Mr. Speaker, I am rising to speak to Bill C-6, an act to establish the Canadian Centre for the Independent Resolution of First Nations Specific Claims to provide for the filing, negotiation and resolution of specific claims and to make related amendments to other acts.
This means that the bill before us today is designed to set up a permanent centre to evaluate specific claims brought against the federal government by first nations across our country. An Indian claims commission already exists, as most of us are aware, but it was put in place some 12 years ago, back in 1991, as a temporary measure, just like our taxation and many other things. It has lasted this long and now there is an attempt to put something together in a different fashion. This proposed centre for resolving first nations specific claims is supposed to replace that temporary commission of some 12 years ago.
For the most part, as my colleague across the way mentioned, specific claims deal with outstanding grievances that first nations have regarding Canada's fulfillment of its obligations under historic treaties or its administration of first nations lands or other assets under the Indian Act. That of course is in contrast to more comprehensive claims, substantial land claim treaties such as Nisga'a and Delgamuukw, which have been debated at length in the House over the last number of years. There is a difference with these claims in the fact that they are outstanding grievances in terms of their reserve lands not being handled by or being sold off by an Indian agent with funds being pocketed by that individual, or other things of that nature.
The House has already considered the bill, but now the Senate has sent it back to us and is reporting suggested amendments. The Senate examined Bill C-6 and found it to be unsatisfactory as it was written. Most of us on the aboriginal affairs committee had some sense that there were some major concerns around some things and probably some flaws in the bill. It comes as no surprise to those of us who served on that committee that the bill has come back from the Senate with some suggested amendments, but we do not think they go far enough.
In what was often a very passionate debate in the other place, both Liberal and Progressive Conservative senators condemned the legislation. They even tried to kill it with a hoist amendment. These senators observed all of the most serious flaws in the bill, which had already been noted by members within the committee, by myself and, in the House, by the Canadian Alliance before the bill went to the Senate.
As a result, after its scrutiny and examination, the Senate has proposed several amendments to try to improve the bill, as was mentioned by my colleague across the way. We think there is some partial merit to them. That would be faint praise, I suppose, in support of these amendments, because they go only a small way in an attempt to mitigate or improve the worst aspects of the bill. Unfortunately they do not go far enough, so we continue to oppose the bill itself.
In the Senate, a hoist amendment was introduced during third reading debate after the amendments had been tabled by the Senate's aboriginal peoples committee. We can see, then, from the public record that even with these amendments, this particular bill still generated strong opposition. In fact, the bill generated much more debate than the government expected, so the Liberals resorted to the use of a time allocation motion to terminate debate.
We have become quite familiar with that anti-democratic tool in this place. It has become a very popular weapon in the hands of governments and of this government in terms of using closure an unprecedented number of times, but for the record and for the viewing audience, it is rarely used in the other place. It is rather uncharacteristic to use closure in the Senate.
The disgust expressed against the government for stooping to such tactics in that place came not just from the opposition members in the Senate but also from Liberal senators. That is another experience that we in this House are unfamiliar with, as often protest or outrage is not expressed by members on the government side when closure is being used in the House of Commons.
My point in recounting some of these events that happened in the other place is to demonstrate that the Canadian Alliance is joined by many others of different political and cultural persuasions in our opposition to this government bill. That opposition to Bill C-6 is across party lines, across cultural lines and from aboriginals and non-aboriginals.
To show how obstinate the government is, it bulldozes forward with this agenda in the face of widespread, reasoned opposition. I believe it is another example of how the government has not been listening as it should. Maybe the majority it has in the House is far too large. Maybe there is too big a gap and it needs to have its feet held to the fire a little more.
In committee, we had some very reasonable amendments that were dismissed and summarily swept aside. That does not sit well with members of a committee who carefully thought through these things, had discussions and listened to the testimony and so on only to have it just simply batted aside as being of no account, with the bureaucrats and the department saying that they knew what was best and they were just going to ram this thing through come hell or high water, that it did not matter what we on the committee said.
A government that gets to the point where it figures it has all the answers and is arrogant and unresponsive to the needs and circumstances of real people is a government that will not be bringing forward the kind of legislation we need. Its legislation will be badly flawed and marred. To say that it will be imperfect is an understatement.
As a result, a lot of the House's time is wasted on badly drafted legislation that does not suit the purposes, has a cosmetic and very superficial effect and is not for the good of the individuals directly affected by the bill.
Initially I was prepared to say I was pleased that some amendments have been made to the bill and that the minister has condescended to accept them, but I am not even sure that I am pleased with this situation. A couple of the amendments might have some consequential impact, one might say, on the specifics claims process. I will come to that in a moment.
We believe that others, like increasing the tribunal cap from $7 million to $10 million, are little more than tokenism in terms of the real substance of the issues involved in this particular bill. That increase from $7 million to $10 million came by way of the Senate report to the House, by the way.
