Mr. Speaker, it is with great anticipation that I enter this debate today because this affects not only regions like mine in northwestern British Columbia, but I believe it affects the very nature and fabric of our country. It is essential to ensure that legislation like this, Bill C-30, the specific claims tribunal act, is written properly, written well, and written with proper consultation with those most affected and those are the first nations communities that are impacted by the treaty process.
I think all parties within this place have recognized that the process that has existed for so many years has been tinkered with and touched at the margins, but never fundamentally addressed. As I will illustrate over my speaking time here, the greatest effect is on those first nations living in desperate straits.
I cannot recall the number of times, because there have been so many from all sides of this House and from all parties, that we have talked about the conditions of first nations people and how unacceptable those conditions would be for any other group within this country. We need to look upon this as Canadians with unequivocal shame and some understanding that it cannot go on and must change.
I can recall having conversations with the former Indian affairs minister just at the beginning of the tenure of the current regime about the ambitions and the desire to see fundamental shifts in the Indian Act itself. It has guided and ruled over first nations for far too long and is a broken act. The evidence does not need to be crafted up with more government studies because the real, anecdotal evidence is on the ground.
I refer to my colleague from Yukon, whose area has made some progress in trying to take a different approach to first nations consultation, a region, along with other regions across the north, that has attempted to have a deeper inclusion of first nations people in the decision making process. As a result, everyone has benefited. Is the system perfect in Yukon or in other territories in the north? Of course not, but it is a step ahead and I believe that it is simply a question of proximity.
I represent Skeena--Bulkley Valley, a region of some 30% to 35% first nations. In the communities that I represent, where first nations are living side by side with non-first nations, the understanding of the situation, the understanding of culture and history, is deeper and more profound. When I am touring the rest of the country, when I am speaking here in Parliament with my colleagues who do not have that experience, there is a certain alienation that goes on, a certain misunderstanding of what the reality is for first nations people.
That is somewhat to be understood but is no longer acceptable. In order for this country to progress, in order for us as Canadian people to start to feel proud again about having an inclusive, fair and just society, then simply this issue, if no other, must be addressed.
Regarding the specifics of this bill, this is an attempt to clear up a backlog that has not received enough attention, that is the 800-some land claims that wait in some sort of purgatory, some sort of limbo, that has gone on for too long and is costing both first nations communities and Canadian taxpayers untold millions of dollars in meeting after meeting with little or no progress. Unfortunately, those who most suffer are those who can least afford to suffer: the first nations people living on first nations reserves all across this country.
About 60% of these claims actually exist in B.C. For historical reasons, land was not seeded. It was not put under any treaty upon first contact and there was a promise made. There was a promise made in the enactment of what is now Canada that the Government of Canada, then controlled by British Parliament, would treat in good faith and would come to the table in good faith with first nations people and attempt to resolve the land question and issues surrounding land.
First nations across this country, and in particular British Columbia and in the north, took in good faith the documents that the government officials had in their hands, thinking that they meant something and that those documents would be adhered to. They thought that there would be some sort of justice and some sort of sense of decency and honour from the Crown, that the Crown would come forward and represent those interests and meet between nations and settle treaties because this had been the first nations experience through all of their history between different first nations.
The reason that we know this is because those nations are alive and well today. They will tell us the histories of when there was conflict between first nations which had gone on for thousands of years, that when they came to some resolution to a dispute, they would meet with honour and treaties would be upheld.
We have oral traditions in the northwest of British Columbia going back thousands of years. It seems that every time another archaeological dig is performed, the extension goes back another thousand or two thousand years. Some of the first nations elders in my communities shake their heads when they tell me about this because their claim, their understanding, is time immemorial. They have spent generation after generation and as they say “walked upon the bones of their grandfathers and great grandfathers and going back through time”.
That has brought them to a certain sense and understanding of how the land works, how their communities function with other communities, and that ability to have conflict which is inevitable between peoples. It happens within households. It happens within communities. It happens between nations. That seems to be an unfortunate but inevitable circumstance of the human condition, but then when those conflicts happen, that there is a place and a time for us to resolve those conflicts, a time when we sit down at the table as near equals as can be and settle our differences.
There are an enormous number of reasons why this imperative is growing and needs to be addressed. That is why New Democrats have put this solution, the requirement of an independent arm's-length tribunal from the government, into our last two election platforms and passed recently at the NDP convention. This is why we have a first nations consultation group working with our party to help guide what needs to go into this independent tribunal.
