Madam Speaker, I too stand to speak in support of Bill C-11. The first thing I will note is that I have been here much of the day and have heard many of the speeches, and I think we must be careful to acknowledge that this is in fact what I would characterize as a pilot project. We ought not to engage in hyperbole to say that this is the answer, because the answer is very complex and the situation in many first nations across the country is radically different from what it might be in the Westbank region.
Having said that, let me say that Bill C-11 would give effect to the Westbank First Nations self-government agreement. This agreement is the first stand-alone self-government agreement negotiated under the government's inherent right policy, and this is a process which has come to the House after some 14 years of discussion on the ground.
This is a policy that attempts to reach decisions on a local basis because it is local decisions which best reflect what people want and what people need. As a result, this agreement would lead to improvements in many areas for the first nations people of Westbank, certainly including housing and certainly including employment.
In this place many of us will know of the history of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. From a historical perspective, we know about what were called Indian agents who were there to supervise bands, who were there in fact to superimpose the view of the Indian affairs department on first nations people. This agreement does away with that. In fact, this agreement is 180 degrees in the other direction.
Crucial to the ratification by members of the Westbank First Nation was a comprehensive negotiation process, which has resulted in this agreement and for which many of the speakers here today have indicated there is real support. We have to emphasize that this was negotiation. In fact, the negotiation started out in certain quarters, I am told, where there were many people who were hostile to the agreement, some of whom have come on side. Like it is with any other agreement, there are always those who at this time will remain opposed to this agreement, but what is certain is that it was a real negotiation process.
We have a word that we toss around in this place, but I am trying to avoid it. That word is consultation. I am trying to avoid it because I must say that I have arrived at the point where I no longer know what consultation means. In fact, it is my belief that consultation has no meaning whatsoever. We have a lot of consultants running around consulting through consultations and what it all means in the end I do not know. But this is about negotiations, about real people sitting down and having a framework for negotiating, and over a period of time in fact coming to an agreement.
This negotiation process has ended positively. It has clarified the relationships between the provincial government and the federal government and the first nations with respect to laws, and it has set up public advisory and accountability to members provisions.
As I said earlier, the negotiations between the Westbank peoples and the Government of Canada began in 1990 and continued through the tenure of two band councils and, as we would say here, through the tenure of two governments.
Westbank brought people together from many communities, many lifestyles and many occupations to try to come to some common understanding of where they were going.
It is interesting to note that there was an advisory council set up to represent the 7,500 or 8,000 people who live on the reserve but who are not aboriginal people. In cooperation with this council, Westbank is in the process of developing a law to formalize the advisory council as a permanent institution under the legal regime of Westbank.
This first nation also worked hard to achieve strong and cooperative partnerships with neighbouring communities. Memoranda of understanding have been signed with both the Regional District of Okanagan and the City of Kelowna. Westbank has also met with the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, a treaty negotiation advisory committee, organized labour groups and homeowners' associations. What is clear is that there were a lot of discussions that this was not the imposition of a “deal” on attractive land. Westbank went out into the surrounding areas to contiguous communities and contiguous landowners and had discussions so that there was a level of comfort.
That does not mean there is complete agreement. It does not mean that everybody is happy, but there is clear understanding as to where this is going. In fact, I have been told that there were more than 400 information sessions and discussion sessions which were held to talk about the details of the agreement and what it would mean, not only for the aboriginal people, the Westbank First Nation, but for the 7,500 or 8,000 non-aboriginal people on Westbank lands and for the neighbouring communities, the contiguous communities.
Information was distributed in many ways, through the media, through local radio and discussion sessions, and through meetings such as those that are often held by groups such as a chamber of commerce. They allowed people to ask questions, receive answers and put forward their ideas.
Once again this is not to say that the events leading to the signing of this agreement on October 3 of last year were smooth. These things are never smooth. Sometimes the discussion was heated. I will say that sometimes people disagreed, because it is clear that not everyone was or is in favour of the agreement. What is certain is that in terms of these public meetings where discussions took place, everyone had an opportunity to speak, and not only to speak but to be heard. Those people who wished to appear and speak were allowed to, whether they were band members or from neighbouring communities.
