Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-20, the First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act.
Like my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent—the Bloc Québécois Indian Affairs and Northern Development critic—who also delivered a speech at second reading on November 19 in favour of this bill, I agree with this act to provide for real property taxation powers of first nations, to create a First Nations Tax Commission, First Nations Financial Management Board, First Nations Finance Authority and First Nations Statistical Institute and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
This bill essentially provides the first nations with financial management tools. Like many other bills, the bill being presented to this House today is not perfect, but it could help in creating a environment that would help first nations to assume their financial independence.
It was very important for us to support this bill to help the first nations to assume a certain financial independence or least much more than they had in the past.
I sit on the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Northern Development and Natural Resources with the hon. member for Louis-Saint-Laurent, and we heard from a number of first nations officials, who supported this bill, not to mention those whom we met privately, as part of our parliamentarian duties.
Everyone knows that the Bloc Québécois cares about the self-government claims of the aboriginals, since we too have many such claims in Quebec. In fact, we prefer the term “sovereignist”. In our opinion, true self-government is achieved when a nation controls all of its economic levers. First nations that will avail themselves of the services provided under Bill C-20 will be able to play a more active role in their economy and promote private investments on their territory. This legislation will give first nations access to tools that are already available to other levels of government and in turn access to financial markets, among other things.
However, we warn the federal government not to succumb to the temptation of using Bill C-20 to opt out of its fiduciary responsibilities towards aboriginal people. It remains the government's job to address inequality between aboriginals and non-aboriginals. I can assure the government that we will keep a close watch.
For the benefit of the public and of those members who may not be very familiar with the bill, I should mention this legislation proposes the establishment of four financial institutions. I will explain them briefly.
The first one is the first nations tax commission, which will replace the Indian taxation advisory board. It will be responsible for the property tax rule approval process, and its streamlining will also help strike a fair balance between the interests of the community and those of taxpayers, when rates are set.
The second institution is the first nations financial management board. The board will set financial standards and provide the independent and professional property assessment services required by first nations that want to take advantage of the borrowing pool of the first nations finance authority.
The third institution, namely the first nations finance authority, will help first nations communities that will adhere to the legislative scheme to issue securities collectively and to raise long term capital at preferential rates for highways, water supply systems, sewers and, of course, other infrastructure projects.
Finally, the first nations statistical institute will help all first nations communities to meet their local data needs, while encouraging participation in Statistics Canada's integrated national systems and their use.
The establishment of a new financial relationship between the federal government and the first nations is nothing new. Already in 1983, the Penner report, a report by the special parliamentary committee on aboriginal self-government, recommended that the fiscal relationship between the federal government and the first nations be redefined. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples made the same recommendation in 1996. Bill C-20 is a step along the road toward greater economic autonomy for first nations.
Here is a brief historical overview of Bill C-20. Before it established a supervisory structure to administer the new legislation, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development created the Indian Taxation Advisory Board in early 1989. In September 2003, 107 first nations began to tax real property. After the Kamloops amendments, in 1988, if I am not mistaken, a number of events strengthened the existing support for the restructuring of financial relations between the first nations and the federal government.
In 1991, the Department of Finance undertook a review of its policy on Indian taxation and, in 1993, made public the Working Paper on Indian Government Taxation.
In 1995, the First Nations Financial Institute or FNFI was created and, at the instigation of the Westbank First Nation, it was then federally incorporated. The main objective of the FNFI was to provide investment opportunities to first nations in order to ensure long-term financing of their public debt. With the adoption of Bill C-20, the FNFI will become the First Nations Finance Authority, which was discussed a bit earlier in this debate.
In 1995, a round table of representatives from the Department of Finance and the Assembly of First Nations led to the adoption of a resolution on taxation. The following year, the participants at the annual general meeting of the Assembly of First Nations adopted resolution 5/96 supporting the establishment, between the first nations governments and the Government of Canada, of new fiscal relationships based on the principles of flexibility, equity, choice, the assurance of government services comparable to those provided by other governments, economic incentives and efficiency.
The Chiefs' Committee on Fiscal Relations was created two years later to review fiscal relations between first nation governments and the federal government. That is known as resolution 49/98 of the general assembly. It recommended the establishment of first nations financial institutions. In 1999, the Assembly of First Nations expressed its support for this initiative when participants in its annual general meeting supported the creation of the first nations financial authority, and backed the Indian Taxation Advisory Board's efforts to establish the first nations tax commission. Those are known as resolutions 6/99 and 7/99 respectively.
In December of the same year, the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations signed a memorandum of understanding concerning the creation of a national round table on financial relationships, with the objective of establishing solid bases for these relationships through an exchange of information, capacity building and the establishment of benchmarks.
In 2000—we are getting closer—the Assembly of First Nations maintained its support for the creation of the first nations statistical institute and the first nations financial management board, pursuant to resolutions 5/2000 and 6/2000 of the Confederacy of Indian Nations. The general assembly then passed resolution 24/2001 supporting the recommendation by the chiefs' committee regarding the establishment of the four new first nations financial institutions by federal legislation. The legal validity of this resolution was questioned, however, since some people thought that it had not received the support of 60% of those present required, as we know, under the charter of the Assembly of First Nations.
