Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak on Bill C-23. Earlier, I listened carefully to the reply by the parliamentary secretary to my questions on where exactly in the bill it was clearly set out that all these parameters, all these institutions, and the framework of this legislation, were truly optional, in the following context.
If the federal government wants to slough off its fiduciary responsibilities, can it do so by the back door, using this bill? The answer is yes. Why so? I will demonstrate, if I may, and then will get back to some other essential information.
When I met the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development a few weeks ago, he assured me beyond any doubt that, with the government's amendments, the new provisions in the bill would protect those first nations that did not wish to take advantage of the new framework imposed by Bill C-23.
He told me, “It will be beyond any doubt, and departmental staff will not have the right to use the means at their disposal, even intimidation, as has sometimes been the case in past files. That will be made clear”.
Looking at the amendments introduced by the government, however, we see there is no assurance that, once Bill C-23 is passed, there will be no government directives to the effect that, for example, any first nation's application for funding, or its ability to benefit from established programs, will not be subject to a directive indicating to the recalcitrant nations, “If you want to benefit from the program, or if you want to continue to get the funding to which you were entitled in the past, you absolutely must implement the provisions of Bill C-23”. There is no assurance whatsoever.
My references just now were not to isolated cases. This is, in my opinion, the best tool to relieve the federal government of any fiduciary responsibilities. That will be easy for the federal government, once the bill is passed. I am not saying that it will not benefit certain first nations, but they are the richest ones, the ones with the possibility of levying property taxes and borrowing from financial institutions.
As for the others, I believe we must have confidence in the aboriginal leaders. These are intelligent and thoughtful people. My colleague from Churchill mentioned that 61% of the chiefs of Canada's first nations have come out against this bill. The parliamentary secretary has just told us that, even if there were only one first nation that would benefit, he would fight for it.
That is the best way to divide and conquer, to arrange it so that, among the first nations, where there is usually great agreement on the defence of the basic rights of the aboriginal peoples, in comes a bill of this sort. The first nations are divided; two classes of members of the first nations are created; and they say, “Even if it is only of benefit to a few, we will pass it, despite fierce opposition by the 61% that do not want it”.
It would have been interesting, especially yesterday during the vote at report stage, to see the Prime Minister take a different approach. He brags about wanting to establish a new relationship and harmony between the first nations and the federal government, which has been sorely lacking over the past few years with the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, whose mind was made up, who wanted nothing to do with aboriginal claims, who took a hard line and disregarded the unanimous opposition to Bill C-7, for example. Relations between us and the aboriginal people have suffered incredibly as a result of the former minister's attitude to the governance bill, or Bill C-7.
The Prime Minister tells us he wants to establish a new relationship. He even held a first nations summit—quite recently, just a few days ago—where he talked about new directions and self-government and so forth. He stood up yesterday, all smiles and fervour, and gave his unconditional support to Bill C-23, completely disregarding the fact that the majority of these first nations oppose this bill.
Before leaving, he actually greeted first nations members who were sitting in the gallery and who were extremely upset about what was happening. Yesterday, they found out that the new framework for harmonious relations between Ottawa and the first nations was just a smokescreen. The current Prime Minister will do exactly as his predecessor did; he will try to impose his views on the majority of first nations.
This is no way to act. When Bill C-7 was introduced in the House, we argued strenuously against it. Even on an initial cursory examination—we looked into it more closely later on—we realized that what the government wanted to propose was as shameful as the Indian Act that has been in effect for 130 years.
We spoke out against this legislation and we fought it, because the first nations have unanimously asked us to do so on their behalf. Unfortunately, the first nations were not at the table of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Northern Development and Natural Resources.
When we are discussing the future of the first nations and redefining relations, it seems to me that first nations officials should be at the table to be part of these discussions. In this regard, the treaties that were signed decades if not centuries ago, were not agreements reached by Europeans, by pioneers who subordinated first nations and looked condescendingly on them. These agreements were reached through a negotiation process.
The first nations never gave up any authority over their lands. They never gave away any part of their lands either. Over time, over the past 130 years, with the Indian Act, we have violated the rights of first nations, we have parked them in reserves and told them “Do not worry, we will give you something to drink and eat”. We deprived them of their resources, of their traditional activities and of their hunting and fishing grounds. We also trampled on their institutions.
What are we doing today? We are proceeding more slowly, in a more polished manner, but we are doing the same thing. The large majority of first nations keep telling us that they are not satisfied with this bill, just as they unanimously told us that they disagreed with Bill C-7. We fought on their behalf against that legislation. We won because Bill C-7 was set aside.
However, have we actually won? This government has more or less the same attitude as the previous government. In fact, this government is the continuation of its predecessor.
It might be interesting to stop imposing things on first nations. It might be interesting to negotiate as equal partners. Such was the spirit of the initial treaties. There was a wampum belt, which was a kind of symbolic but no less real contract in terms of provisions. These treaties talked about two peoples making their way in parallel, each looking after its own affairs, in harmony, sharing the land, not transferring it from the first nations to the first Europeans.
Has our attitude changed? Yes it has. As a Parliament, we feel it is our mission to keep first nations in line. We do not care about harmony. We could have kept on working on this bill until things were perfectly clear and truly optional. For example, it is out of the question for ancestral lands to be used as collateral, or one day become the property of large financial institutions instead of belonging to first nations.
We could have agreed on a way to ensure the development of all first nations in order to do something about their desperate lack of wealth.
We could have agreed to fast track self-government negotiations while at the same time moving to adopt institutions which would have been optional and used only by those first nations ready and willing to do so. First nations that were forced by the government through the back door, against their will, to accept certain parameters of Bill C-23 should have been provided avenues of redress. This could have been done. Why was it not?
