Mr. Speaker, as a member of the Bloc Québécois, I joined my colleagues in voting in favour of consideration of this bill for which, as usual, this government did not consult first nations, despite the many reminders it was given during consideration of Bill C-44.
We also had some concerns about some of the consequences to the first nations communities in Quebec and to certain municipalities, not to mention our concerns about the flexibility of the Government of Quebec's involvement.
The lack of consultation caused some disagreement about the procedure and some of the claims that could otherwise have easily been settled in respectful meetings with the nations.
Establishing a specific claims tribunal that makes binding decisions is a progressive step compared to the usual legal games the first nations have been subjected to so far. However, improvements could have been made to how quickly the claims are processed. It will be a shame to have to come back to this in a few years in order to complete this exercise, which requires a lot of energy, time and money from the taxpayers and from the first nations, when there are other matters to deal with.
The current 784 claims could be processed more quickly and a number of others might be added to the ongoing process, even though the Indian Claims Commission itself has not accepted any new claims since the end of 2007.
Of course there has been consultation, but only after much insistence. Furthermore, it is important to note that a number of communities were not consulted because there was not enough time. There has never been enough time to resolve first nations issues.
The most worrisome thing in all this is the possible accumulation of small agreements here and there into increasingly complex legislation. That is caused by this patchwork approach that has no continuity and will only serve as an excuse not to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People that has been signed by 144 countries.
A number of world leaders are putting Canada in the hot seat and in an embarrassing position on the international stage, which shocks us as representatives of the Quebec nation in particular, to be associated with this country that we do not identify with at all when it comes to its culture, its economic vision or its recognition of individual and collective rights and freedoms.
Despite the repeated calls for consultation that have been made to this government as Bills C-44, C-21, C-30, C-47 and C-34 have been tabled, the government has remained indifferent to what the vast majority of United Nations member states want.
It is truly shameful to see this government in the very small minority that is opposed to this declaration, and it is even more shameful to see members of the governing party from Quebec who lack the courage to go against such a vision.
Hon. members will certainly understand why Quebec is in such a hurry to join the community of nations and why the various communities distrust this government's interference in the legal system.
That is why the chief of the AFN reacted so strongly to the speech the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development gave at the United Nations. I want to quote the various statements the minister made at the United Nations. In a press release, the Minister of Indian Affairs said:
The Government of Canada continues to address a number of key areas for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, including fundamental human rights through Bill C-2... For 30 years, section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act has exempted First Nations communities governed by the Indian Act from human rights protection. We believe this has gone on too long—
I would like to digress a moment and remind this House that Bill C-44, which sought to repeal section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, was vehemently denounced by all the first nations, as well as by the AFN women's council. The first nations were not prepared to welcome a law or be excluded from the Indian Act when they did not have the means to enforce the Human Rights Act, with all the duties it imposes on the various communities.
Canada has long demonstrated its commitment to also actively advancing indigenous rights abroad. But that is not what happened at the United Nations. The minister also highlighted a number of areas where the Government of Canada is making substantial progress: education; resolving specific claims; safe drinking water; protection for women and children; and matrimonial property rights on-reserves
In addition, the minister talked about the important step in the Government of Canada's commitment to the Indian residential school settlement agreement, with the naming of Justice Harry LaForme as the chair of the truth and reconciliation commission. This may be the only good thing this government has done to date. The minister said this:
“Canada remains committed as ever to deliver real results for our Aboriginal population...We believe in moving forward for all Canadians with results that are not simply aspirations or non-binding.”
In response, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, had this to say:
The Conservative government’s sustained opposition to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has tarnished Canada’s international reputation and branded Canada as unreliable and uncooperative in international human rights processes. It is clear that the Conservative government’s domestic political agenda is taking precedence over the promotion and protection of human rights for Indigenous peoples in Canada and worldwide. The federal government’s stance is a particularly regressive and limiting basis upon which to advance fruitful Indigenous-state relations in Canada and abroad. It seems that this government has been unwavering in their resolve for a weak Declaration and weak human-rights standards in Canada despite their rhetoric to the contrary.
