Mr. Speaker, I rise today with pleasure to speak to Bill C-54, the first nations oil and gas and moneys management act. This is a piece of legislation that my party is pleased and proud to support.
In a sense this legislation follows upon Bill C-20, the first nations fiscal and statistical institutions legislation that was passed earlier this year. This legislation, taken together with the earlier legislation and, I believe, legislation that will follow, represents very important steps in this country toward self-government. I will address my comments to that.
This legislation is important for all first nations in Canada, but it is of specific importance to and follows upon the very hard work of three first nations in particular: the Blood Tribe of Alberta, the White Bear First Nation of Saskatchewan, and the Siksika Blackfoot First Nation of Alberta. These three first nations have worked together with the Government of Canada for 11 years in the pursuit of this legislation.
It is worth pausing to bear in mind that in the case of White Bear, Treaty No. 4 between the Crown and the White Bear First Nation was executed in 1875. This legislation is coming forward 130 years later. It has taken us 130 years to create this self-government initiative. With regard to the Blood and Siksika first nations, Treaty No. 7 was signed in 1877. In that context it has been 128 years since the treaties were executed. This is a very important historic step we are taking.
The Conservative Party is speaking in favour of this legislation. The position of the Conservative Party in respect of self-government was clearly enunciated by the members of our party at our policy convention this past March in Montreal. The policy position of the party is as follows:
The Indian Act (and related legislation) should be replaced by a modern legislative framework which provides for the devolution of full legal and democratic responsibility to [aboriginal Canadians] for their own affairs within the overall constitutional framework of our federal state.
Such legislative reform should be pursued following full consultation with First Nations, with the objective of achieving a full and complete devolution of democratic authority that is consistent with the devolution of other decision making responsibility within our federal system.
[Aboriginal Canadians], like other Canadians, are entitled to enjoy democratic control over their own affairs within a legislative context that ensures certainty, stability, respect for the rule of law and which balances collective and individual responsibility. [Aboriginal] communities must have the flexibility to determine for themselves whether and how free market principles, such as individual property ownership, should apply to reserve lands.
[This devolution] should be accomplished in a manner which takes into account the cultural and linguistic diversity of Canada's First Nations. Within the context of the Canadian Constitution, we should be prepared to make flexible accommodations for the protection of language and culture within self-government agreements.
The initiative that is before the House today is described in some circles as sectoral self-government. Some time ago one of Canada's national newspapers published an opinion piece which I recall was written by Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. In that article there were a number of matters raised by National Chief Fontaine with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Canada is a modern, full-fledged federal democratic state. It is a state in which all citizens must bear equally the responsibilities and the privileges of citizenship.
Aboriginal Canadians are entitled, indeed expected, to share in the governance of Canada. If our aboriginal peoples are to be equal citizens also bearing the hopes and the dreams of this country on their shoulders, then they must bear equally the responsibilities of governing this land. Concurrently, they must enjoy the full benefits of Canadian citizenship including control over their own affairs, including the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
As Chief Fontaine observed, as I recall in that article, aboriginal people will only be self-sufficient, and free and able to rely upon themselves if they are free and able to make their own choices because reliance upon the choices of others is a denial of the status of citizenship.
Earlier this week I had the privilege to meet with a number of first nation leaders. I have spoken with Chief Strater Crowfoot who is one of the architects of this legislation and who has fought many years for it. I have spoken with Jim Boucher, the Chief of the Fort McKay First Nation and other chiefs as well.
In particular I reflect upon the comments of Chief Boucher of the Fort McKay First Nation who pointed out that in his view those aboriginal communities which are strong, vibrant and building wonderful economic and strong cultural opportunity, and a high quality of life for their citizens are those in which people have the confidence that comes from accessing their own resources. That is what is so important about this legislation.
Bill C-54 before the House points out in the preamble that this legislation is optional. This is legislation which first nations can either opt into or not. As the title of the bill says, it is “An Act to provide first nations with the option of managing and regulating oil and gas exploration and exploitation and of receiving moneys otherwise held for them by Canada”.
