Mr. Speaker, I would first like to thank my colleague from Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou for sharing his time with me so that I can speak to the motion we are debating today, which I feel is of crucial importance to a country like Canada, which claims to be one of the most morally advanced countries in the world.
The Bloc Québécois members support the motion calling for an apology, which the victims of residential schools and their families have been awaiting for so long.
The Bloc Québécois therefore supports the motion by my Liberal colleague from Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River.
We must not kid ourselves: the final Indian residential schools settlement agreement was nothing but a salve on the wounds of broken lives. It was a great day for the victims of residential schools and for all those who cherish justice, respect and compassion. But it will not make up for the ravages that many native people will never get over. However, the Bloc Québécois was firmly convinced that the agreement was the foundation for restoring social justice and promoting reconciliation and healing.
Today's motion gives the Prime Minister the opportunity to apologize to the victims and their families on behalf of the Government of Canada.
It is important to remember that Indian residential schools were designed to solve the “Indian problem” by tearing aboriginal children away from their homes and families to prevent them from learning about their culture, their language, and the ties that bind them to the land. Many lived in inhuman conditions and suffered physical and sexual abuse.
During that period, from 1870 through the mid-1980s, the Canadian government also took away aboriginal women’s status as Indians under the federal Indian Act, along with their right to live in their home communities, if they married a non-aboriginal man or a man from another community.
This policy resulted in the uprooting of tens of thousands of aboriginal women, jeopardizing their ties to their families and increasing their dependence on their spouses.
Even as the residential school system was being phased out through the 1960s, aboriginal children continued to be taken from their families by child welfare programs oriented toward putting children in the care of the state rather than addressing the circumstances of poverty and family violence that placed the children at risk—a problem that persists today.
The legacy of these policies has been the erosion of culture, the uprooting of generations of aboriginal women, the separation of children from their parents, and a cycle of impoverishment, despair and broken self-esteem that continues to grip many aboriginal families.
In 1996, the year the last residential school in Saskatchewan closed, the federal government’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples concluded:
Repeated assaults on the culture and collective identity of aboriginal people have weakened the foundations of aboriginal society and contributed to the alienation that drives some to self-destruction and anti-social behaviour. Social problems among aboriginal people are, in large measure, a legacy of history.
As a woman and the Bloc Québécois critic on the status of women and a member of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, the situation of aboriginal women concerns me very much.
A number of women representing aboriginal groups have come to the committee to describe the conditions in which they live. They cope with higher rates of poverty and violence than aboriginal men and non-aboriginal women do. They carry a double burden: they suffer all the inequities inflicted on all women, but they also have to deal with the disadvantages common to aboriginal peoples across Canada.
The following are a few examples to illustrate the seriousness of their current situation:
Aboriginal women are twice as likely as non-aboriginal women to live in poverty and are therefore particularly affected by the social assistance policies of the provincial and territorial governments; a disproportionate number of them—roughly twice as many as non-aboriginal women—head a single parent family; on the reserves, 32% of children live with just one parent, while this is the case in 46% of the aboriginal families living off reserve; aboriginal women are five times more likely to be victims of violence in their lifetime than any other woman in Canada.
A disproportionately high number of them work in poorly paid jobs. Aboriginal women with less than a grade nine education earn less than aboriginal men and non-aboriginal women. At $12,300, the average annual income of aboriginal women is the lowest of any social group in Canada.
However, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to accurately quantify these data. Due to lack of funding from the Canadian government, few relevant studies and analyses are available.
All of this proves that the Government of Canada is acting completely irresponsibly toward this country's aboriginal people and, more specifically, toward aboriginal women. It is hard to believe that even now, in 2007, Canada is refusing to do its part to protect the rights of aboriginal women in Canada. It is even harder to believe that Canada is keeping this country's aboriginal communities in a state that looks a lot more like a humanitarian situation in a developing country than like something one would expect to see in the kind of rich, developed country Canada is supposed to be.
Yet solutions exist. While Quebec's aboriginal communities still have a long way to go, their progress sets them apart from those in the rest of Canada. In 2002, Bernard Landry's government signed the peace of the braves agreement. Twenty-five years before that, René Lévesque's government signed the James Bay agreement. These two agreements illustrate the Government of Quebec's level of respect for the aboriginal peoples living in the province.
Wendake in the Quebec City region, Essipit on the North Shore, and Mashteuiatsh near Lac-Saint-Jean have all proven that when governments give aboriginal communities the tools for development, success is possible.
Unfortunately, there are still communities like Kitcisakik in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, where the situation has more in common with what is happening elsewhere in Canada: a deplorable lack of sanitation infrastructure, housing and jobs. The Conservative government's decisions are doing nothing to help aboriginal communities—least of all aboriginal women—take charge of their own future. The first thing the Conservative government did to show its disregard for first nations was cancel the Kelowna accord. Although the accord was just an agreement in principle, it was helping to repair the damage wrought by the growing quality of life gap between aboriginals and other Canadians.
Add to that the $5 million slashed from the Status of Women Canada budget, resulting in the closing of 12 of its 16 offices as well as changes to eligibility criteria for the women's program. This has led to the exclusion of women's rights groups and women's lobby groups.
This program was the major source of research funding for native women's rights groups in Canada. The research sought to assess the extent of violence against native women, among other things. It will now be very difficult, if not impossible, for these groups to conduct research and produce such studies. The elimination of the court challenges program is another good example of the ideological blindness of this government and its inability to understand the issues affecting the most disadvantaged and minority groups.
By abolishing this program, the Conservatives hope to silence all those who do not share their neo-liberal vision. Next Thursday will mark the third anniversary of the publication of Pay Equity: A New Approach to a Fundamental Right, the final report of the federal Pay Equity Task Force. The recommendations of this report, tabled in May 2004, have never been adopted by the federal government. Pay equity is obviously not a priority for the Conservative government, which has deliberately chosen to ignore the report's recommendations, particularly the enactment of proactive pay equity legislation.
In conclusion, the Bloc Québécois endorsed the main recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Erasmus-Dussault report, which set out an approach for self-government based on recognition of aboriginal governments as a level of government with authority over issues of good governance and the well-being of their people. The entire report is based on recognition of the aboriginal peoples as self-governing nations occupying a unique place in Canada.
We recognize the aboriginal peoples as distinct peoples having the right to their culture, language, customs and traditions as well as the right to direct the development of their own identity.
I will close by calling on this government to show more respect for the native peoples of Canada. It has made a financial atonement for the abuses they suffered in residential schools; however, the time for apologies has come. Human dignity cannot be bought with money.