the government that imposing the cap at both stages of the claims resolution process seems to reflect an excessive concern with risk aversion.
Let me continue from the Senate report. It states:
We are concerned that the financial cap on validity will create two categories of claims within the system and could create a significant impediment to the settlement of larger claims.
The committee then explains its views by saying that an incremental approach in this area may be better, which is why it recommends including it in the three to five year review of the bill rather than making it an amendment at this time.
I do not see any reason to wait to amend this section of the bill. If all kinds of groups saw it as the single most significant flaw in the bill, the Senate included, then if it remains in the legislation how will it encourage an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect surrounding the specific claims resolution process?
I want to stress that the first nations have indicated that without the potential for a tribunal to issue a binding decision on a claim, the government lacks the incentive to process the claim in an expeditious manner. We can see clearly their lack of confidence in this new system.
The claims centre proposed in Bill C-6 is seen as useless in terms of dealing with claims that are valued higher than the very minimal cap that is being proposed in the bill. If the cap is going to remain in the legislation it should be increased, as we suggested in committee, to at least $25 million and should be removed altogether from the validity stage of the claims process. That is another issue: determining the validity, looking at the evidence, looking at the historical facts and so on to determine the validity of the claim itself.
The Senate also made a couple of amendments that would allow for some input from first nations in the appointment of the commissioners and the adjudicators for the centre, as well as for the agency's chair and for the vice-chair. This amendment affects clause 5, clause 20 and clause 41 of Bill C-6. Specifically, first nations would be able to “make representations in respect of appointments to the office or offices in question”.
In other words, after the Minister of Indian Affairs has made his appointments, first nations representatives can provide input as to their thoughts about the people who have already been appointed. That is about as backward as it can get. It is a process that happens in our country maybe far too often when the PMO appoints individuals and then we have our chance to fire away, but what good does it do after the fact? We would like that in a whole range of things, in respect to judges and some of the other appointments where they are vetted through the appropriate standing committee, before not after.
What good does it do if the appointment is made and then after the fact we get to write letters and e-mails that go in the wrong files? We get to badger away and play it up in the media if they have an interest at that point because it is a done deal.
This is very disrespectful and not at all helpful when we just simply allow them after the fact. It is already a fait accompli and at that point then the first nations representatives can provide input as to their thoughts about the people who have already been appointed. What a useless, senseless thing to do in the bill. What good would it do when the person is appointed and already in place?
This is certainly a far cry from what was proposed in the 1998 joint task force report produced by the government and first nations following several years of discussions. I want to spend some time later reading large sections of that report. The government spent three years negotiating with first nations, the back and forth, the give and take, around the table together. Some rapport, some mutualities and some respect I assume was built up over that time. They spent some three years coming up with a plan for dealing with specific claims.
The report from the joint First Nations-Canada task force on specific claims policy reform reiterated the longstanding recommendation for an independent claims centre, this being a fair bit of writing to which we can look at and refer to in respect to the independence of this bigger claim centre.
The primary mechanism by which it was going to be made independent was by a joint government first nations process for appointing the commissioners and adjudicators. That was in the report. Both parties were to arrive at a list of jointly approved candidates and the government would pick the commissioners and adjudicators from that list. It seems like a fair process. It seems like common sense.
The government, however, has completely abandoned that proposal. In Bill C-6 the government has the exclusive prerogative of appointing the officials and then reappointing them. Others in the peanut gallery can make comments and decry or deride these particular appointments but the government has the exclusive prerogative to increase or reduce the number of commissioners or adjudicators within, of course, the parameters provided by the bill. The Senate amendment does not change that process. Its amendment is nothing more than window dressing.
In response to demands for more first nations participation in the appointment process, government spokesmen object that there is no precedent for the government sharing the responsibility of making appointments, whether we are talking about judges or officials who serve on quasi-judicial tribunals or government boards. They say the government must preserve the final authority over such appointments, including to the specific claims agency.
While it might be true, whether we are talking about judges or other appointments, that there is no kind of precedent in our country, that is unfortunate. There is a precedent in other modern democracies around the world. Our neighbour to the south of us, just beyond the 49th parallel, has a very good process where there is that greater scrutiny, that greater look at individuals coming forth, because their background, their biases, their world view, their perceptions and so on are all pretty significant in terms of how they will handle that job and the degree of objectivity or lack thereof that might be the case. Just because we have never done it that way is not to say that might not be a considerable improvement. As we look at other places around the world where it is already in place, we think it actually allows the public to have a greater say and greater access to the process.
The government is confusing the issue with such an assertion that it has never done it that way before. I do not dispute the government's prerogative to have, and we will even concede, maybe the final say in making appointments, but the proposal recommended in the joint task force report does not take away that prerogative from the government. I still do not understand why the government has refused to implement that very reasonable proposal in Bill C-6.
The joint task force proposal gives the government the final decision on appointments to the specific claims resolution centre but it also gives first nations direct participation in the appointment process. That is a far cry from the paternalistic tokenism reflected in the Senate amendment, not to mention the complete shutting out of aboriginal input that was established in the unamended bill.
When we read the Senate debates on Bill C-6 we will hear critics of Bill C-6 repeatedly raising the question of the independence of the specific claims resolution centre. Defenders of the bill repeatedly assert that the centre was as independent as one could make it in our political system, which is not saying a lot, and in respect of the fiduciary responsibilities the federal government has toward the first nations across the country.
Critics, however, remain unsatisfied with the government's assertions, warning that the centre could not and will not win the trust and the confidence of first nations people.
I do not dispute the point that making this centre independent, not to mention giving it the appearance of independence, is a challenge, admittedly so, but what is clear to me is that the government is not up to that challenge, not at all. It is not even coming close. It is not even attempting to give it the perception of any kind of independence here. The government is not up to the challenge, as would appear in the report from the Senate back to us and the intent of the government as it bulldozes ahead on this particular piece of legislation.
Proposals to help give the centre independence and the important appearance of independence are staring the government in the face from the pages of the joint task force report and the amendments proposed earlier by the Canadian Alliance, yet the government is completely ignoring them.
I will have to wrap it up as time runs out, but I assume that I begin to speak at the point where we resume with Bill C-6 in the future. I have much to say and I am just getting warmed up and getting into this crucial topic.