Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise to speak on Bill C-6 today.
As I said earlier, I was the critic for Indian affairs for seven years, before being assigned to national defence. I will start by greeting all my aboriginal friends across Canada and Quebec. I want them to know that these seven years were an absolutely extraordinary experience.
I greatly enjoy discovering new cultures. I think that being the critic for aboriginal affairs is the best of all because one gets to reach out to new cultures.
Earlier, several members mentioned that there are more than 600 aboriginal communities. The Erasmus-Dussault commission identified approximately 60 across Canada. The aboriginal issue is definitely one full of adventure, because we are discovering not only one new culture but several new cultures, depending on the nations or communities we visit.
My time among aboriginal people has left an enduring impression on me. I remember being invited by the Assembly of First Nations of the Yukon in 1994, when we resolved the issue of land claims and self-government. I remember that trip in particular because my daughter was with me, and we were welcomed so warmly. These people are open-minded and they take great pride in showing us their land. I remember going fishing on the Yukon River and being taken to a mountain from which we could see the midnight sun. These memories will be with me forever.
I also intervened in the whale hunting issue on the west coast, and Vancouver Island in particular. At the time, the ministry responsible for Indian affairs in British Columbia had taken action and said it would be allowing whales to be caught for use as a traditional food source.
The same is true for the Chilcotin people, whom I visited in British Columbia. They gave me a tour of claimed land. Incidentally, aboriginal claims have consistently been diluted when the deadline draws near. Back in those days, I was told that 125% of British Columbia was claimed because of something called overlaps. If we look at the settlement concerning the land of the Nisga'a, which I also visited many times, the Nisga'a settled for 7% of all their claims.
Thus, I have had many wonderful experiences, and some that were less pleasant, as well. I think you were with me, Mr. Speaker, when we went to Pikangikum in northern Ontario, where we saw some very sad scenes. The village was so isolated, so abandoned and alone. It had so little. It was so negative an environment that within one year, I believe, there had been about 20 suicides among the young people.
I recall some emotional moments when we talked with the parents. They did not have a cemetery: the burial ground was next to their house. They took us to see their children's graves. On one cross there was a hockey stick and helmet, and next to it, a little girl's rosary beads. It was absolutely devastating. One needs to have children to comprehend the enormous despair felt by the entire community of Pikangikum which, in some ways, reflects what is happening in Canada.
There are many problems in most parts of Canada. I can name some of them. I think it began with the arrival of the Europeans. We have to face the fact that these people were here before us. what happened was that they were so welcoming—just as I see today when I go to the reserves—that they said to the Europeans, “We are prepared to welcome you. We have a lot of land here, and we will share it with you.”
Little by little, the aboriginal mentality, which remained unchanged, came up against the mentality of the white people, who had a kind of predisposition to conquer and take over as much land as possible. That is when the aboriginal communities began to pull back, as I see it, not because they wanted to, but because the white people forced them to.
We can look at the numbered treaties; there are ten or so in Canada, in various provinces.
The white people never respected these treaties. These were ad hoc treaties signed by a general and an aboriginal chief. The white people quickly forgot about them. It is sad. At times, I am ashamed of what was done.
Members should read the Erasmus-Dussault report, which cost tens of millions of dollars. In chapter after chapter, the report gives historical data proving that the aboriginals were shoved aside. They were told they would be taken care of and put on reserves. Today, they have been abandoned. The reserves are experiencing numerous problems. There is also an obvious funding problem.
What happened over time? We have examples. There were residential schools, which attempted to cleanse the students of their aboriginal culture and languages, which are so beautiful and so increasingly rare today. Some twenty remain in use. These languages will soon be called dead languages. However, they are extraordinary languages that should be saved and promoted for our international heritage.
All this to say that the residential schools were an attempt to break a generation. The great leaders of the aboriginal movement, such as Matthew Coon Come, experienced the residential schools. Today, everyone agrees that, at the very least, we must apologize for these schools. I am not convinced that the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has apologized. He recognized that there was a problem. However, he has not yet apologized because, naturally, when an apology is made, there are legal consequences with regard to compensation. Perhaps the government is guarding against this.
What I have seen since I arrived in Parliament is no different from the conquest of aboriginal lands by the early Europeans. Since I became a member of the House of Commons, I have witnessed the continued decline of the aboriginals. As parliamentarians, we have responsibilities. We know that the federal government has almost exclusive jurisdiction in this area.
