Mr. Speaker, today I feel very honoured to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-11, the Westbank First Nation self-government act.
I want to begin by offering my congratulations to the Westbank First Nation people who have worked for so many years to arrive at this very practical and workable agreement.
In a very broad sense, in response to the candid language in the Speech from the Throne, the government's objective is to close the socio-economic gap that exists between aboriginal people and other Canadians.
I must say that this has been a banner week for aboriginal people, starting with the round table where all aboriginal peoples' leaders or representatives participated in a round table that dealt with education, health, social development, political leadership and moving the agenda forward for aboriginal people in general. It also included women and all the representative groups, as I mentioned.
We have also brought forward Bill C-31, the Tlicho agreement, which is an agreement for the Dogrib people of the Northwest Territories, 3,000 people who have achieved their claim. The agreement embeds self-government within the body of the claim. It is the first time that this has ever happened, and it has many other features as well. Before that, we introduced the Westbank self-government act, which I think is very comprehensive and very complementary to the objectives we have in working with aboriginal people.
This is the direction in which we want to go. We do not guide ourselves by the words of other people who have their own academically inclined opinions or biases. This is government policy we are dealing with. This is very deliberate and very intentional. This is something we mean to do and this is something that we, with the aboriginal people, mean to implement.
As a country we see too often what the Speech from the Throne called “shameful” conditions faced by too many aboriginal people in this country. This situation is not something over there or removed from our experience as Canadians. It is something within the fabric, may I say, of the family of Canada. When I say that the situation faced by aboriginal people is not something removed or distant, I mean that the situation is one that touches all of us. We all share a responsibility.
As part of our response, we need to change our perceptions and approaches.
I am going into my 17th year as a member of Parliament and always have been part of a committee, either in cabinet or as an ordinary member, on the Constitution and whatever front there was to advance the aboriginal agenda. I take a great deal of pride in that. I meant to do that and I have done that with so many of my colleagues on all sides of the House over the years.
I know that we need to take a collaborative approach with first nations people and Inuit and work in partnership on shared goals. We also need to change our thinking that the answers to longstanding issues will be found exclusively in Ottawa or in a provincial or territorial capital. That is not the case. Rather, we need to come together. Governments, parliamentarians, aboriginal people and others need to come together in common cause to find solutions to what we agree are unacceptable conditions. Speaking on the bill before the House today I think gives clarity to the fact that we have come together as individuals to share our views on this. We are not necessarily of the same mind in terms of policy, but we all have opinions on where we should go.
I am convinced that enacting this self-government agreement will benefit not only members of the first nations but also the people of Canada overall. Strong, self-reliant first nations have much to contribute to Canada, economically, socially and culturally.
When a community undertakes a self-government agreement or finishes a claim, there are many beneficiaries. Many of them do not belong to those groups or those nations. There is a shared prosperity in the completion of claims and in the arrangements that aboriginal people make for themselves.
This agreement gives Westbank leaders the tools they need to develop their community. It will enable the Westbank First Nation to create government structures that are both effective and representative.
It will foster economic growth in the community by helping local entrepreneurs continue to attract investors and business partners.
Close scrutiny of the self-government agreement reveals how it will foster accountability and self-reliance for the Westbank First Nation. Under the terms of this agreement, key decisions will be made by the people most familiar with and most affected by local issues. I am convinced that this will lead to further improvements in housing. There is a huge housing crunch, a fact that was brought forward on Monday by aboriginal leaders, and it has been brought up successively. It is a major challenge.
What is the best approach to this? Obviously the best way is partnership and collaboration. Involving aboriginal people in the design and the implementation of any policy or any major project is the only way that we will be able to resolve this issue. I am convinced that it will lead to improvements in employment and in the quality of life in general for aboriginal people.
Westbank is confident that these improvements are best accomplished by governing themselves with a representative and effective government capable of exercising law making authority and assuming new responsibilities.