On August 15, 2002, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development released a draft bill with the intent to carry out public consultations before introducing it in the House. Several first nations then raised deep concerns with the way the bill was written. Of course, the Bloc Québécois shared these same concerns.
As a result, the AFN convened a special chiefs assembly in November 2002 and passed a resolution rejecting the proposed first nations fiscal and statistical management bill. According to Resolution 30/2002, the proposed legislation violated the historic nation to nation relationship, infringed upon aboriginal and treaty rights, and was otherwise so flawed that it could not be corrected by mere amendments.
An additional so-called accommodation resolution was also passed, that is AFN Resolution 31/2002 respecting the right of those first nations to enter into local and regional agreements, but not in the context of national legislation.
On December 2, 2002, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development tabled Bill C-19 on first nations fiscal and statistical management in the House of Commons. That bill, which died on the Order Paper in November 2003, was reinstated as Bill C-23 on March 10, 2004. That bill also died on the Order Paper after third reading. It was reintroduced very recently, on November 2, 2004, with some significant changes. We are debating this new Bill C-20 today, after studying it for not too long, but, say, carefully in committee.
However, former Bills C-19 and Bill C-23 were unacceptable both to us and to first nations. We had concerns about the fact that the act could work against aboriginal rights and reduce the federal government's fiduciary obligations toward the first nations. We were also concerned that the institutions would only serve a few first nations.
Bill C-23, for example, like the Indian Act, delegated tax authority to first nations communities, which came down to making aboriginal governments municipal entities, if you will, when their legitimate desire was to enjoy greater financial autonomy.
Moreover, the preamble to Bill C-20 uses language that reflects the government's strongly municipal approach to the first nations.
With respect to Bill C-19, we had a number of critical comments. First, the definition of “specific claims” was too narrow. Access to the tribunal was nearly impossible; the $7 million ceiling excluded most claims. Neither the commission nor the tribunal were independent or impartial. The minister had the power to accept or reject claims. Finally, there was doubt about the impartiality and flexibility of the process.
Fortunately, two very important changes have been made in the bill before us today. First, a schedule was added to ensure that the legislation applies to those first nations who wish to participate, because participation is optional, something we feel is very important. Second, a non-derogation clause was included to protect the aboriginal and treaty rights of all first nations.
These changes ensure consistency with the Charter of the Assembly of First Nations as well as the principles of self-determination, the approach taken by the first nations, and the optionality provided for in recent resolutions of the Assembly of First Nations, which were passed in Saskatoon and ratified again in Charlottetown.
This economic disparity exists because some lands do not have services, investors are uncertain and the cost of starting a business is still too high.
A backgrounder produced by the First Nations Fiscal Institutions Initiative says that a dollar of first nation tax revenue buys 30% to 50% less in capital works than it does for other governments. The problem lies primarily in the legislative and institutional framework.
For 130 years, the Indian Act has perpetuated this state of affairs, this lack of fairness. It has prevented first nations from creating their own institutions and participating in the economy.
Will Bill C-20 completely correct this situation? No, but we think it is a step in the right direction, as long, of course, as the federal government does not use this bill as a means to opt out of its financial obligations with respect to the first nations. I repeat, the government has a fiduciary obligation to the aboriginal peoples and it cannot opt out of that.
There are so many things to improve in the living conditions of the first nations that they will not be settled by this bill, but only through real political will exercised by the current government.
Housing conditions, education and health are inferior compared to the rest of the population. On the reserves, 65% of families live in substandard housing. The Bloc Québécois is deeply concerned about the fact that the lack of adequate, affordable housing for aboriginals has implications beyond housing standards. We know that various medical and social problems are related to poor housing conditions and quality of life. The Government of Canada must make the necessary efforts to correct the situation without offloading the problems to the first nations.
Bill C-20 will help first nations who so desire to participate significantly in their economy and encourage private investment on their lands, which is more difficult at present. First nations wanting to borrow money to develop their community infrastructure face transaction costs, processing delays and interest rates that are far too high, even prohibitive.
Despite the positive aspects of this bill, we must not lose sight of some of the basic principles it must respect. First, will it protect the first nations' right to self-determination? Will it benefit first nations, particularly those in Quebec? Will it protect the rights of first nations that opt out of the legislation and the obligations toward them? Will it help redress the fiscal imbalance of first nations that take advantage of this legislation? We may not get all the answers today, but we will make sure the minister does not forget these questions.
For the Bloc Québécois, aboriginal independence claims are very important and must be respected. Recently, with Bill C-14, we supported the aboriginal peoples' right to self-government. Bill C-14 was about the Tlicho people. This bill will help those first nations who so desire to access the financial tools they have been lacking and that the other levels of government have been using for a long time.
That is why we are in favour of Bill C-20.