Mr. Speaker, the bill before us today is an important step forward in addressing the unacceptable socio-economic gap that separates so many First Nations people from other Canadians. It would help to ensure that First Nation communities that choose to opt into this legislation would have access to the bounty their lands have to offer and a greater share of Canada's prosperity.
The legislation would provide First Nations with the opportunity to manage and regulate their oil and gas resources, as well as collect and manage future revenues flowing from them.
As well, the legislation would allow First Nations to decide whether to exercise full authority over the management of their moneys derived from activities on reserve and currently held for them in trust in the consolidated revenue funds.
I would like to underscore the important work undertaken by the White Bear, Blood Tribe and Siksika First Nations, which initiated this process to take over the management and control of their oil, gas and moneys, and worked with Canada to develop this enabling legislation to achieve this goal.
In the last five years, over 900 wells were drilled on First Nation lands. Last year alone, industry invested $76 million in drilling on First Nation lands, with over 250 new wells drilled on 37 reserves.
In 2003-04, Indian Oil and Gas Canada administered over 3,500 active surface and subsurface agreements on 70 Indian reserves. The revenues collected on behalf of First Nations were valued in the $200 million range.
When the Prime Minister has spoken about his concerns for aboriginal advancement, he has made it very clear that our government believes aboriginal people in Canada must participate fully in all that Canada has to offer, with greater economic self-reliance and an ever-improving quality of life that naturally follows.
In outlining the strategy to achieve that goal, he underscored the need for more successful aboriginal businesses, more economic development and greater self-sufficiency.
At the historic policy retreat this past May, the government re-confirmed that commitment and that is exactly what this bill helps achieve in the goal and the movement forward.
What it means is that the First Nations that choose to take advantage of this new legislation will be able to play a key role in Canada's booming oil sector, creating jobs, spin-off businesses and increased opportunities for both social and economic development.
Let me give some of the history that has led to this achievement. In 1994, the Indian Resource Council, an organization that supports First Nations in their efforts to attain management and control of oil and natural gas resources, came forward with a proposal for a pilot project.
The Indian Resource Council is a stand alone First Nations owned and operated agency representing over 130 First Nations with oil and gas interests. The objective of the council's pilot project was to transfer full management and control from Indian Oil and Gas Canada to those interested First Nations.
A steering committee composed of representatives from Indian Oil and Gas Canada, the Indian Resource Council, as well as the chiefs of the pilot project First Nations, was struck to oversee the project.
Over the course of the next decade, the White Bear, Blood Tribe and Siksika First Nations moved through a succession of capacity building exercises to gain the skills and knowledge required to assume the full management and responsibility over oil and gas development on their own reserve lands.
There were several stages: first, the joint administrative and management processes; then building capacity through enhanced training; and, more importantly I guess, developing individual communication processes incorporating First Nations' values and beliefs to inform band members, as well as industry and government, to ensure that these activities would be reflective of, and responsive to, each community's needs and values. We should never stray from that premise because it is important to success.
These First Nations from Alberta and Saskatchewan have been partners at ever step in this decade long process. They have worked side by side with departmental officials. It has been quite a team. They have been directly involved in both designing this bill and developing the necessary capacity to implement its progressive provisions. They have identified the problems that need to be addressed and devised the solutions that work for their communities.
It is very important to repeat that the legislation does not oblige any First Nation to opt into any or any part of the bill. Each community can determine by referendum whether to use the legislation. Neither does it in any way create a requirement or preclude other First Nations from bringing forward other options.
Finally, and importantly for many First Nations, the non-derogation clause in the bill makes it very clear that it is not the goal of the legislation to abrogate or derogate from aboriginal or treaty rights protected by the Constitution and that should an infringement to those rights be found to arise from the application of its provisions, the government would have to justify that infringement.
There might be some aspects of the bill that will appeal to some First Nations but not to others. As the bill's name implies, the legislation covers both oil and gas issues, as well as money management. Let me explain the distinction.
At the moment there is no legislation that recognizes the possibility of First Nations assuming control over their Indian moneys which are currently held in trust by the Crown in the consolidated revenue fund as stipulated by the Indian Act. The bill before us today would provide First Nations with a legislative vehicle to exercise full authority over their moneys otherwise held by the Crown.
Even if they are not involved in managing oil and gas development, communities could access the moneys derived from activities on their reserve to support other aspects of self-government and broader opportunities for economic development. With the legislation, the First Nations can choose to take advantage of either the oil and gas elements of the legislation, just the moneys management option, both elements or, if they so choose, they could stay exactly as they are today. It will be up to the individual community to make that determination, not us as a government but each community at the development stage that they currently are or hope to achieve.
The first three First Nations leading this initiative would be able to seize opportunities throughout the oil and gas sector, from initial exploration to exploitation and extraction. Quality employment opportunities, whether directly in the oil patch or in one of the myriad associated businesses, means stronger, healthier communities that offer hope and opportunity to community members.
We all know, any of us who have been involved in this work over the years, that hope is an important aspect. Giving someone the dignity of a job and a possible future that is better than at present is very important and crucial.
I want to point out that none of the provisions contained in the bill can be used by a First Nation government without the consent of its own members. Both on and off reserve members would be able to participate in any referendum held to gain community consent for a First Nation to opt into the legislation, whether in respect of oil and gas, moneys or both.
Let me explain more precisely what Bill C-54 would do and what First Nations that opt in to this legislation may expect.
First, they will be considered legal entities for the purposes of the act and, as such, will be required to maintain accounts, prepare financial statements and have those financial statements audited in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. These First Nations will also be accountable to their membership to disclose the management and administration of First Nations oil and gas activities and moneys under their care.
The community's members would have options available to ensure this accountability. I want to add for the record that the bill would not affect the application of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Species at Risk Act.
From my perspective as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, there is another benefit that may be less tangible but I think it is equally important and we should put it on the table. The First Nations oil and gas and moneys management act represents a fundamental change in the way we interact with First Nation governments.
In the case of this legislation, a strong relationship has been built with the three partners, White Bear, Blood Tribe and Siksika First Nations, over the last 10 years as we have worked in a partnership. We have learned how our activities can complement each other. We have seen that committed partners can achieve meaningful process and progress in advancing their shared quest to build a better future for aboriginal First Nations people.
That is something the Government of Canada is committed to seeing more of in the future. With this legislation our priority is to ensure that, after nearly a decade of hard work and dedication, the White Bear, the Blood Tribe and the Siksika First Nations are able to reap the rewards of their efforts to gain the skills required to create stronger and more prosperous communities. In doing so, they have obviously opened the door for other interested First Nations to come to the table and work with us and their own communities to move forward in a similar manner.
It is now up to us as parliamentarians. I know there have been ongoing discussions with the parties in the House. I think those have been very beneficial and cooperative discussions. We hope to ensure that First Nations governments have the tools they require to better meet the needs and aspirations of their people.
I am counting on and hopeful of the support of my hon. colleagues from all parties in the House. My discussions to date seem quite helpful and hopeful.
Before I end my speech by saying that I want us to help make this possible, I want to thank my colleagues in the House who have contributed to helping us reach this point today. Everyone knows that a minority government is difficult and in a minority Parliament we have had the cooperation on the most of part from all of my colleagues from all of the parties to advance First Nations.
I believe the members of the committee and of the House generally are committed to moving First Nations efforts forward. I personally appreciate that and I know the First Nations will tell members that themselves.