There are those who have concerns within the context of this discussion about how all people within Westbank will be represented. Let us look at the section that talks about the self-government agreement gender issues. The Westbank First Nation self-government agreement negotiating team received direction from a committee composed of Westbank members and elders, et cetera, of whom approximately 70% were women. The committee, acting at arm's length from the chief and council, also provided direct input into the development of the Westbank First Nation constitution.
The Westbank First Nation has been cognizant of gender related issues and the importance of having them addressed in the negotiation process. The Westbank First Nation sought the representation of women in key aspects of the decision making process. Their input in both the negotiations and the development of the Westbank First Nation constitution has been sufficient to ensure that gender issues have been considered.
The broader Westbank First Nation membership, including those off reserve, has also had the opportunity to raise gender related issues throughout the negotiation process. Perhaps it is because their experiences have been a bit coloured by things that may have happened in the past.
Public information sessions, town hall meetings and direct mail-outs to homes and businesses formed part of an intensive information campaign. I think that this is really important. Westbank First Nation has in the past been a focal point for gender issues. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled on a case. I think the leadership, in its vision and in its direction, has taken the direction of those people and has been visionary in accepting and designing a process that would include those issues. Most of all, I am convinced that this self-government agreement will lead in dealing with sensitive issues such as that.
Westbank is confident that these improvements are best accomplished by governing themselves, including all people, and having an effective government capable of exercising law making authority and assuming new responsibilities.
Provisions were made for municipalities that are very much like those that were made here, but there are those who would say that the Westbank people are getting preferential treatment. That is not so. Treating everybody the same does not spell equality. It spells sameness, not equality. Sometimes we have to take extra measures to ensure that equality is reached because people are at different levels.
The bill now before the House would help to establish precisely this kind of government through enactment of this agreement. The Westbank First Nation would become self-governing, assuming jurisdiction over and responsibility for its own affairs.
Not only are our policies our own, but our policies are designed to empower people, not to weaken them, to empower them and make them a force that can be self-sustainable economically, socially, culturally and politically. That is the goal of every community across this country.
Let us look at the association of municipalities. The goal of the municipalities is to take more power, apply it locally and make it work for themselves. Why should it be different for Westbank? Westbank should have the same opportunity to be self-sustaining, to be economically viable, and to assume political responsibility.
In short, Westbank will establish and maintain a democratic government within the constitutional framework of Canada. People should hear those words: “within the constitutional framework of Canada”. This government will respect Canadian law and recognize that all members of the first nation, like Canadians everywhere, are subject to the Criminal Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In order to foster better relations with non-member residents on Westbank lands, Westbank First Nation will create a mechanism to ensure that non-member residents can have input into laws that affect them directly. This marks a significant improvement over the Indian Act situation. This is no different from the way aboriginal people have traditionally welcomed outsiders to their lands, the way they welcomed the first Europeans to join them in this country. There is no difference. This is an accommodation of the same kind in another era.
Under this self-government agreement, the first nation will have a range of powers. Eventually the first nation will enact laws in areas such as land and resource management and aboriginal language and culture. This is so important: we are our culture and we are our language. I speak my own language. I am not from Westbank, but I admire those people. In fact I almost killed myself getting over here when I was in my office and the time had almost expired and I thought I would not lose another opportunity to speak on a bill that affects aboriginal people. It really goes to show I would do almost anything for the people of Westbank. I made it here but I am actually a bit out of breath.
I want people to know about these priorities. To have jurisdiction over and responsibility for managing land and resources is huge. It is empowering. That is the way it should be. If we do not deprive people of their language and culture but instead enhance them and preserve them, that is an even better thing. It is especially good for the children, and for the elders and of course everyone else too, but I think of it that way because I was a teacher in a previous incarnation.
It is in these areas that a key feature of the agreement lies. With these new powers, Westbank assumes control of its resources. The first nation powers under the agreement include the right to grant interests and licences on its land. This is a good thing. My grandparents and I lived on a piece of land that became Norman Wells. Imperial Oil had resources there for over 75 years. My family never benefited from that. My family lost its property to those companies. We still live in the vicinity but our families were moved. We were never compensated, and that is fine, but it should not be that way. It should not happen that way. It does not happen that way with farmers, and if it does, it should not. It should not happen to anyone.