Frankly, what trust should first nations have in the House of Commons, in this Parliament, to get it right all by themselves because over the years any objective observer would look at the condition and treatment of first nations by Parliament after Parliament, government after government, and after so many promises made. The actual on the ground proof shows first nations that trust is not something they should necessarily bring to the table when this process is designed.
Consultation is a comment and word thrown around very casually by politicians. It is almost like a tick-box. First, get the name right, make sure first nations people's names are correct. Second, make sure the word “consultation” is in our speech and maybe throw in respect, trust, mutual admiration along the way. But consultation, one would hope would finally and clearly be legally defined by the government in conjunction with first nations, so that at the end of the day first nations are not asked to simply trust the government, that first nations are not simply assumed to be willing and equal partners in this conversation, but that they have something in hand that they can take to the bank, so to speak.
This legislation talks about three conditions in which a first nation may enter into this process. This is one of those important conversations, as we design this bill, that the clarity and full education of these conditions are presented to first nations people so that they can decide with full knowledge and understanding before entering a process.
We would hope there is a caveat included in this legislation that allows for accountable and transparent information sharing with first nations which are considering entering this process. For too long governments have dealt directly with the band councils, with some of the first nations' leadership that are represented here in Ottawa and lobby groups, and the first nations people actually living in the villages themselves are passed over, are simply not consulted, not brought in and not given a fair, free voice at the table.
These conditions are important for Canadians to understand because this is where the rubber hits the road. A first nation can file a claim when all of these three conditions are met: first, when a claim is not accepted for negotiation by Canada including a scenario in which Canada fails to meet the three year time limits for assessing the claims, which is part of the backlog right now. I comment on this because I have been around the treaty tables previously as a consultant. Time and time again, of the three parties sitting at the table, the province, the federal government and the first nations, inevitably, one of the two levels of government representing this place or the province, would suddenly find the lack of will to participate and would suddenly find its agenda to be full.
Meetings would get cancelled, postponed or delayed. Millions upon millions of dollars would be misspent this way on treaty processes with no clear timelines and no clear deadlines. All it would take was one of the parties to simply step back and say they were busy, particularly, and this is most unfortunate, when tables had progressed to near conclusion. This seemed to be the time when one of the parties, one of the levels of provincial or federal government, found a certain unwillingness to participate.
It is so difficult for first nations communities, for the first nations leadership, who have to go back to their people and borrow against their eventual claim. This is something important for Canadians to understand, that all of the costs that are incurred by the first nations negotiators, often times is some sort of borrowed money from the future, from the eventual claim. The longer the government delays, in effect, takes away treaty money, eventual money for settlement of claims, and puts it into the treaty process itself, year after year. There are some first nations in British Columbia who are $12, $14 or $15 million in debt in trying to settle their treaty processes. That money will be taken off the tab of their final treaty.
There may be some encouragement for the federal and provincial negotiators to keep themselves a job, to keep talking and keep things going. But that sense of urgency is required. As we all know in our personal and business lives there is no deal that is ever settled without a deadline. There is no difficult task that is ever completed without some sense of a deadline to encourage that urgency, to allow the innovation to take place, to actually settle the claims.
There is a second condition: at any stage in the negotiation process, if all parties agree, and here is a rare circumstance that we hope will exist more and more frequently, where all parties see within their common interest the need to agree. What a fascinating notion.
I know the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is listening intently and wants to know when those conditions will be created. Those conditions get created when people come to the table with proper intent, which is to settle treaties. What a remarkable notion.
It must be within the federal and provincial governments' interest to settle treaties. Certainly, it is within the interests of the first nations. They are living the reality of non-treaty conditions. They are living the reality of having no capital or collateral with which to negotiate and develop the economies they hope for, for their people. They have urgency.
So often and too often times the provincial and federal governments, and I am speaking specifically to the case in British Columbia, do not agree. The parties find some easy and common causality to find disagreement. Treaties are complicated things. They deal with education, cultural rights, land issues and revenue sharing. It is very easy when the government has the intent to not agree, to find something that lets it say it needs to take a step back from the process and move away from the table.