This is legislation which first nations will be expected and required to make a decision about. The subject matter of the legislation is very broad, providing first nations with extensive control over all matters relating to control of their own oil and gas and their own money. In particular, the definition of exploitation in relation to oil and gas in the legislation includes its extraction, production, storage, distribution, processing, refinery and use.
The definition of exploration includes all things which are ancillary to exploration. Of course, oil and gas money includes all of the money derived by first nations from their oil and gas assets as well as other money which is held by the Government of Canada to the account of the first nation in question.
It is important to point out that this legislation has been well thought out. It has been developed in a manner which is consistent with the principles of fundamental justice. It contains precautionary measures, balancing measures which I will speak to.
First, the procedural protection for first nations citizens is very extensive. Oil and gas assets can only be transferred from the Government of Canada to the first nation if the procedures set out in clause 6 of the legislation are followed which specifically requires a council of the first nation by resolution to invoke the process. Similarly, if a first nation wishes to access its own money, it requires the initiation by a decision of the council of the first nation either to access money which will be collected in the future or money which is currently held in trust for the first nation.
Before any first nations are entitled to access their own oil and gas they are required, pursuant to subclause 10(1) of the legislation, to pass an oil and gas code. That code is defined in the legislation. It contains extensive mechanisms to protect the process for amending the code itself, accountability mechanisms, mechanisms to disclose any conflicts of interest, and in addition, under subclause 10(2), first nations are also required to pass a financial code.
Stated simply, no aboriginal community can access its own oil and gas resources until such time as it has taken the legislative steps that are required by the Government of Canada in this legislation to be invoked.
Similarly, no first nation is entitled to access its own money on the terms of its own trust conditions and indentures unless it has passed the financial code. The financial code must deal with the method of holding money, the form of the trust, the nature of the trustees, the manner in which money is to be collected and distributed, and to whom it is to be distributed, and also dealing with the resolution of conflicts of interest.
It is important in examining this legislation to consider that the legislation does contain protection both for aboriginal Canadians but also for others such as third party interests who have an interest at the present time in oil and gas activities on aboriginal reserves or aboriginal assets.
We not only have the oil and gas code and the financial code, but there is a clear prohibition that the council members of the first nation are not allowed to serve as trustees in a trust. They do not meet the qualifying requirements to be trustees and therefore are not able to serve in that capacity.
Clause 14 of the legislation also contains specific bonding requirements, so that the people who do serve as trustees need to meet the requirements of the provincial trustee legislation such that they are reliable people, properly secured and properly bonded if they are to be entrusted with aboriginal moneys.
Clause 24 of the legislation is quite important because in the context of the transition toward this kind of sectoral self-government, the protection of existing contract holders, people who have currently a contract or an expectation from the Government of Canada, are quite important. Clause 24 provides that oil and gas laws that come into force on a first nations transfer date may not impair the rights or interests of the contract holder under a contract as signed by clause 23. So, in effect the oil and gas contracts that are in place today are transferred from the Government of Canada to the first nation. The first nation must by law honour those obligations.
It is also important in considering this type of legislation to address the extent to which the position of the Crown has been protected. This is consistent with the Samson decision, but the legislation actually could not be clearer. After the oil and gas assets are transferred to an aboriginal community, a first nation, subclause 27(3) of the legislation provides as follows:
Her Majesty is not liable, as the holder of title to reserve lands or to oil and gas found in those lands, in respect of any damage occasioned by oil and gas exploration or exploitation under this Act.
It carries on in clause 28:
Subject to section 27, this Act does not affect the liability of Her Majesty or a first nation for any act or omission occurring before the first nation’s transfer date.
