Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to follow the member, my colleague from Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca. He has used the phrase carpe diem. I want to use the phrase fidelitas in arduis, which is Latin for strength and determination in adversity.
My friend from Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca will be the only person in the House who knows what I am talking about. That is actually the motto of our high school. This past weekend he and I attended the 50th anniversary dinner for Neil McNeil High School in Toronto. This is not the subject of my intervention, but I wanted to mention that.
We are dealing with a statute that will be making a major change in the legislative foundation law that governs our first nations. While one can see the reason why the House and the government are dealing with the legislation, one also has to acknowledge that we would rather, as a Parliament, not have to legislate for our first nations. The best of all possible worlds would be that our first nations would themselves be in a position continually to deal with the personal law matters of their members on their reserves.
Throughout the wide breadth of the country, that is in fact the case. The tribal councils on all the reserves handle pretty well most of the daily needs, legally, of the reserve, albeit under the infrastructure of the century old Indian Act, which they complain, and which most members of Parliament will agree, is a bit too old and decrepit as a statute to govern the modern circumstance.
Approximately eight or nine years ago, I recall three or four separate major pieces of legislation were proposed to the House, which were very controversial. While some of the first nations across the country supported those bills, many did not. Many also regarded those statutory proposals as unwarranted interventions by Parliament in the first nations sphere of activity.
The problem Parliament and government has is that government has a constitutional obligation to manage or oversee what is called Indian affairs. It also has the contractual obligations of treaties and has ongoing societal development issues on the reserves involving our first nations. It is very difficult to do that under the auspices of a statute that is 100 years old.
It needs to be modernized. Therefore, if we all agreed on that, I suppose we would then move into the phase of developing modern laws for our first nations, ones that they have wanted. The difficulty is that there is not one first nation. Our first nations are as diverse as the rest of the world is. Each reserve, each tribe, each grouping has local traditions and languages. Therefore, it is very difficult for one Parliament, one legislature, to somehow embrace the whole scope of first nations activity and social development and come up with one set of laws that will govern.
I wanted to get that on the record because any member who speaks in here on these statutes I am sure will want to recognize the complexity of this and why we feel that government is compelled to do this at this point in history. We want to try to do it as best we can, but realize that at the end of the day, we expect and want our first nations to step up to the plate, wherever they can, and manage these issues.
The statute under consideration deals with matrimonial breakup, matrimonial property, domestic breakup, domestic property and also what happens in an estate at the time of death.
Up to now each first nation may have its own way of handling these things. For those who do not or do not do it effectively, there is the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. A lot of the people working there now are first nations peoples, but over history most of them were not. This resulted in the unsatisfactory circumstance of an administration attempting to administer laws and impose rules and regulate affairs on our reserves, when they might have been hundreds and thousands of miles apart and divided by culture and by language, which was very unsatisfactory.
The proposed statute realizes the significant need among our first nations for some clarity, to fill voids in the law. Most Canadians know they have access to laws that govern the breakup of a marriage or govern an estate at the time of a death. This is not the case with every first nation because provincial laws do not govern first nations. I suppose individuals on a reserve could voluntarily subscribe to those laws if they wished to enter into settlements, but those laws do not bind our first nations. The deal that the white man cut with our first nations centuries ago and in treaties was that our first nations people manage those things themselves.
Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is supposed to be there for all Canadians. We are now finding that our legal infrastructure, in some cases, is not accessible by first nations on reserves. If the statute passes, I would like to think our first nations peoples will accept it as a reasonable attempt by Parliament, as a whole, to offer them a legal infrastructure that will allow for some regularization and to fill some of their needs.
There needs to be some consistency across the country and if not across the country, at least within a province. What happens in a family breakup on a reserve can be roughly consistent with what happens in a breakup elsewhere. If two people cannot solve the problem themselves, they have to go to a decision-maker. Who is the decision-maker? What rules will he or she use to decide on this? There has to be clarity and consistency. We have to fill the void. We are a country that thrives and relies on rule of law. We cannot have voids in our law and places in the country where there is the application of discretion, unregulated discretion, arbitrary decisions, or unfair decisions.
The best to expect would be that each couple involved, whether in a breakup or a death, would settle it without a dispute. That happens a percentage of the time, but a lot of the time it does not. We realize that.
Then the next best thing we could have is it could be settled on a first nation reserve, using the rules the first nation itself normally uses, rules that the first nations members themselves have embraced, accepted and are used to applying. That is probably a pretty good arrangement and one that would be consistent with our history and our rule of law, which includes the Constitution-based first nations entitlements.