Under the agreement, the community gains the freedom to establish partnerships and conduct business according to its own needs while at the same time respecting the interests that already exist. Westbank First Nation already has demonstrated that it knows how to manage its affairs responsibly and profitably. After all, this is one of the most prosperous and successful aboriginal communities in Canada, and one of the most beautiful, I must say.
Westbank of course is blessed with a spectacular natural beauty, located as it is on the shores of Lake Okanagan adjacent to the city of Kelowna. The first nation is ideally situated to benefit from the region's booming economy and Westbank has made the most of these advantages. It is a tourist's dream. It is a place where tourism and ecotourism should bloom and prosper.
The first nation and its members have opened lands to development, making the first nation a busy land manager. Today, Westbank's commercial district features a number of shopping centres that generate substantial rental income and provide job opportunities for band members.
Westbank has established a reputation as a fair land manager, a trustworthy partner and a reliable neighbour. People have nothing to fear from this agreement. We should not be fearmongering. We should not create paranoia where there is none, where there is a willingness to include, where there is a willingness to engender a good relationship and partnership. People should not work at making it something negative and to be paranoid about.
What is perhaps most striking about Westbank's success is that much of it was accomplished under the limitations of the Indian Act. Now the first nation wants to establish a new relationship with the people of Canada, a more equitable relationship that will enable Westbank to realize its full potential.
The people of Westbank are clearly ready to fulfill their obligations. They have been working toward this agreement for more than a decade. They have staged more than 400 information and consultation sessions. They have secured the support of the municipal and regional governments, chamber of commerce, labour unions and a broad range of special interest groups whose concerns and goals are closely linked to those of the first nation itself.
Westbank also drafted and approved a constitution that sets out governing structures, assigns duties and clarifies band memberships. I am convinced that the community consultation process that produced Westbank's constitution will lead to stronger, more effective self-government. Community leaders, after all, participated in every phase of the constitution developed and will contribute to its institutions.
The constitution and the self-government agreement will also establish a valuable reference point for treaty negotiations between the governments of Westbank, Canada and British Columbia. Of course we all know that B.C. has one of the most complex set of arrangements, or in some cases lack of arrangements, that exacerbates the situation.
Enacting the Westbank agreement would certainly have a positive impact outside the province. Although it is British Columbia's third self-government agreement and the 17th in Canada, it is the first stand-alone self-government agreement under Canada's inherent right policy. This is an important milestone. The agreement demonstrates that the Government of Canada can work with first nations to arrive at agreements tailored to the specific needs of a community.
I want to say that I will do my share, my utmost to make sure that a decade's worth of hard work will not be in vain, for we are entrusted with the aspirations of these people. We are entrusted with their goals and dreams. It is not that they want to work against Canada; they want to be and work with Canada.
Today I ask the members of the House for their support in providing the tools needed to build the community envisioned by the Westbank First Nation. Clearly the progress Westbank has already made on governance has put the community on a path toward self-reliance and prosperity.
I have to refer to the documents. There is a section for almost everything in this agreement. One section talks about protection of other Okanagan first nations and non-members. It is a very accommodating document. It talks about Westbank government, the application of laws, agriculture, self-government agreement within the Canadian legal context, gender issues. It also talks about government to government relationships. It talks about culture and language, education, environment, health services, lands and land management, licensing regulation and operation of business. It talks about membership in Westbank First Nation. It talks about public order, peace and safety, prohibitions of intoxicants, public works, community infrastructure and local services resource management, traffic and transportation, wills and estates, enforcement of Westbank First Nation law, financial arrangements, financial management, and implementation of the Westbank First Nation self-government agreement.
This will not be done on an ad hoc basis. This is systematic. This is planned. This is deliberate. This is an awesome document. This is an attempt by a people to be what they should be: equal with the rest of Canadians and have the opportunity to be self-sustaining and prosperous. We should all support this document.