Therefore, the effect of this is clear. Any claims or disputes that might exist between a first nation and the Government of Canada relating to the management of aboriginal oil and gas are not affected but on a go-forward basis, the communities that accept responsibility for the governance of their own assets are responsible themselves for the governance of those assets and the Crown is not exposed to liability for any decision making. Nor is the Crown exposed to any liability if a first nation decides of their own volition to pursue these remedies.
The mechanisms are equally clear with respect to money. Subclause 32(2) provides that:
Following the payment of moneys out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund into an account or a trust under section 30 or 31, Her Majesty is not liable for the payment or the management of those moneys.
Again, making it very clear that if a first nation decides that it is going to assume responsibility for its own financial decision making, the management of its own money, henceforth on a go-forward basis, the Government of Canada is no longer responsible for any of the decision making that is made by that first nation.
This is consistent with the principles of self-government because if first nations are going to accept responsibility for these assets and these moneys and benefit from the upside, they will be responsible as well for any decisions that are made which do not over time prove to be happy ones, if I could say that.
In light of the significant consequences of a first nation therefore invoking the legislation, it is important that we look at the process by which a first nation is able to invoke the legislation. The ratification procedures are set out in the statute and specifically, the majority of the majority has to approve if a first nation is going to opt into the legislation.
A majority of the eligible voters on the reserve must show up to vote and the majority of those who vote must be in favour. It is a provision known as the majority of the majority and it means that once a majority of a majority is on side, that is essentially approval, the Government of Canada can then pursue the devolution of responsibility.
It is also important that we have regard to the constitutional framework in Canada, the federal legislative constitutional jurisdiction, because self-government will not work in this country unless there is a respect for the distribution of powers between the federal and provincial governments. We are essentially overlaying on top of the existing federal distribution of powers a legislative framework for self-government in a sectoral sense.
The legislation does deal with that. Clause 34 outlines very clearly the circumstances in which a first nation has the right to pass legislation. Clause 35 is very important. It allows for the passage of laws and says: “to the extent that those laws are not in relation to matters coming within the exclusive jurisdiction of a provincial legislature”. Clause 36 protects areas of federal jurisdiction. In a sense we have a clear attempt to ensure that the self-government legislation respects provincial and federal jurisdictions and that we do not have unacceptable overlaps.
It is also important that one of the hallmarks by which we judge the legislation is the extent to which it protects the environment. I would point out clause 37 of the legislation where environmental assessments are mandatory. The legislation specifically provides that in the context of the oil and gas code that the first nation develops, the provincial environmental legislation must be adhered to and first nations must pursue environmental assessments if they are to exploit oil and gas resources on their own land. Once again there has been a recognition and an attempt to protect the environment.
It may seem to be a small point, but this is a difficulty that exists elsewhere in Canada. The legislation specifically preserves the right of the federal Crown, if necessary, to expropriate an interest. Pursuant to the legislation, the federal Crown has reserved its right, in circumstances that are in the overall public interest, to step in and actually expropriate an interest if that is needed.
I raise this as a very important point because there are other jurisdictions in the country where there are now, because of the failure of the government to address this in a proper way, issues about whether the federal government has in fact vacated its jurisdiction to ever act in the public interest on first nation lands. Clearly, if we are going to have constitutional workability in the country, paramount authority must rest with this Parliament, with the Government of Canada, and we must have the capacity preserved to act.
Finally, the legislation is also consistent with the Federal Court decision on the Terry Buffalo case which is a court decision of some importance in this country. It was a decision for billions of dollars where the Samson Indian Band sued the Government of Canada claiming that its oil and gas assets had been mismanaged over a period of 30 years.
Last year the judge in that case issued a decision calling upon the Government of Canada to deliver those assets to the first nation and he stipulated a process that the government and the first nation would have to follow to ensure that there was procedural protection. The legislation is in fact quite consistent with the Samson case.
For all of those reasons, I will conclude by saying that this is an important step forward. It is extremely important self-government legislation and of obvious importance in western Canada but applicable throughout the country. It is consistent with our party's position and we are pleased to support it.