Mr. Speaker, I am standing to support the amendment that has been moved, which is to give the committee another opportunity to look at the issues that have been raised here on the floor of the House, and that deal with the whole concept and process of an alternative dispute resolution approach.
I have been following very carefully the comments that have been made by colleagues on both sides. I make the observation that we have had an extremely contentious process in committee. Out of that process has come a report from the opposition. What seems incredulous to me is that this is a report that purports to do the best thing for those who have suffered the tragedy associated with residential schools. Those of course have been represented by our first nations.
We also have a very clear indication that not only does the Assembly of First Nations feel that there is very strong tenets within the alternative dispute resolution that bears further exploration but there also is, as has been pointed out, at least one other opposition party that feels that there are strengths, or at least parts of an alternative dispute resolution process that would help to come to grips with many of those issues that have come out of the committee's deliberations.
Here we are again debating an issue that came out of a process where there was not a clear consensus. This is clearly one of those kinds of issues where we ought not to be seen, nor should we be doing something that in a patronizing or paternalistic way is neither accepted in substance by the first nations people, through this report coming from the opposition, nor on the other hand should we be closing the door to a further consideration of some of the issues that have been raised. That is the reason why the amendment has come through in the manner in which it has.
It would be my position, and I say it with some degree of hesitation, because to the greatest extent my knowledge of those issues related to our first nations people has been through my attendance at the aboriginal affairs committee mainly through the last term. I have been following, though, the debate in this House today.
The report before the House shows that the hearings held by the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development on the effectiveness and the government's alternative dispute resolution process failed to study this complex issue in a truly meaningful way.
I cannot help but bring forward again the observation or the inference that is drawn from that. It seems that the committee for whatever reason did not really explore the alternative dispute resolution to the extent that it should have and could have.
It also seems that some of the members were not as interested in a real understanding of the alternative dispute resolution because many of the stakeholders that came before the committee, I am told, were also interested in working to improve that particular approach which, I might add, is a work in progress.
The committee, with the momentum and the focus provided by mainly the opposition, actually undertook a series of very quick hearings. One could suggest that there was not an absence of bias in those hearings into what is an extremely complex and important issue. It is a very important part of our history, which is the experience that so many of our first nations people, too many, had with the Indian residential schools.
At best, the hearings held by the committee in February were incomplete. That is clear from a simple review of the list of witnesses called to testify at these hearings. At worst, the hearings had the ring of political bias, a bias at the expense, though, of a real understanding or a real study, a genuine attempt to understand not only what happened at so many residential schools but also to understand the work that has been taking place subsequently over the past number of years to address this terrible legacy.
I am told that the committee heard from several former students who were displeased with the process. Let me be clear, we recognize on this side that both criticism and discussion are necessary parts of a developmental and innovative approach to resolving this issue.
For this reason, last year the government provided specific funding support to both the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Bar Association, two extremely legitimate organizations, which together would examine the ADR process and offer up their views. If there were no bias, if we were totally objective, would we not have wanted to hear from those two organizations?
It is noteworthy that the analysis and study by both the AFN and CBA was undertaken over the course of several months, in stark contrast to the six hours devoted to hearings by the standing committee. The standing committee also heard from the National Consortium of Residential Schools Survivors Counsel, an association of lawyers with significant investments that they had made in time to litigate against the government. We did not hear from them.
As I said a few moments ago, criticism and discussion are a necessary part of an innovative approach, but are dissenting voices the only voices that merit attention? The government is aware that no process is perfect, but the more than 1,400 applications the ADR process has received to date are surely a sign that this process is taken as a real, viable option for a growing number of former students who have taken it up.
The ADR process continues to receive more and more applications each week. Its adjudicators continue to render decisions, the total of which now stands at almost $5 million. These decisions are made within 30 days of a hearing taking place and the hearings have taken place in private homes, at other locations in communities of former students, and in some cases, in hospital rooms.
I state that because the inference or the implication has been made that the process is very ex parte, that it goes on in confusion and in environments that are not accessible and so on. That is not the case. Health support is available to former students who may be in crisis. The funding is also provided for support persons to attend the hearing with the former student.
That is how the alternative dispute resolution is happening in practical terms. These are clear indications that the ADR process has much merit and the committee would know this if the hon. Ted Hughes, who was the chief adjudicator of the ADR process, would have had the opportunity to address the committee for more than a meagre 10 minutes.
This is really revealing I am afraid. Mr. Hughes had barely started his presentation when the hearing of February 22 was adjourned. He graciously offered to return to complete his testimony at the committee's convenience. The question is: was he taken up on the offer? Unfortunately not. I cannot imagine why because several committee members, including I believe two of our colleagues from the Bloc, made it clear that they wished to hear the rest of the presentation. But it never happened.
As I have stated before and has been stated in the House, the government is working closely with former students, representatives of the churches and other stakeholders, in particular the Assembly of First Nations, to examine ways in which the reconciliation and healing of the terrible residential school experiences of many aboriginal Canadians can begin.
This is difficult and important work. The government and many people are working together to both streamline the existing process as well as to explore other ways to reconcile the legacy of residential schools. It would be an understatement, and I believe that all sides agree in this respect, that far too many aboriginal Canadians and their families in turn suffered as a result of their experiences at residential schools. On this point, I am sure that all colleagues agree.
Therefore, we need to take the time and make the effort in as expeditious way as possible to appropriately and in a fulsome manner address the legacy of Indian residential schools. This means continuing to work with former students and our other partners and stakeholders to find ways to improve the processes that we have in place, and to consider the ways that they may indeed be supplemented.
This does not mean throwing out all of the work that has already been completed. This does not mean abandoning the more than 1,200 former students who have taken the time and the immense effort to complete an application, as has been pointed out, to the alternative dispute resolution process and whose hearings will be taking place over the coming months.
We must not truncate this process and leave these people adrift in terms of what we already have instituted. The government will not abandon these people and it will live up to the commitment to offer a supportive, safe and timely process which is an alternative to the courts. The government will continue to foster debate and discussion. If this amendment is approved, that process will continue in committee and the government will continue to work with partners and other stakeholders.
On behalf of the government, I will state unequivocally that the government will not and cannot support the report that has been put before the House through the opposition.
It is the government's opinion, I think shared by other parties in the House, that the report is the product of a hasty and superficial study by the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Accordingly I will be supporting the amendment that would send the report back to the committee for further attention and study.