There is, however, also the other power: the judiciary. I have often said to my colleagues in caucus that, when one looks at the Supreme Court of Canada decisions, they are nearly 100 to 1 in favour of the aboriginal people. The Supreme Court has brought down decisions on all manner of topics: fisheries, hunting, forests, and aboriginal entitlement has been advanced considerably by the courts. Yet Parliament is quick to claim the Supreme Court victory as its own, in the case of the one decision that is in its favour, and to bring in legislation to ensure the Supreme Court decision is respected. But for the 100 or more decisions in favour of the aboriginal people, these are quickly put into file 13 and forgotten. This is absolutely deplorable, and is more or less what is happening here.
There are major problems on the reserves. I have already referred to the residential schools. That may be a thing of the past, but there are other problems. Would we in white society accept children being told they cannot go to on to post-secondary education next year because there is no money to send them there? Yet that happens on the reserves, and is absolutely unacceptable.
When I was Indian Affairs critic, we made representations year after year in an attempt to remedy the situation. It remains unchanged. There are still children on the reserves who have graduated from secondary school and are being told that, because one group of students has already been sent out, they will have to wait for another year for their turn at post-secondary education.
Then there is the housing problem, with three and four generations under one roof, sometimes. The federal government is incapable of coming up with the money to build houses, as it was supposed to under the social contract of the day. That was what the social contract was: we will take care of you. And look how they are being taken care of.
There are problems with drugs, alcohol, housing, education, and health. There is everything negative imaginable. In my opinion, our attitude with respect to first nations is a disgrace to Canada.
What is happening today with Bill C-6 and the new specific claims commission? As far as I am concerned, we have been working to change this for a long time. The minister listened to people who appeared before the standing committee, but he is completely ignoring what they said.
Everyone, the primary stakeholders, those who will have to live with the bad system, have said, “This cannot be done. It will not work”.
To start with, who will appoint members to the commission? The governor in council. Once again, it is the white man who has decided, “We know what you need and what will help you. We will give this to you, no matter what you say”. It is a little like saying, “We know what is good for you, we want what is good for you and we will give you what is good for you”. In the end, it is not what is good for them, but what is good for us that is the priority.
The governor in council appoints members to the commission. Do the first nations have a say in whether a given member is a good choice?
We have been denouncing partisanship in the commissions for a long time, and it is no different whether we are talking about immigration or the First Nations Specific Claims Commission. Let us talk about Elijah Harper, who lost his seat in the House of Commons when he was defeated by the member for Churchill. He left and was appointed to the commission. He is a Liberal and he was appointed to the commission.
What should we expect? More partisanship? People appointed on the recommendation of the minister will have the mandate to decide the future of the poor aboriginals who are not able to take charge of themselves? That is what Bill C-6 currently before this House is all about.
Moreover, the bill sets a $7 million limit on claims. Think of how much money was made with aboriginal land since Confederation. That is incredible.
Recently, in British Columbia, I saw the multinational paper companies scramble, because there were land claims, to take all the natural resources out before the commission completed its work. The government is complicit in the sense that it is saying, “It will take time. There are claims. A claims commission will be established in British Columbia”.
In the meantime, the multinational paper companies are having a field day, clear cutting part of British Columbia. When all is said and done, the government will say, “We have reached an agreement with the aboriginal people. Here are the beautiful resources we are giving you”. But there will be no resources left.
This is what I have been witnessing during the past ten years. This bill is similar. While half the province is being clear cut in spite of a land claim that the government is unable to settle, anyone who goes to the commission will be told, “If your claim exceeds $10 million, we cannot help you. Have it settled by regular courts. See you again in 20 years, when a decision is made”.
Aboriginal people know that claims often end up before the Supreme Court before the government settles. Once the Supreme Court has made a decision—as I said earlier, decisions are nearly 100 to 1 in favour of the aboriginal people—there is nothing left for them.
It is totally demoralizing to see a bill like the one before the House today, which basically follows this pattern. Any claim over $10 million is excluded. Then, the commission makes recommendations to the minister on whether the claims should be dealt with. And if they are not happy, the aboriginal people can always go before the courts.
All these people are appointed by the governor in council, on the recommendation of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. There are no aboriginal people in cabinet, yet they are the ones who will suffer the consequences of the decision made today. If find this frankly revolting.
