Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to this particular bill today. I know thousands of people are watching and some of them may not understand what bill we are dealing with, so I just want to make it clear.
Land claims with first nations is a major issue across this country. This bill would allow modern treaties to be made with first nations, so that they could have their proper place in this nation. The bill is largely based on the royal proclamation from the 18th century which basically said that all the land in Canada belongs to aboriginal people unless treaties or specific deals are made for certain lands.
Governments have dealt with first nations for a long time in making treaties. These treaties ensure that first nations have their rights respected. They also ensure that first nations have land, opportunities, and the required resources. There have been some remarkable claims over the years, but many claims still need to be settled. Some of them may involve hundreds of millions of dollars. However, that is not what the bill before us deals with.
Bill C-30 deals with specific small claims where a treaty is already in place, but there is a problem with it. The government might have abrogated its responsibility. It might not have fulfilled some duty on a particular piece of land. It might owe some money to a particular first nation, or it reneged on something it said it would give to aboriginal people.
A dispute might arise because the government did not provide what it said it would provide or there is a disagreement of some kind between what the treaty said first nations would receive and what they would not receive. The bill deals with all these little annoyances.
To make it clear for the public, we are not talking about the huge amount of unsettled land claims that are still going on across the country. We are not talking about major claims involving first nations that do not have a treaty. However, the government should be putting the majority of its effort into getting these claims settled. Once they are dealt with, the government should not just leave it at that.
As the Auditor General has quite clearly pointed out that there are a number of cases where a treaty has been signed but the government has not acted in the spirit of the treaty. The three territories in the north are looking for strong action by the government. Signing a treaty is not the end of a relationship. It is really just the beginning. As the critic for the north, I can certainly say that people in the north want these treaties followed. They want the government to act and fulfill the objectives of these treaties.
Bill C-30 deals with little annoyances such as the government not fulfilling conditions of a treaty or a first nation disagreeing with the government over the conditions of a treaty. These small claims would be dealt with by this particular bill.
Our critic from Winnipeg South Centre said that the bill is definitely a step in the right direction. We are certainly supportive of improving the process. However, this legislation does need to be studied extensively in committee. Some concerns have already been voiced.
The legislative tribunal is not a new approach or a new idea. It was proposed by the Liberal leader in his leadership platform. He is an honest person. I am sure he does not care which party puts forward any of his ideas for the betterment of Canadians as long as the ideas get through the process. He will be very excited if this bill gets through because he has definitely wanted a tribunal process that would deal with specific claims.
Calls for an independent tribunal go as far back as 1947. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended an independent lands and treaties tribunal. Over the next decade, attempts were made to reform the specific claims process but were unsuccessful.
All are agreed that the current process needs to be improved. All are in agreement that the number of claims is too high.
Since 1973, almost 1,300 claims have been submitted to Canada and, to date, 513 of these have been concluded, which leaves 784 outstanding. The minister has said that the number was as high as 900.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as parliamentarians to do the right thing and come up with a process that can deal with this huge backlog that is not dealing with the claims fast enough.
We have already heard from some who feel they were not consulted but they will have their opportunity to put their concerns before the committee.
We have also heard a concern about the cap on claims and whether the dedicated funding of $250 million annually will be enough. I certainly had that thought when I first viewed the bill. I am assuming that the government, in good faith, will do a supplementary estimate and increase the money if claims are not settled by the judges in excess of that amount. If anyone in the government says that they will not, then a bill that is not too controversial will become quite controversial because there is no use having judges making decisions and Parliament not giving the money to implement those decisions.
There has been some concern that first nations do not have a say in the appointment of judges to the tribunal. The plan first put forward by the Liberal leader called for first nations to have input. In many cases, this process will rely on a provincial buy-in because of its stewardship over most crown lands. It is very important that we work very closely with provincial and, in some cases, territorial governments to ensure the buy-in is a part of the process so that all the parties in respect of a claim can be involved and have it dealt with.
I started out by explaining how the land claims problem in Canada is small. This also does not deal with the minor claims of first nations that signed modern treaties. Many of those treaties already have a dispute mechanism in them. Once again, this only deals with the offences against some of the existing treaties and has nothing to do with the huge land claims backlog and what is called comprehensive claims. Comprehensive means that it deals with creating an entire new claim and if self-government is attached it is a new government.
When the bill goes to committee we will need to listen to witnesses from first nations to ensure the bill would accomplish what I think all parties in the House have gone on record as saying they want it to accomplish. The bill is too important to call witnesses and leave the questions to the government.
Any person who has an interest in this bill and who wants to appear before the committee, they should please contact me or our aboriginal affairs critic, the member for Winnipeg South Centre who spoke earlier.
This bill has been decades in the making. I commend the government for working on the bill and, in particular, for developing the bill with the grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations. A previous speaker made it clear that this was a landmark change for the Conservatives and an excellent way to develop a bill that will get the support of all parties in the House.
As I have done a number of times, I must compliment grand chief, Phil Fontaine, on being a great leader. He has brought much to his people in his term as grand chief, including the historic residential schools settlement that he made with the government. This is another great step forward to deal with hundreds of specific claims in a fair and faster way.
