Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to participate in the debate on this bill. What is less enjoyable is realizing that the bill is now being considered at third reading without a single opposition amendment having been passed from the time the bill received first reading or during the legislative process that followed.
During the work in committee, several criticisms were levelled at Bill C-6. Most of these criticisms were against the bill as a whole. There were so many deficiencies in the bill that both first nations and the opposition parties were unanimous in asking for this bill to be dropped since it in no way meets the needs of aboriginals with regard to expediting specific claims.
There have been various committees, often joint committees of both first nations and representatives of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. They have made countless recommendations for expediting specific claims by first nations to ensure that the process is effective and objective, and as impartial as possible.
In light of the experience of the past 30 years and the various committees, it is somewhat surprising that, in spite of all the recommendations made, we are once again looking at a bill which, if passed, will not change a thing. It will not improve how quickly specific claims are settled nor ensure the impartiality that has been lacking from the beginning in the processing of these claims.
We are going to end up with a scheme that will be perfectly efficient vis-à-vis the objectives sought, a process that will not be a serious one and one which, in practical terms, amounts to some kind of avoidance strategy on the part of the government when it comes to resolving once and for all the hundreds of specific claims filed by aboriginal nations in Canada.
In the next few minutes, I will try to demonstrate that this bill is a complete farce, contrary to what the minister told us this morning in a haughty, arrogant and cynical fashion.
First, I would like to address the so-called impartiality of the new process and the new institutions proposed by the minister. Through his bill, the minister is proposing the establishment of a specific claim resolution centre, itself comprised of two divisions.
The first one, the specific claims commission, will receive and analyze claims from the first nations, and advise the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the minister himself on the admissibility of these claims.
After admissibility has been determined, the commission may help set the amount of compensation for each specific claim.
The second is a tribunal responsible for making recommendations to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, which in turn makes recommendations to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, after the commission has made a decision. If the minister agrees that a given claim is admissible, the tribunal then entertains this claim. This new special specific claims tribunal will be the one reviewing the whole file and setting, in conjunction with the parties—as in a regular trial—the amount of compensation for each specific claim.
The institutions and the process of negotiation between the federal government and the first nations have always been faulted for their lack of impartiality, because the minister and the government appointed people who were both judge and defendant. As representatives of the federal government, they received complaints, acted on them and, in the end, paid out the money.
This could not be any clearer. The federal government has always been both judge and defendant. This morning, the minister claimed that he was remedying the situation. Yet all members of the commission and all members of the tribunal to be created by Bill C-6 are to be appointed by the governor in council on the recommendation of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
This means that it is the cabinet, acting on the recommendation of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, that will receive suggestions for appointments and determine the membership of the specific claims commission and tribunal.
Where is there any impartiality, if the minister is both judge and defendant and is the one to appoint those who will sit on the commission and the tribunal to settle specific claims issues? This is a real joke. No one can claim impartiality and be both judge and defendant.
Despite the minister's claims to the contrary, this bill has not done what the joint body, that is one composed of the first nations and the department, had been suggesting for a long time in order to make the process impartial. Members could have been appointed jointly by the government and the Assembly of First Nations.
Neither the Assembly of First Nations not the aboriginal nations in general have any say on the appointments of commission or tribunal members.
This is a pretty serious situation, when all recommendations made over the past 30 years have emphasized collaboration, partnership, and above all impartiality.
Not only are this new structure and these new institutions not impartial but the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada reserves an unbelievable discretionary power. He has the power, through his department and ultimately through himself, to make a specific claim admissible when he deems fit.
In other words, several years can pass before the minister decides that a specific territorial claim is admissible and acceptable, and it is sent to the specific claims tribunal.
What this means is that the minister, who is both judge and jury in this situation, could block not only the settlement, but also the admissibility of a specific claim by a first nation, for many years.
Is this right? Is this an effective approach? Previously, all the serious and non-partisan stakeholders told us that the only realistic, appropriate and effective way to handle specific claims by aboriginals was to give them direct access to a specific claims tribunal without an intermediary who is both judge and jury, who stops the process and delays justice.
That is all that ever happens; the normal course of justice is stalled for those, who for 130 years have been subject to the worst law, to practically apartheid, under the Indian Act.
The minister says this will speed things up, but I think the opposite is true, that it will slow down the course of justice which for 30 years has hardly been stellar in terms of settling disputes and specific claims by aboriginals.
There are also no supplementary resources at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to accelerate the admissibility of specific claims, their processing and, where applicable, the decisions made by the tribunal.
Without any supplementary resources to handle the administration of specific claims, how can the minister say that claims will be processed more quickly and that justice will be served for Canada's first nations?
I also mentioned the experience of the past 30 years; there is a reason for that. Over the past 30 years, every attempt has been made to speed up the settlement of specific claims by aboriginal peoples. In 30 years, only 230 cases have been settled. There are still 1,154 and more will be added in the coming years.
As we go back and research the past, as we find written treaties and call upon the oral traditions of elders and others to analyze these treaties, we become increasingly aware that first nations have rights that were unsuspected. As a result, specific claims will be added to the 1,154 claims that are already pending.
In the last 30 years, 230 of these claims have been resolved. How many years will it take to resolve the 1,154 specific claims, and perhaps the hundreds, or even thousands of others that will arise in the coming years? It is a veritable farce.
If the minister had really wanted to speed things up, he would have provided additional resources, he would have allowed direct access to the new specific claims tribunal for those with claims involving compensation. He would not have been both judge and jury while involving the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in order to confuse the situation and get away with dragging out the settlement of aboriginal people's claims.
