Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to represent the constituents of Edmonton—Sherwood Park in the debate on Bill C-71. It is an important bill. I think probably most people here will regret the fact that it is being given a rush job. It is very important in these instances to get things right. In general I concur with and support the intent of the bill.
Before I talk about the regulation of commercial and industrial undertakings on reserve lands, I would like to make a brief comment about the process we are undertaking. I know probably most Canadians who are watching this on CPAC are not aware of the fact that we are doing this under a slightly different procedure from the norm. That is, whereas usually a bill is introduced by the government and then receives second reading, which is called the debate on agreement in principle, in this instance we are debating the bill prior to it coming to second reading. We are debating a motion that the bill will be sent to committee before second reading.
The intent of that is, or at least it is advertised to be, the parliamentary committee will have greater and more flexible input into the wording of the bill. It sounds wonderful in its concept. However, in the 12 years I have been in the House I have observed that more often than not the government has used this to stifle debate. I hate to say that, but that is what has happened.
One of the things that occurs is that we get this debate where we have 10 minute speeches, and it is not really possible to get into the depth of it. Then it goes off to committee and the committee deals with the bill in hopefully a more flexible fashion because it has not yet received second reading in the House.
Unfortunately, in previous occurrences of this process being used, there have been instances where the government has used it to limit debate and the power of the committee to change the different clauses in the bill is not as great as it should be under these circumstances.
On numerous occasions I have been very frustrated in committee. Even though opposition members have tried to make meaningful, reasoned and defensible amendments to bills, they have been shot down by the majority government. Sometimes members on the committee have not fully understood what is being debated and the ones who have given the orders from on high have not been in committee to hear the arguments. That is a potential problem. It is less of a problem when we have a minority government, but it still is a difficulty with which we need to continue to grapple.
With respect to this bill, it is long overdue. I am not sure that it is a perfect bill. In fact, I have a couple of questions about it myself, just in a cursory reading of it. It is a situation that we have in Canada which is unique and it needs to be addressed.
We like to say that we are a nation of equality, that we treat all our members in our society equally. Yet over the last 135 plus years we have had two different sets of rules for different segments of our population. When settlers first came to the country from Europe and other parts of the world, the natives were here already. For some reason, the powers that be at the time during Confederation set up quite a different way of allowing them to run their society from the way the rest of us could, those of us who immigrated to Canada more recently.
I always say that Canada is made up of all immigrants. Any person who has studied the history of our continent will say that even the natives came here from elsewhere, albeit a number of centuries earlier than the rest of us. However we are all immigrants on this continent and those who arrived here first, for some reason, have over the years suffered from a set of rules governing their activities that were substantially different and to their detriment. I for one would like to see this corrected.
I have had a number of really good relationships with different first nation individuals. Way back, when I was teaching at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, I taught a number of first nation students. They were very fine people. If I can generalize, they have a gentle nature. I found them to be very cooperative most of the time, certainly on par with my other students.
It is unfortunate that these individuals had a completely different set of rules and one of them with respect to ownership of their land. There are different rules, such as ownership of mineral rights on lands that are usually separate from surface rights. However the natives on reserves have not had the ability to capitalize on the potential that some of their resources had. If they did, they were under separate rules and this gave, in some instances, an advantage and, in some instances, a disadvantage. In any case, I think it would help to promote the well-being of our country if we treated natives and non-natives alike when it came to the use of the resources they have on the land on which they live.
One of the things not in the bill that has distressed me over the years is that natives generally are not permitted to own their own land. They are on reserves and the land is held in a commune style way. None of us who are used to living the other way would tolerate for a minute not being able to own our own house or the land it sits on, or that the money designated to us by the government would go to other people who then could use it to control our life and determine whether we can fix a broken window in our house.
Unfortunately, over the years we have had too many instances where what I call the grassroots natives have asked for help. They tell us what has happened and they say that they have absolutely no power to influence the outcome. It could be the electrical system in their house that is not right or the plumbing system that is not working but they cannot get the money to fix those things. We hear a lot these days about water and sewage systems. Those things need to be corrected.
This bill in particular deals with the development of natural resources and is rather specifically directed toward oil sands development on reserve land in Alberta and elsewhere. I am somewhat familiar with this. Before the Electoral Boundaries Commission made such a terrible job of re-drawing the boundaries in my riding, my previous riding of Elk Island included, among other things, the Shell upgrader plant just outside of Fort Saskatchewan in the province of Alberta. I know the issues being dealt with here are very important because of the fact that they will allow not only the natives on the reserves but also Albertans and, indeed, all of Canada to benefit from the development of these resources in an orderly way.
I have some serious questions which I hope the committee addresses, especially, as my colleague from the NDP mentioned, questions with respect to regulations that are really wide open. We speak of self-government for our native people and yet these regulations are totally under the control of the minister.
If we had a good, benevolent minister and a good, honest government I know these things could work for the benefit of the natives but there needs to be a system of checks and balances. Even when we form government and we have a Conservative minister of Indian affairs we should have a system whereby there is a great deal more accountability than this particular bill provides.
Unfortunately, my time is up. I had a good introduction, and this is what I am talking about. These 10 minute speeches do not really allow us to develop the thoughts that we want to. I hope the committee will do some good work in analyzing and correcting the few flaws that are in the bill.