It has been some time since this bill has been before us, seven months to be exact, so I want to remind the House of what Bill C-6 proposes to do in establishing a specific claims process. Then I want to go on to discuss some of those Senate amendments and how they relate to the concerns we and others in the committee process have raised about Bill C-6.
Bill C-6 would set up a claims resolution centre made up of a commission and a tribunal. A first nation could file a claim with the commission. If it were to meet the terms of an “admissible claim” for the purposes of the commission, the claim would then be submitted to the Minister of Indian Affairs for his consideration. The commission would then convene preparatory meetings to help the claimant present its case to the minister. Upon completion of this phase of the process, the commission must suspend proceedings until it receives a written response from the minister as to whether or not he will even consider to negotiate the claim.
One of the major flaws in this is the fact that the minister is not given a deadline of any kind with respect to making his decision. I think there might even be an admission from the government in its heart of hearts that this is a problem; in a quieter moment, off to the side, not in this more contentious atmosphere, this more partisan place, I think there might be an admission. It is a major problem. It is a recipe for stonewalling, for obfuscation and for never getting back. It is really very unfair.
In a court of law process or in any other kind of procedure across the country one would assume that at some point there must be deadlines. They might be protracted and extracted and long, but there must be some kind of deadlines. None of that is here for the minister and we think there is very major problem with that. It is not justice. It is not even the norm in respect to other contexts in our country.
If the minister were to decide not to negotiate the claim, the commission would sit down with both parties in an attempt to help them resolve the question of the validity of the claim, using alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. If that process did not work, then the claimant could request that the case be sent to the tribunal, but only if the amount of the claim did not exceed $7 million, or $10 million if the House accepts the Senate amendment to that effect.
If the tribunal were to decide that a claim was valid or, if at the earlier stage in the process the minister were to decide that he would negotiate the claim, the commission would then have to try to help those two parties arrive at an agreeable amount of compensation.
Again, if the compensation question could not be resolved by the commission, the claimant could then make an appeal for the tribunal to hear the case, but only if the compensation being demanded by the claimant--and this is the kicker--did not exceed, in the case of the Senate amendment, $10 million. The tribunal then has the power to make a binding decision after it has heard the case. The government, however, can request a judicial review of the tribunal's decision.
The goal behind this bill, or at least what we are told is the goal behind this bill, is to expedite the process of resolving specific claims. Between 1970 and March of last year, Indian bands across the country had filed 1,146 claims. Only 232 had been settled. That backlog is terrible and it is only getting worse. It is not diminishing, with both the government and first nations, I would have to say, becoming increasingly frustrated with the current system.
Unfortunately, as I made mention of earlier, Bill C-6 is not the legislation that we need to solve the problem. In fact, the mechanisms proposed are likely to make matters worse. Liberal senators were very forthright, more forthright than government members in the House, when it came to acknowledging the imperfections in this particular bill, but those commissioned to push this bill forward essentially said that it is better to pass a bad law than no law at all.
I do not think I have ever known people as passionately committed to mediocrity as those in the current government, which says that it is better to get bad bills through than no bills at all. I do not buy that and I do not think a lot of the public does, because it then creates messes that have to be cleaned up thereafter.
Liberal Senator Anne Cools put it very well during debate in the Senate when she stated:
Honourable senators, I want you to know that we sit here again and again and feel compelled and driven by governments to pass bad bills or insufficient bills or inadequate bills.
I want to repeat that because I think it bears repeating. Senator Anne Cools, who is a Liberal senator, stated:
Honourable senators, I want you to know that we sit here again and again and feel compelled and driven by governments to pass bad bills or insufficient bills or inadequate bills.
Rarely if ever is it appropriate, in my view, to pass a bad bill rather than no bill at all. Even aboriginal people, those whom the government claims it is helping by implementing this legislation, are telling the government that it is better to fix this bill than to pass it in its current form. That is the message the government has heard from the Assembly of First Nations as well as many individual bands. That is also the message the government heard from three of Canada's five aboriginal senators, all of whom are government members, as well as from Senator Gerry St. Germain, a Canadian Alliance senator who counts Métis as part of his ancestral heritage.
The Hon. Charlie Watt from Quebec, one of Canada's aboriginal senators, in reference to urging from the government to pass Bill C-6 as it began to turn up the heat and tighten the screws, stated this with regard to Senator Austin saying that action is needed now:
Maybe action is needed now, but is this the right instrument that we are providing to the aboriginal people? Will it advance the rights of the people? I don't think so
The Hon. Aurélien Gill, another aboriginal senator, made similar comments, stating that:
It became clear in committee that National Chief Phil Fontaine [the new head of the Assembly of First Nations] is urging the government not to pass this bill, but rather to discuss it further. Peter Hutchins, an expert, told us: “Wait, take your time; there are some major issues in this bill”.