Bill C-6 does something that can only be described as unusual. It excludes specific claims that could exceed $7 million. Since when in a legal case, do we set a ceiling on the amount that can be claimed—$7 million in the case of this bill—before even assessing damages, before even calculating the compensation or estimating the value of the case? Since when is legislation worded so as to render only partial justice?
It does not work that way. Either justice is rendered, or it is not, but it cannot be rendered partially, and all specific claims from first nations that exceed $7 million excluded. It makes no sense.
Say we were to set a ceiling of $7 million today. Over the years, interest can add up on a case, and costs add up too. Normally, at the end of a case, when a ruling is handed down, the judge takes into account additional costs related to inflation, for example, and the loss of interest revenues, because compensation is not paid until five years after a claim is filed. So, there are all sorts of considerations involved.
This means that if a case is worth $7 million at the start, then is held up for five years before the specific claims tribunal renders its decision, taking into consideration interest, lost revenue and legal costs, it will still be worth $7 million and will never go beyond this amount.
Since when has the capacity to render justice to an individual or a group of individuals been limited? This does not make any sense.
If the past few years are any indication, particularly since 1985, in a region like Saskatchewan where many specific claims were made and some resolved, the average amount of a specific claim was $18.5 million. Does this mean that if the same claims, which represented $18.5 million at the end of the process, were made today, a first nation that felt that its rights were affected since time immemorial would not have the right to seek more than about one-third of what the claim was worth?
It is quite unbelievable that the government introduced this bill with a straight face, and that we are being told that now aboriginals will obtain justice. If that were done to us, for example, I can tell you that the Canadian Bar Association would be the first to condemn this denial of justice. Perhaps I will pay them a visit to get their opinion. It would be interesting to see if the Canadian government is working outside the law and is guilty of denial of justice with its own bills, if it is breaking all legal conventions. This bill is being presented by a minister whose arrogance and cynicism defy description.
For claims in excess of $7 million the usual process applies, except that there is one more constraint on the first nations.
For specific claims in excess of the $7 million cap, the regular courts will be used. It will not be the new tribunal, but rather the regular courts. The novelty of the century, thanks to the cynical and arrogant Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, is this: he will be the one to decide whether or not a given case is acceptable and can be submitted to the justice department. Incredible. The minister is the one who will determine, when the $7 million limit has been reached, whether the case is valid or not. He will be the one to determine the time limit, the procedure, and the validity of the largest claims. This will be entirely the responsibility of his department and the Department of Justice.
This is pretty serious business. If ever that cap is exceeded, whether five, six or seven years down the road, the first nations claimants will find themselves passed over to another minister, the Minister of Justice. He will be the one to determine what is valid and what is not, as well as the timeframes for processing the claim. Here again we will end up with the possibility that has been often seen in other instances—revenue cases among them—of the federal government and its lawyers presenting technical defences, limitations and a defence invoking procedure or defective presentation of the specific claim.
In short, all the delaying and defence tactics we have become accustomed to in the regular courts can end up having a case involving an $8 million claim end up taking 10, 12 even perhaps 15 years before settlement, because of procedural wrangling, postponement of proceedings, technical glitches and new evidence. I do not need to draw hon. members a picture of this.
We find ourselves in a situation where we have the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development telling us, “We are making improvements and we have agreed with those who were calling for improvements”. This is unbelievable. Actually, it is the opposite.
It is as though every road block has been put up, strategically, to avoid settlements. Instead of assessing specific claims and resolving them, everything possible to postpone their settlement has been done. If a case exceeds $7 million, forget about it, because it will take a long, long time before it will be resolved and before first nations will see any compensation.
I can understand why the Assembly of First Nations and the vast majority of all of the groups that appeared before us condemned this bill as a fraud. They said that the bill will not solve anything, that the bill is ineffective and avoids solving problems. Instead, the bill passes them down to future generations, leaving it up to them to solve the responsibilities that are ours today.
Imagine the situation. Aboriginal communities in Canada have been waiting for years. More than 1,152 cases have been pending for 30 years. These people have not seen justice done. Young people today are getting more and more impatient. I have met young aboriginal people. They are starting to say, “We have had it. Our ancestors were a bit more patient than we will be. We want justice”.
I understand that young aboriginal people are getting impatient and appearing before international tribunals to explain that Canada is not an example when it comes to respecting the rights of first nations, that Canada is not an example when it comes to its ability to solve the problem of specific claims, or that Canada is not an example when it comes to respecting its first nations.
Since September, I have been a member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Northern Development and Natural Resources. I did not think that it was still possible to hear offensive comments regarding aboriginal peoples. I thought that this was a new era.
I did not think that there could be such paternalistic analyses, which keep aboriginal nations in a state of dependency. I thought that we were living in another century and that we had gone beyond such biases and intellectual hang-ups, and I thought we were prepared to recognize aboriginal nations, to do them justice and to promote mutual respect between our nations and their nations.
I also felt somewhat ashamed to hear some people say that we cannot settle everything, that some issues in justice can only be partly settled. If we were treated in this manner, with justice only half done, we would not appreciate it. Many people in our communities, both in Quebec and in Canada, would cry foul, but when it comes to aboriginal nations, it is no big deal.
Then the minister told us, “We will speed things up and we will make sure that we have the money to meet the needs of aboriginal nations”.
When we look at the budget earmarked by the minister to settle issues relating to specific claims, we notice that it is still the same. It is $75 million, while outstanding claims are estimated at about $1.5 billion. How can we speed up the settlement and compensation process when the money is not there? There is $75 million in the budget, but the specific claims that are pending have an estimated value of $1.5 billion.