However, we still may have the problem of inconsistency. If the rules on a particular reserve say that the chief makes the decision, the chief may make a decision that is conspicuously out of keeping with decisions made on other reserves or, for that matter, elsewhere in the province in question.
The statute deals with the family home and then with other matrimonial property. The matrimonial home is dealt with one way and that is how it is handled in most of our provinces, if not all now. The matrimonial property, the money, the heirlooms, the hand-me-downs, are handled separately from the family home.
The proposed law itself begins by setting out some basic definitions. While to the layman, they will read as a very complex thing, what it actually tries to do is encourage first nations to adopt their own rules and laws. If first nations do that, this proposed statute will enable them and assist them to do it. In so doing, it imposes a regime of verification, which is really Parliament's attempt to ensure that when the first nations develop these codification of laws governing these issues, that they are in the ballpark and compliant with our charter and with prevailing norms in terms of matrimonial settlements.
We all realize there has to be some flexibility. As much as in theory, a first nations chief might have the ability to pick between two sometime common law spouses. At the end of the day, it will not be fair if those decisions are made and are way out of keeping with prevailing legal norms. All citizens of Canada, including members of first nations, are entitled to the benefits of the charter, which includes rule of law, some certainly and fairness as to how their lives are sorted out when there is a dispute like this.
Clause 7 of the statute sets out a mechanism that allows for the first nations to write some of their own laws and rules. It is noteworthy that in so doing, Parliament in this statute so far, and I have not sensed a will to change it, has decided that the delegation of that ability to make rules, which from a Canadian statutory point, is a delegation to the first nation. However, under first nations perspective, they might not see it as a delegation at all. First nations might say, no, that it is their right to make these laws, that we cannot delegate anything to them that they do not already have the right to do as first nations because the white man and the Queen said that they could do it that way 100 or 150 years ago, or whenever it was.
In the statutes it is described as a kind of a delegation of law making authority, but it also says that this delegation of law making authority is not a statutory instrument. It is not a statutory instrument that would fall under the normal delegation of rule making powers that we often use around here.
If Parliament delegates the authority to a minister to make regulations, those regulations are scrutinized by Parliament and our courts of law. In this statute, when we delegate our way to the first nations, those are not statutory instruments and they will not be scrutinized or treated as statutory instruments.
My own tendency, as a legislator, is to say no, we better not delegate anything without the ability to scrutinize and check it. At the end of the day, out of respect for our first nations, we do this. We say they have the rule making authority and we are not going to oversee and scrutinize it like we do all of our other legislation. We respect their right and need to make those rules and laws. We will help them do it with the verification process, but we are not going to interpose and tell them how to do everything and scrutinize the way we do our other laws.
I want to reference an existing problem included in this. Most members will not be aware that there have been two reports presented to this House from the Standing Joint Committee for Scrutiny of Regulations that reported to the House serious problems with the Indian estates regulations.
As l pointed out, this bill covers the breakdown of a marriage in death, but what happens to the property? Prior to this, under the Indian Act, the government had already encountered problems in dealing with matrimonial property and general property on the death of a first nations member. In most cases, it was pretty clear and members of the first nation knew exactly what was to happen when the individual passed away. But in the modern world with all the changes going on things began to go a bit askew.
I will give an example where a male would get married and maybe the marriage would last for a couple of years and then he would take a common-law wife after that. Perhaps he and the common-law spouse would live together for 20 years and the old marriage was way in the past, but still in existence. Let us say the individual were to pass away. Who, in law, would the spouse be who would be entitled to take the property of the diseased male? And it can work the other way too. But it was very unclear, if the local chief or tribal council did not have that organized, and it was really complicated as to who was going to get the property.
Under the Indian Act, where there was some power to do this, the government decided to adopt regulations. The regulations permitted the minister to make the decision about which spouse and which set of kids inherited the property of the deceased first nations member. Wherever there was a big problem, it seemed to work except for one thing. The government actually never had the power in law to make those regulations.
So, those regulations have been impugned and while we have not struck them down, there are many decisions of ministers deciding to entitle group A and not group B, when group B may have actually had the legal entitlement. There are unresolved cases out there and I give credit to the aboriginal community and the people involved in those matters for acceding to the purported use of power by the Indian Act administration.
This act, unfortunately, does not resolve those regulations. We asked the government to include in this bill a provision that would settle and say that all those old decisions are legal and binding. The government did not take that advice. That provision is not included in here, so there are still some issues outstanding in theory.
Having put that on the record, I will stop there.