The fact that the Senate sent Bill C-6 back to the House with amendments is actually a good thing. It gives us one last chance, one might say, to fix it properly before the government passes this particular piece of legislation. The House can accept the Senate's amendments or reject them or amend them. The government is recommending that we just simply accept those recommendations and breeze on through, but my party and I do not believe that is the right solution. Rather, this House should amend those Senate amendments, strengthening them even further and adding to them before sending the bill to the other place and before sending the bill to the Governor General for royal assent.
Let us take a few minutes to look at some of the specific amendments proposed by the Senate. One of those amendments would raise the cap for cases that can be heard by the tribunal from $7 million to $10 million. This deals with clause 56 of the bill. This cap is the maximum award that the new claims centre is permitted to authorize for any single claim.
In light of the figures we are dealing with when it comes to specific claims, increasing the cap from $7 million to $10 million is ridiculous. It is almost not worth the effort. We proposed in committee a cap of some $25 million.
If there is validity to the claim, and if they do not deal with some of the railway claims in B.C. and so on, then on average they are more than this. We think it is cosmetic, it is superficial, it is just on the surface and really not about the business of getting a better result for things here.
The Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development has claimed that the $7 million cap has been set high enough to conclude most specific claims. At least that was the argument made at the earlier stage in committee when we had it before the House. Yet in a footnote to its legal analysis of Bill C-6, the Assembly of First Nations notes that AFN technicians have been informed by Miss Kathleen Lickers, commission counsel for the Indian Claims Commission, that of the 120 claims the ICC has dealt with, only three have been settled for less than $7 million. The AFN analysis adds that in the past three years, from 2000 to 2003, 8 of the 14 claims paid out by the federal government were for amounts about $7 million.
The Assembly of First Nations acknowledges:
It is true that in the earlier period from 1990-91 through 1999-2000, a majority of payouts actually were for less than $7 million; but there is no reason to believe that this earlier record of relatively low settlements can be projected forward.
Some of these, as I said, reflected claims regarding railway land, and it was all small stuff. However, we could add up the numbers and say that we go through ICC a lot of claims, when in fact it is all small potatoes and there really is not a lot of stuff in dispute.
There is no reason to believe that this earlier record of relatively low settlements can be projected forward into the future. There was likely bias in the system for settling smaller claims, and without reports to an independent tribunal, first nations were in a very weak bargaining position.
Interest on the value of claims will also increase their value through time. If inflation is worked into it, then we have problems that are not taken into account by the cap, even in the amended cap that the Senate has suggested.
I have heard recommendations from first nations representatives calling, as a bare minimum, for an increase to the cap to anywhere from $14 million to $30 million, to enable the centre to hear the majority of current claims.
I introduced an amendment when this bill was being studied by the aboriginal affairs committee to increase the cap to $25 million. I thought it was a reasonable one. After all, this is about getting it out of the very expensive, drawn out court system for the government. These people do not work for nothing and lawyers bill on a pretty good rate per hour. It is costing our taxpayers a considerable amount of money.
If we can get the right mechanism and the right kind of a claims centre together, such that there is a perception of independence, then we can save taxpayers a considerable amount of money. We will actually do service to the aboriginal peoples as well.
Some people might be concerned that making the cap higher is fiscally irresponsible because it will commit the government to greater fiscal obligations than would be the case with a lower cap, but really that is not the case. The government has dealt separately with the question of how much money is available annually. It is a different issue. It has already set an amount. It has already indicated what is available annually to distribute to the claimants who have won their cases.
As well, the claim centre does not increase the number of claims before the government. It simply provides an alternative process for hearing them. Whether they were heard in the courts or resolved through this commission and tribunal, if the judges or adjudicators found in favour of a claimant, the government would be obligated to settle in either case.
Cases take longer and cost more when dragged through the courts, having the effect of delaying the time when a final decision is brought down and also postpones the date at which the government is required to pay out a claim for a decision made in favour of the claimant. Therefore, the imposition of a cap on the tribunal looks more like a strategic stalling tactic by the government rather than as an example of fiscal prudence, and I think members have commented on that.
I would think independent objective observers would say this is a recipe for disaster, a recipe for stalling by the government. The imposition of a cap complicates things and undermines the great thing we are trying to achieve by way of an expedited process.
The cap also looks like a stalling mechanism when examined from another perspective. The minister of Indian affairs has tried to play down the significance of the cap by noting that it only applies to the tribunal and not to the commission. In other words, it will only be applicable for screening out claims that cannot be resolved by the commission and therefore might be brought before the tribunal for a binding decision.
I thought I had unlimited time, Mr. Speaker, with respect to this matter.