Mr. Speaker, in beginning I dedicate my words to something that has previously been written in this country by one of my favourite authors, Aritha van Herk in the book, Mavericks, where she wrote:
Demolished by diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis, struggling with byzantine and ridiculous rules, fighting to stay alive, Alberta's First Peoples have enacted an astonishing feat by refusing to fade away and vanish. For all the deliberate or accidental attempts to erase their presence--
I thank the hon. member for bringing this matter before the House today. I hope in my comments to raise our discussion beyond partisanship to frame a debate that will carry Parliament and indeed this country beyond partisanship and the pointing of accusations. For the sake of all of us, for the sake of Canada, I hope that we can all rise to the level of that requirement. I hope that we all avoid crossing the line. In dealing with this sad chapter of Canadian history, we will all require that. Both aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians will require that we do that. At the end of the day, the truth and reconciliation commission that is so fundamental to the process in which we are now engaged will require us as parliamentarians to rise to that level.
I observe, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu did in a previous context, that neither genuine repentance nor atonement on the one hand, nor forgiveness on the other is possible in the shadow of partisanship.
I begin therefore by saying that the government will support the motion of the hon. member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River. The House should apologize and I am confident at the end of the day that this House will apologize.
The obligations on the other hand of the executive branch of government tied inextricably to the terms of the residential schools agreement and to the eventual results of the truth and reconciliation commission require some discussion in the House. I propose to deal with that in my comments.
It is important that the historical record reflect accurately upon this matter. I have not been in the House for much of my life, but I have been here for three years at this point. I am somewhat taken aback at how quickly revisionism has taken over what has transpired with respect to the residential schools matter. While partisanship can be forgiven in that I suppose all members of the House from time to time seek refuge there, the revision of Canadian history is an entirely different matter which I am not prepared to countenance in this House.
It is this government that brought an end to the denials of the past. It is this government that executed on May 8, 2006 the residential schools agreement, negotiated after much effort with the lawyers involved on behalf of the Assembly of First Nations, the class action plaintiffs representing some 12,000 individuals in this country, the Assembly of First Nations and the churches of Canada.
An apology on the part of the House of Commons is necessary and the truth and reconciliation commission, of which I intend to speak, will deal with this in some detail. However, as we begin, I have been reading a book entitled A National Crime by John Milloy. In asking why the House of Commons should apologize, I would simply quote from the introduction, which in part is a conclusion of the book. Mr. Milloy asks:
How did this happen? How were responsibility and Christianity perverted?
He concludes as follows:
--one conclusion becomes unavoidable: despite the discourse of civil and spiritual duty that framed the school system, there never was invested in this project the financial or human resources required to ensure that the system achieved its “civilizing” ends or that children were cared for properly. Nor was there ever brought to bear the moral resources necessary to respond to systemic neglect or to the many instances of stark physical abuse that were known to be occurring. Furthermore, it is clear that throughout the history of the system, the church-state partners were aware of these sorrowful circumstances and, moreover, that they came to understand the detrimental repercussions for all Aboriginal children of their residential school experience.
That in summation encapsulates what we will probably hear more of from the truth and reconciliation commission over time.
All of this began in Canada many years ago. This school system was conceived in the period leading up to 1892, was brought to fruition in the years thereafter and was not entirely dismantled in this country until the last 1970s.
The apportionment of blame and responsibility in that context is one in which many Canadian governments have a responsibility to share. This system was conceived and carried forward under successive Canadian governments for close to 100 years, so it is part of our collective history. This sad chapter of what happened in our country is something that we will collectively need to come to grips with and, to return to my comments, it is something that we will only come to grips with if we do so in a fair way, without accusations, recriminations, and without the pointing of fingers in that respect. The truth and reconciliation commission, which I wish to speak to at this point, will be fundamental to all of that.
The history of this matter is that there were approximately 130 residential schools in this country operated by four major church denominations, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the United church and the Catholic church. The total attendance at these schools was over 150,000 aboriginal Canadians. There are 80,000 aboriginal Canadians alive today who attended these schools. The descendants of those people number somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000 Canadians.