There is a third and last negotiating point: after three years of unsuccessful negotiations. Unfortunately, this should be the easiest condition to be met because if any experience is known to the British Columbian first nations communities, many of them would hope for a treaty process that looked at a three year horizon. They would pray for such a thing.
There is a highway that I would encourage the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to visit. It travels into the north of British Columbia. It is not a long highway but an important one. It travels from Terrace, British Columbia into the Nass Valley and visits the Nisga'a communities. The highway for many years was a dirt track that sloughed off into the rivers. We have many stories of people dying along the road. It was a logging truck road that was supposed service the 5,000 or 6,000 people who lived in Nisga'a territory.
The road is named Highway 113. The Nisga'a, when settling their treaty, were given the dubious distinction or honour of being able to name the highway. They named it 113 because it had been 113 years since they had first visited the provincial legislature and asked to be treated, dealt with, and negotiated with in a fair and honest way. It was 113 years of persistent negotiation, generation after generation, that would hand the baton to the next leadership and say, please push on because we need to settle this land claim and we need to settle the land question. It took 113 years.
Every time I travel that road, and I was just back there two weeks ago, I visit with the Nisga'a Lisims government, which has a general assembly at this time every spring. I would encourage the Minister of Indian Affairs to visit. He would be most welcome to visit by the Nisga'a and would be treated with dignity and respect, I can assure him.
Is it not remarkable for Canadians to consider that a first nation that has had to struggle through 113 years to settle a land claim still has the dignity, the poise and the respect to welcome representatives from the federal government, which, some would argue, put them through abuse for 113 years? Is it not remarkable that they would welcome those representatives to their community, that they would provide a feast for them, present them with their respect and their time, and ask those representatives to please accept them? Yes, it is remarkable.
Oftentimes, and perhaps not often enough, members of Parliament are visited by the first nations leadership, the elders from across Canada. I remember when we were settling the Dogrib claim not so long ago. The elders from that first nation community were here in the galleries of the House of Commons and watched question period that day.
I talked to them later and asked them what was going through their minds as they watched the to-and-fro of what we present as debate, what we present to Canadians of their leadership during question period. I wondered what those elders were thinking. They had the dignity and grace to not comment too much to me and said that they supposed it was something good for the cameras for us.
However, we deal with the lives of people. We deal with them when their lives are hanging in the balance and when they are unable to find economic opportunities. I have claimed, and I have been joined in this by many of the first nations leaders in my region, that the best social program is a job. The best way to encourage hope for the future is that prospect of full and gainful employment and the ability to put food on the table in a decent, hard-working way.
That is what first nations want, not just in Skeena in the northwest of British Columbia, but across this country. That is what everybody wants. Everybody wants some respect and some sort of capacity to use the capital that has been given to them, and in the case of first nations, it is capital that is rightfully theirs, which is the land question at its most fundamental.
I would hope, as I have for the four years that I have been in this place, that the cause of aboriginal people is one of those rare causes that will cross over the political lines. I hope that it will cross over the to-and-fro of ideological advantage in the political fray and allow us as people representing Canadians to discover what bonds hold us in common unity across the aisles, across the great divide of partisan politics. I hope that it will allow us to settle on something that we can be proud of.
If this bill is done correctly, this may be one of those rare instances. If the consultation and incorporation of first nations concerns are done properly, this may be one of those circumstances. It is why New Democrats have advocated for this for many years. It is why New Democrats will support the bill going to second reading and to understanding in committee: so that changes can be made, so that we can consider this properly, look at it in the full light of day and take in those consultations accurately.
Granted, one must understand, not having dealt with first nations communities very much, the notions of mistrust from the perspective of first nations. There has been too much history, too much practice, to ask first nations to come out with full and open arms, trusting whatever the government may or may not present.
We must understand, culturally speaking, where the cultural breaks have been when there have been so many atrocities visited upon first nations. We must understand that the lineage back to the tradition of the leadership has been disrupted so fundamentally that time to do this properly must be taken. The ability of government to actually open its mind and its heart to what first nations are telling it is an absolute necessity in order to bring first nations to the table properly and have them endorse this process all the way through.
It is available to us if we as parliamentarians listen properly, if we as parliamentarians act on the recommendations given to us, and if we as parliamentarians put aside the momentary interests of partisan politics and step into that rarefied atmosphere that allows us to develop something that is good for this country in the moment and good for this country in the generations to come.