What is clear is that this is an open process and it is a democratic process in that sense. It encouraged many of those who either voted against the agreement or were in fact from a neighbouring community and were in opposition to the agreement to accept the outcome in an open way.
I think that is because this is a cooperative community in Westbank. Westbank allows people to speak. People can disagree but they understand that they can still reach some form of consensus or agreement. Westbank has been described, for members from that part of the world, as one of the most progressive first nations in Canada.
It is through this process that the Westbank First Nation has shown us that there are many forms of democracy and that this process can in fact be democratic in that it allows wide and open participation. Everyone who wants to is allowed to have their say, and not only to have their say but to be heard and to have some possibility of impacting the outcome of this agreement. It is my belief that such a process can only be good for governance structure, particularly around first nations, because I think that first nations government structures, as is often referred to in this country, have had a long history that is often characterized as tortuous.
The self-government agreement also calls for a Westbank constitution which was ratified by members at the same time as the agreement. Constitutions are the cornerstones of a legal regime. In this case, it will determine the community's governance for everything from the election of officials, budgets and how laws are made, and it sets out a set of core, or in this case, community principles.
I believe that the constitution that has been worked out in the case of Westbank is significant because it was developed locally and it has local application. The constitution, as constitutions must, reflects the wishes of the people rather than having it imposed by a bunch of consultants, lawyers, or worse yet, by a bunch of people from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
This constitution is a product of the Westbank First Nation's approach. It is a group of community people who worked for almost a decade to draft the core laws. Community meetings were held to discuss issues. They worked through problems and they put forward ideas. It is not complete.
I understand that the issue of matrimonial property has not been resolved at this point, but the fact is that they have a mechanism in place. They have enough goodwill that they are going to arrive at a point where the business or issue of matrimonial property will be worked out.
It is also important to understand that those who live on the reserve but are not aboriginal also shared their views. They got involved. When an agreement was reached and a draft constitution was ready, it was distributed, and once again, everyone was able to have his or her say, to be heard and to impact the outcome.
This form of agreement building or deal making has strengthened their constitutional outcome and will ultimately improve the way they are governed because people are, and this is not a very profound observation, more likely to respect and obey the laws, and participate in organizations that they intimately know because they were there and were part of the creation of both these laws and institutions. People in this case have a distinct sense of ownership.
A constitution formulated locally in this way will only lead, I would think, to improved governance of this first nation and will in turn lead to a better local municipal structure. It has important impacts, if this is a success, on other first nations.
Through their constitution the Westbank First Nation people have shown that what seemed like impossible, or maybe I can characterize it as difficult issues, could be overcome. I think this is a case of a community demonstrating that an agreement can be tailored and should be tailored to fit local circumstances, that agreements that are national in scope and that are imposed locally often, or perhaps one could say usually, fail because they do not fit local circumstances. In the end, the rights, and more importantly, the interests of everyone who is local can be respected because they were part of it.
The negotiators from the federal side recognized the potential, and I would like to think the value of this pilot project, of the Westbank approach. And that in fact the agreement that was reached was fair and had widespread public support in that part of the world.
In conclusion, I would like to say that there is widespread local support. There are people, still today, in that part of the world who are opposed to it, but what is clear is, even from the members who represent abutting ridings or who represent a riding where this property is, there is agreement.
The agreement has been built on foundations of discussion and consensus that have been driven locally, not by Ottawa. We are told that it meets the needs of the first nation's people there, but equally important, it meets the needs of this 7,500 or 8,000 non-first nation people who live on this first nation's property. It also meets the needs of members in abutting contiguous communities.
As I said in the beginning, I like to think of it as a pilot project. It is a first time agreement under the policy framework which was laid out more than 14 years ago. An agreement of this nature, where it is driven locally, has buy-in and cross-community agreement, will lead to a good local governance, to a strong local community, and of course, to what I think all Canadians want, wherever they are, which is a good local economy where there is economic opportunity, where there are jobs, and where there is local harmony among all the communities.