And yet I once thought I had some aboriginal blood. At one time in my career as Indian Affairs critic I asked myself why I felt so strongly about this cause. So I had my family tree done and I finally discovered that I do have aboriginal ancestors, but it goes back ten generations. So, I cannot really say I have any aboriginal blood.
However, I have always been a person who defends justice. I have a problem accepting that the people who were here before us, people whose rights have been recognized by the courts, are being told today just what they have always been told, “We will take care of you”.
We have a Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development who is today's updated equivalent of the Indian agent who used to be on every reserve. In the past, on every reserve, when someone wanted to change a pole, permission had to be obtained from the Indian agent.
It is still somewhat like that today. There is no longer an Indian agent on every reserve, but there is one, here in Ottawa, sitting in the seat of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
Today, these people have to beg. When there are cuts or freezes in the budget of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, it is the children of Kanesatake or the children of the Chilcotin who will be told, “You will not be going to school this year because there is no money for you. You will live together with four generations under the same roof in Pikangikum and you will stay like that, because there is no money to build houses for you”.
There is no money, and yet these amazing surpluses keep appearing in Ottawa, and there are even some they are trying to hide.
In fact, we saw the statement of the Minister of Finance yesterday. The surplus will not be as significant as we thought, but at year end, it will likely be two or three times greater than he estimated. In the meantime, he will have ignored the real needs of aboriginals, which come under federal jurisdiction. The federal government must stop interfering in areas under provincial jurisdiction, demonstrate competency in its own areas and give the aboriginals what they need.
Do they need money? Probably. However, they have a greater need for respect; the money will follow. If the federal government respected the aboriginals, it would sign treaties with them and, for once, it would respect them. It has not done this for the past 200 years.
Today, the Indians' representative, meaning the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, has introduced a bill that is inconsistent with the needs of the aboriginals in general, with the needs of communities in general and the needs of everyone who appeared. This morning I asked the question, because I am not on the committee and the witnesses told me that it was true. Many people appeared before the committee to voice their opposition to this bill.
However, the government is ignoring them and is creating its own structure and its own commission. The government is saying, “I know what is good for you; I am going to give it to you, and if it is not consistent with what is good for me, I am going to give you a bit less because what matters is what is good for me”.
The aboriginals will be caught in the same dynamic they have been in for the past 200 years. It is not just each reserve; there are also the courts. The Assembly of First Nations met in Vancouver and all the chiefs said that this bill makes no sense.
What is the government doing? First, it is gagging us so it can ram this bill through. Who will be stuck then? It certainly will not be the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. From on high, he will appoint the commission members, set the rules and decide what is in order and what is not. Then he will consult the governor in council and impose his regulations on the aboriginals, who always lose out.
I am sorry if I am being a bit hard on the government, but from my seven years of close contact with these people, I have learned a lot. I know that the first nations opened up their lands to others because they consider that the earth belongs to everyone. It is not their way to go to a notary and draw up a deed for a piece of land 50 by 60 feet, for instance. They are prepared to offer open-hearted hospitality to newcomers and have always done so.
Today, they are looking for compensation because we can see the situation they have been put in over the past 200 years. Their position is a totally hopeless one, completely dependent on the federal government and the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Yet, their original societies were highly sophisticated and highly developed. When the Europeans arrived, they decided that this was not how things were going to be done here, and they imposed their model, the European way of doing things, saying, “We will impose our model, will draw up contracts—treaties as they were called at the time—and because these people have no way of defending themselves, we will just get around those contacts and continue our inexorable move toward total domination of the aboriginal people”. That is what is happening here.
Fortunately, in my opinion, the approach used in Quebec is a different one. Cree Grand Chief Ted Moses has said so as well. He is pretty well fed up with the federal government. In his opinion, the Government of Quebec is doing its job, and this is true. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement has been a model for negotiating agreements. The Nisga'a used it as a model. All of the main aboriginal nations have watched what was going on with the James Bay Cree, yet the government seems to be indicating that it wants nothing to do with all that.
This is a very unusual situation. The Government of Quebec has even indicated its intention to bring the James Bay agreement up to date, even if it is already the best in Canada. So when I see the minister turning up here with a bill that no one on the aboriginal side wants, when I see the government cutting off debate on the issue because it wants to adjourn Parliament, when I see it wanting to force its wishes on the aboriginal people, I find this totally unacceptable and I am happy that my party's position is to vote against Bill C-6. I want my aboriginal friends to know we will not let them down.