Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-30, an important bill addressing the concerns of first nations in this country. The official opposition will indeed be supporting this bill, but we will be supporting this bill in recognition that it came forward as a compromise between the government and the Assembly of First Nations. The bill is not perfect. We heard from an extensive number of witnesses who have concerns, and with the government's record with aboriginal people, we understand their concerns.
A legislative tribunal is not a new idea nor a new approach. The Leader of the official opposition called for a specific claims tribunal in his run for the leadership of the Liberal Party. He commented, I believe, if we are to do the job properly, there should be no such threshold and that all specific claims should come under the mandate of a new body”. He went on to say, “I also believe that, if we are really going to make a new start, the members of the new body should only be appointed after consultation with first nations organizations”.
We know that the Assembly of First Nations is happy with this bill, but we also know that it is very much a compromise. The specific claims tribunal is an idea 60 years in the making. In fact, in July 1947 a special joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons reported:
That a Commission, in the nature of the Claims Commission, be set up with the least possible delay to inquire into the terms of the Indian treaties... and to appraise and settle in a just and equitable manner any claims or grievances thereunder.
A process was put in place in 1973 and since then, almost 1,300 claims have been submitted to Canada. We all know that today there is still an enormous backlog and we hope, as do all members of this House, that this bill will substantially reduce it. The claims are far too high. In 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended an independent lands and treaties tribunal. I underline the word “lands” as well. Over the next decade, attempts were made to fix the system, including a joint first nations-Canada task force which led to legislation which, as we all know, was not implemented.
Each political party is in agreement that the current process needs to be improved. We hope the bill will reduce the backlogs of specific claims. They are, as we know, lawful obligations. According to the AFN's first nations perspectives on the specific claims policy and resolution process submission to the Senate committee on aboriginal affairs in November 2006:
They arise from breaches by the Crown of its lawful fiduciary and statutory obligations in respect of honouring treaty rights, managing reserve lands and other assets, and carrying out promises to create reserves.
This legislation is an important first step toward creating an independent tribunal to help resolve the backlog of specific claims.
As we have heard, the legislation puts forth four key elements: the creation of an independent tribunal; more transparent arrangements for financial contributions for dedicated funding for settlements; practical measures to ensure faster processing of claims; and better access to mediation once the new tribunal is in place.
The tribunal will have authority to make binding decisions on the validity of claims and compensations issues in respect to claims that are up to a value of $150 million. For claims already in the backlog, Canada would have to complete a preliminary assessment of these claims within six months of coming into force to identify those that qualify for assessments and sort them for faster processing. It is important that we understand the criteria of that assessment process.
For claims that are complete, Canada would then have up to three more years to make a decision to accept or reject the claims. For claims submitted to Canada after coming into force, the three year limit for assessment begins on the date that the first nation submits its complete claim to Canada. Under the legislation, if Canada fails to meet either of those timelines, the first nations would have the option to refer the claim to the tribunal for a binding decision.
Some have said that the scope of the tribunal is far too limited. We heard my colleague say that the tribunal did not have jurisdiction over claims valued over $150 million, punitive damages, cultural and spiritual losses or non-financial compensation, such as lands.
A number of issues that could not be agreed on or were not addressed in the legislation itself were dealt with in the political accord signed by the Assembly of First Nations and the Government of Canada. The measures in the political accord include first nations participation in appointments to the tribunal, the reacquisition of lands and additions to reserves, and claims that are excluded by the monetary cap.
Once again, the bill is a compromise.
In an answer to a question regarding the appointment process, University of Manitoba professor and advisor to the Assembly of First Nations, Bryan Schwartz, is quoted as saying:
...ideally I would have preferred to see some sort of formalized statutorily established joint appointment process.
Many witnesses wanted to see the political accord included in the legislation but, unfortunately, we were told that was a non-negotiable. We often heard witnesses speak to the importance of the monetary cap and the fact that it should be lifted or increased. We also heard witnesses refer to the land issue, as we have heard before, as being of great importance. We heard these were non-negotiable. We were told that these amendments would have been out of the scope of the bill and that they would have potentially delayed the bill or killed it, once again, delaying any progress on specific claims.
We would have liked to have seen the government include these measures in the legislation but we will need to hold the government to account to ensure that the measures set out in the accord are implemented and honoured.
As Chief Edward John from British Columbia said:
My hope is that the political accord becomes a living and breathing document during the initial five-year term of this tribunal. It should be perhaps revisited and renegotiated at the conclusion of the five years, when the bill has been reviewed as well.
Our party, in cooperation with the other opposition parties, passed an amendment to include first nations in the bill that do not have reserve lands. In Quebec and Labrador, five historic first nations do not have reserve lands. They should not be disqualified from the bill so we worked to ensure they would not be.
British Columbia regional chief, Shawn Atleo, in his submission to the committee, indicated his support for the bill but also acknowledged that this bill was only a first step. He stated:
In moving forward, on reform of the specific claims process, there are a few remaining issues that are not yet resolved. ...all of which are set out in the political agreement. As long as the commitments these two documents embody are lived up to by the government—in particular, the commitments embodied in the political agreement—we feel that the work that was carried out as a part of this joint process stands as a work in progress model for how first nations should be engaged in issues that have the potential to affect us.
He went on to say that “work on claims over $150 million that are outside of the cap are going to be very key”.
He urged the government to get on with the important work as quickly as possible because this was about us working together and it was about bridging gaps of misunderstanding.
Grand chief, Ed John, echoed Chief Atleo's comments in saying:
...this process should be seen as an ongoing new mechanism for engaging first nations people in the development of legislation in the future.
