moved that Bill C-30, An Act to establish the Specific Claims Tribunal and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise in the House to lead off debate at second reading of Bill C-30, the specific claims tribunal act.
This bill is the cornerstone of a comprehensive new approach to address an issue that has been a struggle for this country for far too long. After years of prolonged debate, false starts and unsuccessful attempts, most recently by the former Liberal government, the Conservative government is taking decisive action to improve the way we handle specific claims and to resolve the existing backlog of outstanding claims once and for all.
Specific claims are grievances related to land and other assets belonging to first nations communities. These claims have arisen largely as a consequence of the federal government's obligations under historic treaties with first nations and with respect to the management of first nations land and other assets. The systems and processes that the Government of Canada has designed over the years to address these unresolved grievances have proven to be slow and inadequate.
As a result, an unacceptably large backlog of claims awaits attention and action. In fact, the number of unsettled claims in the federal system has doubled since 1993. To be more precise, there are now nearly 900 outstanding claims. Approximately 530 of these cases are stuck in bottlenecks at the earliest stages of the claims process, and this figure is expected to rise as the number of new claims outstrips our ability to resolve current ones.
Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in this predicament when it takes an average of 13 years to process a single claim? Thirteen years. No other Canadian citizen would accept this state of affairs in any other aspect of their lives. Why should specific claims be any different?
Clearly, then, we must reform how this country deals with specific claims and we must demonstrate the political will to see that these much needed reforms are not simply discussed but implemented immediately and supported continually so that the existing backlog of claims is resolved once and for all.
The government's approach to address this problem began to take shape late last year. First, the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples undertook a comprehensive examination of the current process and recommended steps to improve and accelerate the handling of specific claims.
I would like to express my deep thanks to committee members for their work in providing clear direction forward on this issue.
Armed with that report of the Senate committee, the Prime Minister announced the government's specific claims action plan on June 12. The Prime Minister declared that after decades of neglect, failed efforts and dashed hopes, the Government of Canada, in closest cooperation and collaboration with its first nation partners, would undertake major reforms to revolutionize the way this country handles specific claims. Our plan for the comprehensive reform of the specific claims process features four elements.
First, the government proposes to create an independent tribunal that will bring fairness and timeliness to the claims process.
Second, we commit to more transparent arrangements for financial compensation through dedicated funding for settlements.
Third, we will introduce practical measures within the existing system to ensure faster processing on smaller claims and greater flexibility for extremely large claims.
Fourth, once the new tribunal is in place, the Indian Specific Claims Commission will no longer conduct new inquiries into specific claims. The commission will continue its valuable role in assisting parties to overcome challenges and enhance their opportunity to meet the shared goal of resolving claims through negotiation until such time as it is replaced by a new mediation centre.
Bill C-30 is the direct result of the Prime Minister's historic announcement. The bill puts into motion the first element of the government's four-part plan, creating an independent tribunal and vesting it with the power to make binding decisions on claims. This legislative change will lead the way for implementation of the other elements of the specific claims action plan, which do not require legislation.
Before delving into the details and implications of the legislation, I should point out that the bill before us today is the direct product of a unique group of experts from the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations. Over the course of the summer, the joint specific claims task force met regularly to discuss, develop and refine the document that is before us today as Bill C-30.
The diligence, collaboration and shared insight demonstrated by the task force were instrumental factors in bringing this legislation to life. These qualities also serve as a vivid example of the productive and collaborative attitude that we must all share to ensure the success of the new approach to resolve specific claims.
If I may, I will quote National Chief Phil Fontaine, who said:
The AFN is very pleased with the process that was followed in the development of this legislation. It is apparent that when there is political will, we can always find ways to resolve our differences.
In this spirit of openness and genuine partnership, I would like to express my deepest thanks to the members of the task force and, in particular, the task force co-chairs for their leadership in taking the ideas and objectives expressed by the Prime Minister and transforming them into legislation.
Bill C-30 authorizes the government to create an independent tribunal vested with the power to make binding decisions on claims, in particular, on questions regarding the existence of lawful obligations and financial compensation. In fact, there are three scenarios in which a first nation could file a claim with the tribunal: first, when a claim is not accepted for negotiation, including a scenario in which Canada fails to meet the three year time limits for assessing claims; second, at any stage in the negotiation process, if all parties agree; and third, after three years of unsuccessful negotiation.
During its deliberations, the tribunal will hear arguments from all sides of a claim. Decisions made by the tribunal will be binding on all parties. Binding decisions will enable the federal government and first nations communities to achieve closure on claims and reduce the time and expenses associated with litigation.
I should point out that tribunal decisions will not address claims valued at more than $150 million and will not award compensation for punitive damages or non-financial compensation such as land or resources. Nor will tribunal decisions be automatically binding on provincial governments. Provincial governments may participate in the process on a voluntary basis provided they have agreed to be bound by the decisions of the tribunal.
Fairness and accountability are important elements of the new approach to addressing specific claims. The tribunal will be responsible for preparing annual public reports so that the government and all Canadians can follow the activities of the tribunal and gauge its success in resolving claims.
To ensure that the proposed tribunal is fair to all parties involved in the claims process, Bill C-30 calls for the independent tribunal to be composed of federally appointed judges. These superior court judges will have the experience, capacity and credibility necessary to resolve the complex legal and historical questions that surround claims and to determine appropriate levels of compensation owed to first nations that are party to the claims.
