Mr. Speaker, this is a bill that can be so important for someone like me who serves a large riding like the riding of Kenora. I would like to acknowledge at the very start that this bill is not new. This idea has been around since the late 1940s, more than six decades. It is something that is needed now to move some of the economic tools forward in northern Ontario and right across Canada.
More recently some of this legislation was proposed by a leader of the Liberal Party in his leadership platform. We recognize the importance of taking this issue forward. There are almost 1,300 claims that have been submitted to Canada since 1973, but just a few over 500 have actually been concluded to date. We need to do much better in this regard. We need to move these forward and give some of the needed tools to the people who live on the land.
This could be a huge benefit to many areas, a huge economic tool which can and will move the communities forward and not just the first nations communities. We cannot forget that aspect of it.
This tribunal would provide an important vehicle in which claims could be settled in a more timely fashion. It is the right thing to do, but more important, we have to do it right. As an example, in my riding there are 41 reserves. Many of those reserves are remote and isolated and many of them have claims that this tribunal may move forward.
We have a large number of claims in the Kenora riding. I will take a moment to explain the history and why some of those have come forward. We have standard, straightforward issues such as surveying in the north. I want to explain how difficult it still is in this day to travel into northern Ontario and other parts of Canada.
When these treaties were signed and claims were made, these remote sites did not receive the proper attention. There are surveying issues and information issues going back over a century. That is why a lot of these claims have come forward, because the discussion and the information on the actual treaties was not what was remembered or noted by the people who actually signed them. Some of the very simple issues and some specific claims can move forward, and then we can get on to the very complex issues.
In one small remote community, fly in only, the community of Wapekeka, Chief Norman Brown is dealing with a very difficult issue. His community has been held stagnant because of a provincial park that was there. For a lot of good reasons the Fawn River Provincial Park was located in northern Ontario. It protects a lot of the environmental concerns and a lot of the unique landscapes in northern Ontario. This provincial park circled the entire community. The community has done everything it can to grow, to move forward. It basically has no land opportunities because it is encircled by the park. There are no economic opportunities. There is very little hope in the community as long as the park is there.
I am not saying that the park will be removed, but through a specific land claim the claim can be moved forward. This would give the community some hope, some actual opportunities to move things forward and to start businesses and take control of its own destiny.
Another issue that is partly settled is the Lac Seul claim. Chief Clifford Bull has had to deal with a very difficult issue for about 20 years. In 1932 a power dam at Ear Falls flooded the community. One of the three communities that existed at the time was notified and the other two were not. People returned to their homes to find that the water had risen by some three to five metres. The only visible parts of the houses were the rooftops. This claim has been going on for a long, long time.
The communities are now actually three separate entities which are totally cut off from each other by water. Frenchman's Head, Whitefish Bay and Kejick Bay are places that something like the specific claims tribunal to make sure that they can resolve some of the long-standing issues.
They have had a bit of a resolution through Ontario Power Generation. They have started the process. They have access to some resources, but we really need to get to the day where all the claims can be dealt with in a timely fashion. There is a limit of $150 million. We are hoping that a lot of these issues in my riding can be dealt with through the specific claims process.
The Kenora riding is large, I believe it is the seventh largest riding in Canada. It sees this as an economic opportunity for every community and again, not just the first nations.
Although this bill is an important step, I still have some concerns, which I will come back to. When it was announced, the former minister of Indian affairs from a Calgary riding travelled to Sioux Lookout in my riding last spring. He spoke at a former residential school site, Pelican Falls. There was a gathering of chiefs from right across northern Ontario. It was a large group.
The message delivered was a very hard sell. Basically they were told, “We made a decision, you are going to live with it, and that is it”. There were no options. The people from the communities and the chiefs who were visiting did not take that message very well. Again, it seemed to be dictating to the communities. The communities were concerned they were not going to be part of the process. Chief Warren White from the community of Whitefish Bay was very upset. He went up to the microphone and made the minister very well aware of that.
The message that was delivered over and over again was that negotiation without consultation is not how they are going to do business. The communities are not prepared to accept that. This is not how to start a process where everyone is working together so they can achieve something, make improvements and actually start to settle some of these claims.
The communities all across northern Ontario and I am sure right across Canada want to be involved. They want the ability to provide input so the process works right. This is their future we are talking about. It is not simply about getting something off the books. This is about how their future is going to be planned out.
I have noticed quite often in my riding and in many rural areas of Canada that the people who actually live there have a lot of the answers. They know the information. These are people from the land and they have traditional memories of some of the treaties. When we talk about setting up legislation and a tribunal, it is very important that we get this right because this is an opportunity for them to improve their lot in Canada.
What do we do with claims from different jurisdictions? I will give an example. Grassy Narrows in my riding has a federal land claims dispute. It has a huge dispute with the provincial government over some logging practices. A lot of this holds back any economic activity.