Throughout the committee process, we heard the concern about the lack of consultation.
Prior to coming here, I was part of a meeting that re-echoed the issue of consultation. This was a collaborative process with the AFN but it was not a consultation between the government and the aboriginal peoples as we know it to be and as it should be. However, this was the first time the government had some meaningful discussions with the AFN on an important issue, but I would reiterate that it was not consultation as we know it.
Organizations, such as the British Columbia specific claims committee, were concerned about the restrictive time frame in the introduction of the bill because there was no opportunity to take the draft legislation and the political accord “directly to the communities for their vital feedback and valuable input”.
The AFNQL also felt that in the rush to have things accomplished, Canada neglected one crucial element and that was the duty to consult with those first nations that would be directly impacted by this bill and its related measures.
We welcomed the collaboration with the AFN and the opportunity to hear witnesses before the committee but that was not consultation between the government and first nations. Because the bill was done in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations, the government felt that it did not have the obligation to consult.
Yes, the bill's process for first nations communities is voluntary but the government tried to blame the AFN for not consulting with its own communities. That in fact happened in committee and it was not up to the AFN. It was the government's responsibility to consult.
In numerous meetings, we heard the government question witnesses on whether or not the AFN had consulted with them prior to the introduction of the bill, citing the funds given to them for regional dialogue. The AFN did not undergo regional dialogue with first nations communities across the country but it is important to note that the government should not confuse the notion of its legal obligations and its duty to consult.
We saw the government unilaterally introduce Bill C-21. We heard the concerns about the process for Bill C-47. It is essential that the government work with first nations rather than to impose measures upon them without consultation. It must also not attempt to pass on its duty and it must not play politics with the issue.
I want to reiterate the concerns around the bill and talk about clause 15 where the tribunal cannot receive claims based on events that are less than 15 years old. However, it is possible to notice that new claims are being created by the actions or inactions of federal officials regarding their management of the indigenous lands today.
I want to note that clause 15(4) and clause 20(1)(b) of the bill would limit the tribunal from awarding compensation in excess of $150 million. I have spoken to that before but it is worth noting that in Quebec it can identify at least four specific claims potentially are over $150 million. I will speak to the Okanagan in a minute. We need answers on how these will be addressed.
Clause 16 of the bill would give the minister the discretion to set minimum standards for claims submissions as well as allowable format. This power could potentially be used to stonewall claims submissions and prevent them from being accepted.
We know the national chief will be involved in an advisory capacity in the appointment of judges to the tribunal, as mentioned in the political accord, but there is no explanation of how it will work, which is deeply disappointing. Moreover, the accord, as we have heard before, is not enforceable and we question its future.
Representations have also been made that other organizations that protect first nations should be involved in the consultation process.
We heard concerns about the fact that the tribunal hearings would only take place before one tribunal member. If the position of the tribunal member is biased or whatever, there is no recourse or avenue for appeal according to this bill.
Through questions and comments and before the committee, we heard that the tribunal could only give pecuniary compensation and could not give an award for any harm or loss that is not pecuniary in nature, including the loss of something that is cultural or spiritual in nature.
According to the structure of the tribunal, we heard that there could be a risk of federal conflict of interest during the pre-submission phase for the initial three years review and the subsequent three-year negotiating period. We also heard that the decisions of the tribunal would not be binding on other levels of government. Provincial and territorial governments would participate only on a voluntary basis. I think we need to move forward on that.
We also heard from women's groups that the strategy does not include strengthening the role of aboriginal women as it relates to land claims. I accept responsibility for that because one of the things we did not do in the committee process was ask whether there had been a gender based analysis done on the bill. I think all of us, as members of the committee, were remiss in that.
We recognize the importance of the bill but we also question the government's commitment to reducing the logjam of land claims and finding fair, just and reasonable settlements. It has been over two years since we have seen the conflict at Caledonia and yet the government has not been willing to take action. A mediator has been appointed. I have been to Caledonia and have met with both first nations and community members. Their frustration is growing at the lack of willingness and lack of participation by the government in a real effort to resolve some of the very serious resolutions to the Caledonia situation.
At the outset of the legislative process for Bill C-30, the Okanagan Band received a rejection for its land claim worth over $150 million. The claim is estimated to be at roughly $750 million. This legislation offers the band no recourse. What will the government do for it? We have no indication of what will happen to a claim of that sort that has been rejected and not addressed.
We need to see real commitment. We need to see real leadership. We need to see the government work with the specific communities, as well as all communities, with outstanding grievances, to bring an end to the despair that we know aboriginal people face across the country, not only with land claims but with housing, education, infrastructure, water, health, economic development and human rights for first nations, including the signing of the declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, which has not been signed, which is not being honoured by the government, and which is an overlay of the whole issue of specific claims.
We saw the government scrap the Kelowna accord when it came to office. The government ignored the will of aboriginal leaders, provincial and territorial leaders and others who were involved in the 18 month process. As I have heard some of my colleagues say over and over again, the accord offered real hope for first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, and they tell the stories in their communities of those who cannot speak English but understand the word Kelowna and what hope it offered for them, their communities and their children.
The government destroyed that hope and showed a profound disrespect for aboriginal Canadians in that process. Instead of working with aboriginal peoples, it has tended to act unilaterally on so many initiatives. Conditions are worse today than they were a year ago and we are about to see a second day of action because of the government's actions. The bottom line is we need to see real action, real leadership, no cherry-picking and no spin.
The specific claims legislation is an important step, but there is so much more we must do as parliamentarians to ensure that first nations people, along with Inuit and Métis people, have the same opportunities that all Canadians do in this country.