How can we allow ourselves to say that, if 40% of first nations agree, we can disregard the other 60%? Those who see this as the path to harmony should realize that they do not have the right attitude.
At a recent meeting of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Northern Development and Natural Resources, I put a question to the deputy minister in charge of negotiations regarding the expression “inherent right of first nations to self-government”, which is to say outright self-government. I asked him what was the status of these negotiations at present and what timeframe he envisaged to reach a settlement, to make agreements. These agreements would allow first nations to benefit from development tools such as government, community-based decision-making related to their identity, their culture, and even to aboriginal institutions which were scoffed at in the past.
I asked him when he thought the negotiations on self-government would end. He could not say. He only said that a lot of resources were needed to finalize the talks. That should be a government priority. We should not put the cart before the horse. We should not create institutions that are not suited to the vast majority of first nations.
My colleague from Churchill was quite clear on that when she asked what wealth the majority of first nations will be able to apply the provisions of the bill to or to benefit from. There is a high level of poverty in the majority of first nations communities. Basic needs are not even being met.
With respect to housing, for example, this year, 450 units will be built in Quebec, when it is 8,700 that are needed. Most of the existing housing stock has problems. There are chronic mould problems.
Where in this bill is there a possibility for these first nations to escape the poverty cycle? There are also socio-economic problems. What have we to offer for the young except a dead end? Does the bill deal with that? No.
The only possible answer is to speed up the implementation of self-government and give back to the first nations the ability to pursue their inherent right to self-government, which is entrenched in our Constitution. First nations need the tools to bring about their own development. Only after that should we consider the use of institutions that will gradually become major tools for the pursuit of that development.
What is our response to the problem of multiple substance abuse among first nations youth? What does a bill like this do about the lack of safe drinking water in many areas? Something is wrong. We are setting up ultra-modern institutions that can meet the needs of the rich, but not the real needs and circumstances of native peoples.
When we consider the situation now, two things should be done, as I said several times. First, we should provide adequate resources. And by adequate, I mean resources that are urgently needed to speed up the conclusion of self-government agreements so that we can eventually leave the first nations alone. They should become equal partners. Let us stop patronizing them and trying to impose things the overwhelming majority does not want. That is the first thing we should do.
Then, we should adopt a contingency plan. As I was saying earlier, there are urgent problems on first nations lands, serious socio-economic problems. Members of the first nations are left to their own devices.
What is happening in Lac Barrière with the unsanitary homes, is nothing new. I have seen the same thing in many aboriginal communities across the country. These people are being left to their own devices. Sometimes there is not enough money to hire a teacher, for example, to keep the school open in September.
We have to fight here, as we did in Winneway for example, for Chief Mathias. We asked for supplementary funds to prevent the school from closing in his community for lack of a teacher. There was a two month delay.
Now, chief Mathias has to deal with forestry companies that want to cut trees on his land. This Algonquin community does not get any royalties. What kind of world do we live in? We are in 2004, and we still have the old colonizing attitudes that existed a few hundred years ago.
We must accelerate self-government and introduce emergency plans to force the communities with the most problems to solve their dramatic social and economic situation.
I wish that the new Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the new Prime Minister had more consideration for first nations. I know that, with my speech, I will disappoint some of the first nations that would like to see this bill passed quickly.
However, we would have liked a renewal. As I mentioned earlier, the government could have reached out to all first nations in Quebec and in Canada and said, “Listen, we will take a few more weeks, but the outcome will be approved unanimously, or with a very wide consensus”. If this project had been proposed at the Assembly of First Nations' convention, the attitude would have been totally different.
I sensed some openness on the part of the new Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. I also sensed some openness on the part of the new Prime Minister. However, in view of the facts so far, as of yesterday at least, when we voted on the report stage of this bill, my opinion has changed. The Prime Minister and all the members of the government, including the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, have missed a unique opportunity to demonstrate that perhaps now was not the right time to pass this bill, and that they should review the whole bill so as to reach a consensus.
In addition, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development could have announced—before continuing debate on this bill—that he intended to put more resources into negotiations about self-government. He did not do so. There is nothing there but words and speeches; the attitude and actions are not there; it is just not enough.
A few weeks ago, as I mentioned earlier, the deputy minister responsible for the negotiations admitted it, but not in so many words, by not providing a target date for the conclusion of the negotiations for the 80 self-government and claims tables. He sounded the alarm. Since the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Erasmus-Dussault report, was published there has not been any real acceleration in these negotiations.
The Erasmus-Dussault commission, as hon. members will recall, talked about 20 years for a wide range of things to be put in place so all negotiations on self-government could be concluded and the first nations would finally be able to take charge of their own destiny and develop their communities in terms of what they are and what they want to become.
At this rate, in 50 years, nothing will have changed. In 50 years, our successors will say, “Listen, many negotiations still have to be concluded. There are still first nations living below the poverty line with unemployment rates as high as 75% in some communities; there are substance abuse problems”.
The Erasmus-Dussault commission provided a golden opportunity to change things. Ever since the report was tabled, it is as though it never existed. The attitude seems to be, “Since we have given ourselves 20 years, we can take our time”.
We cannot take our time anymore. It has now become a national emergency. We absolutely have to redefine a number of things. We have even been criticized by organizations like the United Nations. That is incredible. And we are turning a deaf ear.
With the support of my colleague, the hon. member for Sherbrooke, I would like to move the following motion in amendment:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following:
“Bill C-23, an 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, be not now read a third time because it fails to meet the needs of most first nations.”