If given the chance and if the specific claims tribunal works in the proper fashion, we still have to figure out how we are going to draw federal and provincial governments into responding to these claims. Dealing with the provinces is going to be part of the challenge of this. This tribunal is designed to overcome that, but we have to make sure it actually happens.
Grassy Narrows has a long history of difficulty. Some of the disputes, roadblocks and blockades have been in the news far too often. It is simply that people in the communities are trying to achieve what they see as handling their own future and being part of their own destiny.
Going back to the claim for the Grassy Narrows area, this harms some industry opportunities for the Kenora forest products in the area. Ailbe Prendiville has an operation there. One of the few bright spots in northern Ontario is a logging operation that actually is looking to expand. It has the opportunity to provide more jobs in northern Ontario, to provide better jobs and to build a stronger future for a faltering industry in northern Ontario.
I will not go into why the forestry industry is suffering and why it is having the difficulty it does, but there are a couple of operations that are willing to expand in northern Ontario to provide new jobs. These are all being held up by some of the land claims that are in process now. This is what I meant earlier when I talked about this being a huge economic driver that could assist northern Ontario and many other places in Canada. This is something that needs to be done right so that other opportunities can come along.
A community like Kenora has about 16,000 people. Kenora lost the mill. The mill is closed. It is actually being torn down at this point. The day it was closed there were 450 direct jobs lost in Kenora. At one point, there had been more than double that; more than 1,000 people had worked at that facility. This was a huge loss to the forestry sector. We now have a tool before us, the specific land claims tribunal, which could help speed up the process and put some confidence back in to the forestry operations in a couple of specific communities. I see that as extremely positive and an extremely good tool for all communities, not just first nations alone.
There is another opportunity that could be helped by speeding up the claims process. For many who do not know, Red Lake is a huge gold mining area, one of the largest gold mines in North America. The mining aspect is doing very well.
There is a post and beam plant that will employ more than 200 people directly. Its challenge is to get a committed wood supply. It has been working with the province toward that goal. Again, the settlement of some of the claims in this area may free up fibre. It may provide the opportunity for this plant to happen. For something like this to happen in forestry in an area that has been one of the hardest hit in Canada is an extremely bright light for us. We are hoping that day happens and that it will drive a lot of the future for northern Ontario.
My other concern is that first nations will not be given a say in the appointment of the judges to this tribunal. This is characteristic of the government, which has been unwilling to consult and discuss with a lot of the aboriginal leaders in the communities. We know it has made some attempts but this is about consultation with everybody that will be affected.
How will we ensure the tribunal works in its proper fashion? How will we ensure the results are there to benefit the communities, not just one side of it? If the issue of the judges on the tribunal is not clear, if it is not shown to be fair and not shown to be partisan in any way, we need the appointment of the judges to be something in which everyone will have confidence. Everyone will ensure they buy into the process and that it can provide some future for the communities.
I want to go back to why first nations have some doubts that this will actually happen. The present government scrapped the Kelowna accord, which would have changed the way it would do business. The specific land claims is a way to change the way we do business but we also need to ensure we get it right.
The Kelowna accord was one of the most comprehensive tools ever negotiated. It would have helped some of the long-standing inequities between first nations and non-first nations people. Again, similar to what the specific claims issue is.
In spite of urging from an overwhelming number of first nations people, the government decided not to implement the Kelowna accord. The government did not listen to first nations and that is my fear with the specific land claims tribunal. If we do not get the buy-in of the people, the people who will be affected by this every day, this will be a problem. There will be no confidence.
The other thing the Kelowna accord would have done is that it would have put confidence back into some of the communities. If we are to get this right, we must ensure the confidence level is there.
Communities like Muskrat Dam, North Spirit Lake and Webequie all talked about a brighter future when confidence would be put back in there. They would be part of the solution. Somebody wanted to know what they thought and what they heard. All these communities have land claims.
Chief Gordon Anderson of Kasabonika Lake saw confidence for new housing for the future. He felt that this would be a very bright opportunity for them. Now that they are able to solve some of these claims, there will be new housing opportunities for the communities. Many of them suffer from chronic overcrowding and chronic problems for which new resources in the community would be a big help.
Chief Titus Tait from Sachigo saw the opportunities for education as most important.
Many of the members in the House would not realize how difficult it is for first nations. The communities I just mentioned are all remote sites. All they have is gravel runways and the people live literally hundreds and hundreds of kilometres from any major centre. Many students have little or no support for education or post-secondary education.
Achieving some of these land claims through the specific land claims tribunal would put those resources in the hands of the communities. It would allow the communities to deal with some of the issues themselves. At this point, all they can do is go to the government with their hands out and questions. Settling some of these claims would give them the opportunity to look at their own students and to give them a brighter future.