I am confident that judges, with no ties or obligations to anyone, will provide the impartiality a transparent process requires and play a significant role in restoring public confidence in the effectiveness and fairness of the claims process.
As I mentioned earlier, Bill C-30 deals strictly with the creation of and authority vested in the independent tribunal. The legislation complements the other vital components of the government's specific claims action plan. Implementing these components, however, will be instrumental to the success of the tribunal and therefore I would like to take a few minutes to outline them.
First, the government will earmark $250 million each year for payments authorized by the tribunal and for payments resulting from negotiated settlement agreements. This dedicated funding will be a vivid demonstration to first nations communities that the government is serious about this process.
At the same time, these annual resources will be a transparent indication to all Canadians of our commitment to accelerate the resolution of specific claims and address the existing backlog of outstanding claims once and for all. To strengthen accountability even further, the government will establish explicit targets for resolving outstanding claims and results will be made public annually so that Canadians can clearly gauge the success of our new approach.
The second element of the plan is a series of new measures that will be put in place to enhance internal government procedures to manage claims. Similar claims that qualify for negotiation will be identified during the research and assessment stages and then bundled together for a final decision on their legitimacy.
Small value claims, which are roughly half of all claims that are currently in the system and are under $3 million, will each undergo expedited legal reviews to quickly conclude whether they will be accepted or declined for negotiation.
For larger claims, valued at more than $150 million, separate arrangements outside the specific claims process will be established. These are relatively rare and they are more difficult, but right now they bog down the system due to their size and complexity, although I do want to add that we are delivering on these larger claims as well.
In fact, earlier this fall I was in northern Alberta with the Big Stone Cree nation. We signed an agreement in principle worth over $300 million, involving 140,000 acres of land. This is the largest specific claim in Canadian history. We are serious about these as well. This is another indication that the government is making progress on claims, large and small.
As for the specific claims process, this accelerated and more nuanced approach will take full advantage of the wealth of research, studies and data amassed over the past 30 years as Canada has worked on these issues. Greater use will also be made of existing databases and other easily accessible sources of information to support the earlier review process and other improvements.
The third element of our new approach involves better access to mediation services to help the parties reach negotiated settlements. Consequently, mediation services will be available to assist them in overcoming impasses during negotiation.
The Indian Specific Claims Commission has provided invaluable facilitation and mediation services for the past 16 years helping parties in disputes reach mutually beneficial arrangements. We certainly do not want to lose this expertise, but at the same time, we do not want the commission to duplicate the efforts of the new tribunal. To achieve these goals we must transform the commission.
Under our new approach, the commission will no longer accept new inquiries into rejected claims but will finalize certain inquiries that are currently at an advanced stage and continue to provide mediation services until such time as a new mediation centre takes on those duties. This transformation will help us overcome impasses at the negotiation stage of the process and reduce many of the delays that hold us back. As a result, we will be able to conclude more negotiations successfully and at a faster pace.
Let me repeat that I firmly believe we must make every effort to achieve negotiated settlements so that first nations will turn to the new independent tribunal only as a last resort. We will also adjust the system if it needs further improvements as we go along. We will review our approach after five years and make a comprehensive assessment of our progress.
I realize that there are, and probably always will be, some who object to what we are proposing. We will never achieve perfection, but I am convinced that what we have here is a solid plan. It is fair, transparent, efficient and respectful. It will deliver real, meaningful, measurable results, which the current system has failed to produce.
Our new approach will unblock the existing backlog of claims. It will cut in half the time to process claims. Every claim in the system will have action taken to advance it. All claims will move forward at a faster pace. More claims will be resolved than received each year. Fifty per cent of all claims currently in the system will be resolved in short order.
Make no mistake that the time for talk is over. We all know what the problems are. We all know what needs to be done, thanks to years and years of consultations, studies and inaction. We all know that the problems have dragged on long enough. We have to get on with it, and Bill C-30, the specific claims tribunal act, will enable us to do just that.
For 60 years first nations leaders have been urging the federal government to create an independent tribunal to adjudicate historic grievances. Today we are beginning the legislative work to establish this vitally necessary tribunal. This legislation has been shaped by the efforts of the joint Canada-Assembly of First Nations Task Force this past summer. It is truly a historic day for Canada. It is historic because this bill will implement a process that will fulfill Canada's lawful obligations to first nations communities, honour outstanding debts, and settle claims through a process that is more impartial, transparent, and timely.
The proposed legislation is also historic because when we think deeply about this, this new approach is about more than specific claims. It is about achieving fundamental justice and fairness. It is about building a stronger and more stable economy and ensuring equal opportunity for all Canadians to work and prosper. It is about creating legal certainty for first nations and their partners in industry and area communities. Most important, it is about enabling members of first nations and their fellow Canadians to move on and move forward together.
I am privileged to have been given this opportunity to open debate on the motion for second reading of Bill C-30, the specific claims tribunal act. I urge all my colleagues to support this landmark legislation and take immediate and decisive action to resolve specific claims once and for all.
Phil Fontaine was here when I tabled the bill last week. I would like to close by mentioning his words that we need this bill and we need it to be passed speedily. I urge all members, let us get this bill into committee and pass it quickly. Sixty years is far too long to wait. We are prepared to move this as quickly as we can through the House and into committee. Let us do it not only for first nations, but for all Canadians.