In 1990, the first lawsuits were filed against the Government of Canada in respect of this matter. In 1998, as my friend has pointed out, in a statement of reconciliation Canada acknowledged its role in the Indian residential school system. In 1998, much was accomplished with the creation of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which had a $350 million endowment and $40 million in additional funding provided thereafter. This foundation administered in excess of 1,300 individual community projects to come to grips with this chapter in Canadian history.
In 2003, a national resolution framework was launched to contribute to reconciliation but at that time the matter continued to move forward in this country by way of litigation, class action lawsuits between first nation claimants and the Government of Canada. At that time, an alternate dispute resolution was put in place.
In the 38th Parliament of Canada, which is where I am concerned about some of the revisionist history that has taken place here, the Conservative Party was in opposition. I would point out for the record, for posterity if I may, that the Conservative Party not only has led the way on this matter by finalizing the agreement of May 8, 2006, but the Conservative Party, together with the other opposition parties in the House of Commons at that time, fundamentally drove the process that led to the residential school agreement.
One need look no further than the report of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, which was finalized on April 7, 2005 with the cooperation of the then opposition parties in the House of Commons, the Bloc, the NDP and the Conservative Party. At the end of the day, it was opposed by the Liberal government, opposed by the Liberals at committee and during a concurrence motion that passed by one vote in this House of Commons. If we wish history to be clear, one need only look at the report of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development of April 7, 2005.
At that time, the state of affairs in this country was that we had an alternate dispute resolution process which had been the subject of continuing pressure and questioning in question period because it had been disclosed that of every dollar spent in dealing with the claims of people who had been wronged by the residential school system, 80¢ was spent on bureaucracy, civil servants, lawyers, experts, adjudicators and only 20¢ made its way through to the victims of this sad chapter in Canadian history.
At one point it was a celebrated case that disclosed these facts. The system was so hamstrung with rules that an elderly woman in her eighties had taken her ADR case forward and it turned out that her allegation of physical cruelty was that she had been confined in a closet, as I recall, for three days with her sister. Her claim was disallowed on the basis that she had not been confined solitarily. That is the sort of thing that was going on only three years ago in this country before this government concluded this agreement.
The April 7, 2005 report of the standing committee left nothing to the imagination. It documented the failings of the process at that time, the absence of any even-handed process; the absence of adequate compensation, terming the compensation to be grossly inadequate; documenting that “the process was proceeding too slowly allowing too many former students to die uncompensated”; and that it used a dispute resolution process that was disrespectfully humiliating and unfeeling and which revictimized former students.
I recall being in committee when members of the Conservative Party pointed out to the government at that time that they had never in their time in the House of Commons as members of Parliament heard testimony as moving as what they heard in the work leading up to this report.
It was pointed out at that time that there were high structural costs and an egregious burden of proof and that it was a process that students did not trust. The committee, at the end of the day, in a report that was quite straightforward and was three pages in length, expressed its regret at the manner in which the alternate dispute resolution process was being administered and provided eight very straightforward recommendations at that time.
The first was that the government proceed with urgency. The second was that it terminate the alternate dispute resolution process. The third was this. If one wants to find the source of the residential school agreement that today provides some hope for this country and some reconciliation of where we are going to go, it lies in the third recommendation of the report, which is as follows:
That the Government engage in court-supervised negotiations with former students to achieve a court-approved, court-enforced settlement for compensation that relieves the Government of its liability for those former students who are able to establish a cause of action and a lawful entitlement to compensation.
For the first time, a recommendation from the House of Commons, approved in a concurrence proceeding, that there be court supervised negotiations with former students, court approved and a court enforced settlement. At the end of the day that is exactly what this government did on May 8, 2006.
In addition, there were comments with respect to legal fees. A recommendation was made that there be an expedited settlement of those claims involving aggravated circumstances, such as sexual and severe physical abuse. Again, at the end of the day that is precisely where this government has arrived at.