After all the kudos to the government, though, I must now mention all the problems it has in all other areas in dealing with aboriginal people. Aboriginal peoples want their issues concerning their basic human rights to be seriously addressed by the government, including addressing the poverty gap and the infrastructure problems first nations face on reserve today. Without real action there is fear that nothing will be done.
It is unfortunate to say this, and the government may not want to hear it, but since coming to power, listening to the voices of aboriginal Canadians has not been a priority of the government. Last week marked the two year anniversary of the Kelowna accord. The government has ignored the voices calling for the implementation of the agreement, and that is by all members of Parliament, with the exception of government members.
The government has ignored aboriginal leaders, provincial and territorial leaders and others who were involved in the 18 month process that led to the agreement. It made a unilateral decision to cancel the agreement and yet it still held up at the United Nations as an example of how it was working in partnership with aboriginal organizations.
Let me make the point that the Kelowna accord was not an agreement between the Liberal government and aboriginal peoples. It was an agreement between Canada and the aboriginal peoples of this country, as well as with the premiers and territorial leaders. To go back on a good faith agreement like that was very disappointing for many Canadians.
It is a sad state of affairs when aboriginal people are living in such poor conditions, whether it is drinking water, death in child birth, education levels, health levels or life expectancy. A $5 billion bottom up agreement was signed, sealed and delivered by the first nations people, with lots of money in the government coffers, and it is a shame that such an agreement would be cancelled.
The first nations people, aboriginal people and Inuit would love for the government to respect their human rights and not be one of the only countries in the United Nations to block them. A perfect example is that there is a bill that would allow aboriginal people to have the same access to human rights as others and yet almost all the aboriginal groups who came to committee said that there were no consultations and listed the six or seven things that needed to be fixed.
The government has had almost a year to fix those things, such as putting in a non-derogation clause, the interpretation clause, the time needed to implement the bill and the funds needed to train first nations. All those things were common among all witnesses. They said these things could have been done and the bill could have been passed. Hopefully, that type of process will occur.
First nations, Métis and Inuit have been virtually shut out of two budgets and two fiscal updates. As an example, budget 2007 had $6 billion in new funding for Canadians and, of that, $70 million were for aboriginals. In the government's other fiscal documents, the funding provided for housing, for example, had been previously booked. It was not new money.
The government ignored calls to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On water, the government's own advisory committee warned against proceeding with legislation to establish drinking water standards for first nations communities without the necessary capital and infrastructure funding and yet there has been no action on this report. The current government must not ignore the voices of those who go against its refrain. When it comes to first nations issues, money is not the issue.
We saw the message regarding the child welfare crisis. The government may want to silence these voices but it should not. We are stronger as a nation when we are empowering the most vulnerable and not limiting them. The government is worse off without these voices.
On the land claim issues, the government has shown some political will to move forward and that is just on a small number of specific land claims, as I outlined at the beginning of my speech, and it did so in partnership with the Assembly of First Nations. I highly congratulate the government for that cooperation on this one particular item. Had it done so on the human rights legislation, we could have had that through long ago, but some are already saying that they were not allowed to speak.
We are definitely in support of the legislation, to a great extent because Phil Fontaine and the Assembly of First Nations want to be integrally involved in developing the legislation. We know their concerns and ideas have been taken into account, as they were when they negotiated the residential school claims with our government.
The thing that has to be looked at in committee to make sure we have it right is the cap of $150 million on any particular claim. There probably will not be very many. Most claims are granted much less than that granted. However, there could easily be some. If a judge were to think that a claim had been put in for $120 million and his analysis suggested that in fact the claimant deserved much more, would the government not provide it? How would that exactly work in those particular situations?
I should mention the tribunal. I am not sure if the word comes from the Roman tribunes, but with the letters t-r-i and the fact that there are six judges involved, people might think that, on a particular case, six judges are involved. However, that is not the case. Only one judge and one tribunal are involved in a particular case.
A treaty done on the prairies in 1800 said that there were several square miles of land and $120 million were promised but not provided, then the judge would hear all the details. He will be making a decision. It is a non-appealable decision, other than going through the courts. The people who are looking at the bill should ensure they are comfortable with that type of process.
As I said earlier, because only one person is making a non-appealable decision, we need to ensure it is the appropriate person, and the first nations wanted some input into that selection.
If one claim can be $150 million, is $250 million a year enough? If one is $150 million and there are 784 outstanding, will that be enough in a specific year? Once again, I am assuming that if the claims go forward as quickly as the government would like and it goes over the $250 million, that it would, on good faith, put money into the supplementary estimates to increase that.
In the context of 784 or more claims outstanding, we must remember that we have been doing an average of 20 cases a year and it has taken 13 years so obviously the process was not fixed.
As our aboriginal critic, the member for Winnipeg South Centre, who is doing an excellent job, said. We will be supporting this improvement to the system because in the old system the government was in a dispute with someone. There were two parties in the dispute and the judge in that dispute was the government, so there was the judge and the defendant, which is hardly fair.
We commend the government for working closely with the Assembly of First Nations to develop the bill. Wee look forward to having input in committee so that we can fine-tune it and make sure it works as all parties would like it to work to improve the lives of aboriginal people.