Chief Solomon Atlookan from Fort Hope saw confidence coming back into the health care system when we solve some of these claims. I use the word “confidence” over and over again because, since the cancellation of the Kelowna accord, the communities have lacked confidence in the government. This is an opportunity, if we get this right, for the communities to have faith in the tribunal when it is set up. It goes back to ensuring we are all part of the system and the government is listening to everyone who is actually providing information.
All communities want the specific land claims to work but to work for them and not just the government, and that is done through consultation. It is done through listening to the communities; listening to their guidance, their leadership, their elders and the organizations that have made presentations to the government.
They have many issues. There is one thing I think it important for the House to recognize. All the problems and difficulties that we discuss in this House when we talk about the problems faced in modern municipalities, large cities, anywhere in Canada, these first nations communities all have these same issues. However, they have a lot more to add to them. They have remote sites, cultural differences and many have language differences.
All those problems that everyone suffers from and struggles with and how we try to maintain a standard of life in Canada and how we try to improve the standard of life in Canada, all those things are faced by the first nations communities.
If Chief Solomon Atlookan were able to go to the specific claims tribunal and have confidence that it works, it would make things in his community increasingly better. It would provide a quality of life that most Canadians take for granted and it would be something that he could take to his people and say that we are working together, because that is the important part.
However, we have a number of instances before us that show the government does not listen. I will now talk about the water in some of the communities.
Many communities in my riding have water advisories on a regular basis. A lot of these have to do with the issue that the regulations are something they cannot meet coming from a remote site. Technology in the future will clean up some of these issues, technology they will be able to afford when specific land claims actually works and the tribunal is actually in place.
A community in my riding that has been in the news a lot recently is the Pikangikum first nation. The government's approach to problems on first nations when it has been water is that it tends to establish drinking water standards but not the resources for the communities. Again, resources are what is lacking and if the specific claims tribunal works, it is something they will have and they will be able to do themselves.
However, when we establish drinking water standards and do not put resources into the community, we lose the confidence of the community, we lose the ability of the people to actually get the job done, and having unsafe water does not solve any of the health care issues.
The government created an advisory board. The problem I had with the advisory board is that it travelled across Canada and did not bother going to any of the remote sites. It did not go to where the problems were the most prevalent and where the people suffered under some of the long-standing issues. It simply did not go to where it needed to be heard.
Again, it was a government with an idea that seemed to be fine. It was going to go to the people but it did not go to the people right across Canada. It did not go to the remote sites nor did it go to any location in my riding, which has 41 reserves. That is why there is no confidence in that.
The government did not provide any infrastructure funding for the first nations to reach these legislated standards. Again, it was a great idea but the government simply did not move forward with it in a way that was practical and helpful to the communities. Communities still exist on boil water advisories and will for some time. There is no guaranteed safe drinking water, which is unacceptable in Canada right now.
What do we do? We need to ensure the resources are theirs so that they can deal with some of these issues, and specific claims may move it forward in a timely manner.
On the water issue, the government has not consulted a great deal. The government needs to listen if we want this to works. With this important new legislation that I have touched on a number of times, I urge the government to learn from its mistakes and make consultation a priority because there are many different aspects to first nations.
We have different first nations concerns right across Canada and I will try to explain them one by one.
We have the urban aboriginals. People may ask why these people will be affected by the specific land claims. Many of these people are not living on reserve simply because there is no land available, no housing available and no opportunities available. They see the issue as they would be back home. If we are able to solve some of these land claims, these people from right across Canada will be able to go back to some of their home reserves. This is their desire in the end. Therefore, urban aboriginals need to be part of the equation. They must understand the situation and the people on the other side, the government, must understand these people's desires to get back home. This can all be accomplished by using the specific claims tribunal, if it is set up properly, if there is confidence in the judging and in the decisions that are being made and that it will work for the communities.
We have the first nations people who are actually on reserve. These people may be some of the most impacted because they live in small areas designed for populations of 200 to 300 but which now have populations of 2,000.
The issue of the community I mentioned before, Pikangikum, is a very telling example. When the decision was coming, the people actually visited Pikangikum many decades ago when there were about 18 families. Many of them were out in the areas. When the government came to count the people, there were only six families there. A reserve was created that would basically deal with 300 to 500 people, but 2,300 to 2,500 people live on the reserve and many more have moved away.
We have remote end-of-the-road communities that have their own challenges. On top of all that, we have the fly-ins. We have 21 fly-in locations in my riding alone and many more right across Canada. I believe there are close to 90 in Canada right now.
All these first nations need to be heard to ensure there is confidence in the system. They need to be assured that when they put information forward and when they go to the tribunal that the decision rendered will be fair and not a decision that will be rammed down their throat. They want it to be a decision that will allow the municipality to start moving forward. This can work and we need to make it work for their future.