However, I wish to emphasize in particular Recommendation No. 6:
That the Government, to ensure that former students have the opportunity to tell their stories to all Canadians in a process characterized by dignity and respect, cause a national truth and reconciliation process to take place in a forum that validates the worth of the former students and honours the memory of all children who attended the schools.
Therein lies of the birth of that concept as a way forward for this country. It is a concept that I feel strongly about. A little known matter in this House is that I spent some time in South Africa in the days after apartheid as South Africa moved from apartheid to its current form. I was a constitutional adviser to an organization there that was dealing with the dismantlement of the apartheid structure.
I watched as the truth and reconciliation commission that was struck in South Africa unfolded. I watched how it assisted South Africa in coming to grips with a very sad chapter of its history. I became a believer in the importance of that kind of an approach as a method for this country to come to grips with the sad chapter of Canadian history, a forum that would allow all Canadians, but in particular first nations citizens who had been victimized by this process, an opportunity and a way to come forward to tell their stories to ensure that their stories were recounted and recorded in Canadian history and a method, at the end of the day, for all of us to come to grips with a chapter in Canadian history that belongs to no single party, to no single government, but to all of us as Canadians as a result of 100 years of history.
In the days following that, Mr. Frank Iacobucci, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, was appointed as the government's representative and the search for a court supervised settlement process began and an interim agreement was announced, as I recall, on November 23, 2005, having been concluded on November 20, 2005.
That, of course, was in the shadow of the election of December 2005. During the election, the Conservative Party indicated at that time that it would be supportive of such an agreement provided two conditions were met. The first was that the final agreement needed to be concluded, and the second was that court approval needed to be secured. Neither of those steps had been taken in February 2006 when the Conservative government was elected.
I can assure the House that although the residential school matter was not, strictly speaking, the responsibility of the Minister of Indian Affairs, in the days following the formation of the government, responsibility rested elsewhere in the government. I took the completion of this agreement very seriously and I can tell the House there were extensive meetings in my office with Mr. Justice Iacobucci and Mr. Phil Fontaine with the Assembly of First Nations and we struggled to bring this to a close. We struggled to bring the resolution of the terms of the agreement such that it could be taken forward for a court approved process.
There were extensive negotiations dealing with a number of outstanding difficult questions at that time: how to arrive at a final agreement, how to ensure adequate financial provisions were made in budgetary sense for this agreement and how to arrive at an agreement that would be in the best interests of all Canadians. The Minister of Canadian Heritage, I should say for the sake of the record, was very involved in this at that time.
At the end of the day, the agreement that has been concluded required extensive work over the last year to complete. The court process involved proceeding forward with nine jurisdictions to secure court approval. That process is not entirely finished at this stage. It has been approved by all nine jurisdictions but the terms of the agreement provide for an opt out period. The essence of the opt out period is that if an adequate number of first nations claimants decide that they do not wish to be part of this agreement, then the agreement is voidable at the option of the government. Therefore, the legal process is not yet completed and is moving forward.
The agreement, as everyone knows, is a very fair and generous agreement, one which I take immense personal satisfaction in as a Canadian in seeing come to fruition and one in which this government takes pride. It provides, importantly, for a truth and reconciliation commission that will be established together with a research centre with a budget of $60 million and a five year mandate. The government is currently engaged in the process of selecting the three commissioners, one of whom must be an aboriginal Canadian.
It is my sincere hope, as happened in South Africa, that this matter will be dealt with, that the whole issue of apologies, the whole issue of how this country is to find a way forward will be dealt with by the truth and reconciliation commission, that it will be dealt with in a manner that speaks to the dignity and the integrity of the Canadian people in wanting to come to grips with this chapter of our history, and that the executive branch of government will need to see that document because the full history of this will not be disclosed. We will not have explored the full depths of the history of the residential school agreement of this chapter of Canadian history until the work of that commission has finished.