The Conservative government’s opinion regarding the UN declaration is contrary to widespread legal expert opinion. In an open letter issued yesterday, more than 100 legal scholars and experts noted that there was no sound legal reason that would prevent Canada from supporting the UN declaration. The same conclusion was drawn by human rights and legal experts, ... and experts within the UN system have echoed the same opinion. As a result, Canada is becoming increasingly isolated on the international stage for adhering to an unsubstantiated position against the declaration and for using their position on the Human Rights Council to achieve their own political goals in Canada. Canada cannot cherry pick which international human rights instruments they will choose to respect. These short sighted decisions have serious long term implications for Canada's international standing on human rights.
Moreover, the Conservative government's decisions have failed to address fundamental fiscal inequities in education, housing, health and other social and economic conditions that are the source of the poverty in first nations communities, despite this government’s claims “about getting the job done”. The National Day of Action on May 29 will draw national and international attention on the shortcomings of the federal government to make meaningful investments or address the serious quality of life issues our communities and people face. Such important policy decisions must be made in consultation and with the consent of first nations.
The UN Declaration is a foundational document that sets out “the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples” (Article 43). With an overwhelming majority of 144 states and only 11 abstentions, the UN General Assembly adopted on September 13, 2007 a Declaration which upholds the human, political, spiritual, land and resources rights of the world's Indigenous people. Only Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United States voted against the Declaration. Australia has since reversed its decision and has declared its support of this unique human rights instrument to advance Indigenous rights in Australia and abroad.
That is what the first nations national chief thinks of our minister's statement at the United Nations.
Immediately after that, Chief Conrad Polson, from Timiskaming, submitted a text to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. A press release from the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador explained:
Speaking on behalf of the chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL), he delivered a message about the precarious funding conditions of First Nations education in Canada.
Year after year, the Canadian government continues to close its eyes on the recommendations of more than 35 years of studies, consultations and various working groups, most of which it has contributed to. In refusing to consider these recommendations, the Canadian government keeps First Nations institutions in a highly precarious position.
Our schools and post-secondary establishments are underfunded. A number of our students cannot undertake their post-secondary studies because of a lack of finance.
This is why, on behalf of the Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, I regard it as my duty to denounce this situation loudly and clearly, stated Chief Polson.
“It was important for us to call on the United Nations so that all can be done to put an end to this situation. We must ensure that the wrongs we have suffered do not worsen so we reach the point of no return,” declared Ghislain Picard.
As stated in a press release issued in New York on May 2 and distributed by CNW, at the end of the seventh session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Mr. Picard declared that Canada had lost all credibility. He attended the session with an important delegation that spoke. At the meetings, they were “able to give a clear picture of first nations' situation in Canada. Today, the Canadian Government has lost all credibility in this respect on the international scene,” he said, reiterating Mr. Fontaine's comments on this subject.
The Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development claims he did everything he could for education. The following is from a Radio-Canada article:
For months, Mashteuiatsh, Essipit and Nutashquan chiefs have been trying to meet with the Minister of Indian Affairs...The chiefs want to move forward the negotiations that were the result of the Agreement-in-Principle of a General Nature concerning Innu self-government, signed in 2004 by the government—
The process has been stalled since the appointment [of the minister] last fall.
However, the minister...has declined the offer. “He told us that for the time being, he is not able to meet with us, despite our insistence. We need to speak with the federal government about the main issues of the negotiation,” said Mashteuiatsh Chief Gilbert Dominique.
[The minister] said that he did not have enough time for a meeting that he did not deem necessary.
Gilbert Dominique said that he doubted the Conservatives had any desire to sign territorial agreements with aboriginals when they were elected in 2006. He wonders if the fact that the Innu signed the first-ever agreement in Canada to protect the ancestral rights of an aboriginal community has not put the brakes on the government.
The Innu have called on Premier Jean Charest to try to convince Stephen Harper—
I am quoting the article; I am not naming the Prime Minister—