Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to join today's debate on C-30, An Act to establish the Specific Claims Tribunal and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
My modest contribution is not about to significantly alter this bill. After all, my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue is the Bloc Québécois critic for aboriginal issues, and he has worked hard to move this file forward. I know that the Bloc Québécois is also supporting this bill. And so I would like to congratulate my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue for all of his work. You should also know that he is a lawyer. As this bill concerns a tribunal, I am sure that his expertise was an asset, notably at committee, in creating the bill that we have here today.
As with all bills, there are most likely flaws. Nothing in this world is perfect. And often, even when we think a bill is perfect, we see some measures that could be different, improved even, once the bill is implemented. However, one thing is clear: this is a step in the right direction, and so the Bloc Québécois has decided to support this bill.
Throughout my speech, I will point out certain shortcomings, or rather, areas for improvement, particularly with respect to aboriginal affairs. Unfortunately, even now, in 2008, there are many problems that are just as prevalent and just as serious. Yesterday, I listened to several speeches by my colleagues in the House of Commons. Members on both sides realized that there is still a lot of work to do, and that is why we have to participate in this debate in order to improve aboriginals' quality of life across Canada and Quebec.
In 2004, deputy Indian affairs critic was my first portfolio, and I was also the globalization critic. Quite frankly, I knew very little about the portfolio. As a former reporter, I was interested in all kinds of current events, but I did not have a very good understanding of that portfolio.
However, I had the opportunity and good fortune to work with the first aboriginal person from Quebec to be elected to the House of Commons in 2004, Bernard Cleary. I worked with him on the Indian affairs file. Mr. Cleary was a negotiator for aboriginals for 40 years. Naturally, he participated in a lot of negotiations with governments. As a result, he knew what he was talking about in the House, during committee meetings and during meetings with the minister and first nations representatives. He set a very good example not only in his approach to negotiation, but also in his approach to problems that were often absolutely dreadful.
In committee, in my earpiece, I have heard interpreters cry because we were talking about what had happened in the residential schools. Mr. Cleary taught me to evaluate these situations and to treat them and the people we met with great respect. He was a good teacher. That is not the reason I am talking about this issue today, but I wanted you to understand why I care so much about Indian affairs.
Without further ado, I would like to talk briefly about the objectives of Bill C-30. The purpose of this bill is to create an independent tribunal, the specific claims tribunal. It also seeks to bring greater fairness to the way specific claims are handled in Canada and to expedite the resolution process. Bill C-30 is therefore designed to improve and expedite the specific claim resolution process in Canada. Since 1947, a number of joint and Senate committees have recommended creating such an independent tribunal to resolve specific claims. Moreover, I learned that the first nations have been talking about and calling for such a tribunal for more than 60 years.
Negotiations will still be the preferred method of resolving claims. This is important, because we know that the first nations prefer to negotiate with the federal government. The tribunal would have the power to hand down binding decisions when claims are not accepted for negotiation or negotiations fail. Briefly, that is the overall objective of this bill, which represents a step forward on this issue.
The Bloc Québécois has always had a very clear position not only on this bill, but on aboriginal affairs in general. The testimony the committee heard answered some of our initial questions. As I said, to us, no bill is perfect, and bad faith on the legislator's part is not necessarily to blame for imperfections. But we often find that there is a need for improvement. That is why, in committee, my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue and the deputy critic improved the bill.
The bill would establish the specific claims tribunal, which would make binding decisions. It could expedite the resolution of 784 claims. That is quite something, and that is why this bill must be passed.
Canada's first nations had some involvement in creating this bill. This may pose a problem. Although there was some first nations involvement, I know that the first nations of Quebec and Labrador unfortunately did not take part in the negotiations.
The Bloc Québécois is in favour of passing Bill C-30, but I have two important points I would like to discuss.
The federal government must properly consult first nations before introducing any bill that may affect them. It needs to do the consultation itself in order to start the reconciliation process. The Bloc Québécois would like to remind members that the government did not hold proper consultations for Bill C-30; the government should develop a real structure for consultation with first nations. Each time there is a first nations bill, the government must negotiate with them and develop a strict and well-established system so that later on, no one can point to a lack of communication between the government and first nations peoples.
The Bloc Québécois would also like to remind members that the bill is connected to a political agreement between the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in relation to special claims reform. We are very interested in seeing how the government follows through on this agreement and, in particular, the commitments it has made.
I would like to mention some interesting statistics that will show how important it is that we move forward with this bill.
Since 1973, 1,297 special claims have been filed and 513 have been resolved. To resolve these claims, Canada has paid between $15,000—the lowest amount—and $125 million, for an average of $6.5 million per claim.
Of these claims, 284 have been resolved through negotiation, and 229 by other means, either through an administrative avenue or through closing the case. As I was saying earlier, there are currently 784 unresolved claims, and they are targeted in this bill.
Of the claims in process, 138 special claims are in negotiation across the country, and 34 are being handled by the Indian Specific Claims Commission. Those are the statistics.
I repeat, numerous claims and many problems still need to be resolved. The timing on this is good—or bad, depending on which side of the fence you are on—because last week, on May 6, the Auditor General released her report, which obviously looked into the matter of aboriginal children. I say “obviously” because this situation urgently demands greater efforts on the part of the government.
I would like to read a bit from that report. In chapter 4, the Auditor General points out that a number of problems remain to be resolved. I will also be talking about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That is another question that must be looked at much more carefully by this government, which still refuses to sign the declaration.
In chapter 4, which is entitled “First Nations Child and Family Services Program—Indian and Northern Affairs Canada”, the Auditor General reviews how the department manages the program through which it provides services to first nations children and families on reserves.
In accordance with federal government policy, these services must comply with provincial legislation and standards, must be comparable to services provided in similar circumstances to children living off reserve and of course must be culturally appropriate for first nations peoples.
Chapter 4 of the Auditor General's most recent report shows that funding for child welfare services on reserves is not fulfilling the federal government's obligations. It also shows that more than 5% of first nations children living on reserves in Canada are under the care of community or provincial child welfare services, for a total of over 8,000 children every year. This proportion is eight times higher than children in care off reserves. I said earlier that the situation must be resolved without delay, or at the very least, greater efforts made to improve it. The Auditor General is appealing for help. She is speaking out on behalf of these children and families, who still face this very serious problem.
The Auditor General noted that Indian and Northern Affairs had not analysed and compared on-reserve services with those offered in neighbouring communities. That must be corrected. In addition, the department had not identified the other health and social services available to support child welfare services on the reserves. Once again, the message is intended for the government.
In fact, the needs of children taken into care by first nations organizations vary considerably. Some children and their families do not receive the services they need because the funding formula for these services is outdated. The Auditor General made another point: the funding formula for on-reserve services has not been modified since 1988 even though the first nations have the highest birth rate in the country.
Finally, I raised another point: the Auditor General recommended that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada should resolve the differences with Health Canada related to their respective funding responsibilities for children in care. This may be a problem of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. There must be more concerted communication among departments to ensure that the changes requested by the Auditor General are carried out.
We do not really need the Auditor General to know all about the problems of drinking water, housing, addiction, suicide and so forth, because the media unfortunately keep us well informed. This information is useful but once we have it what do we do? Although we may not need the Auditor General to point this out, she has nevertheless targeted other problems that the general public may not familiar with or that do not receive as much media coverage. Nevertheless, with regard to these problems, we note once again that the most vulnerable often pay the price for the government's lax approach. In speaking of the most vulnerable I am also referring to the weakest: children are among those calling for help.
Earlier I was talking about the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is another example of an area where the government should be demonstrating a lot more leadership. There simply is no leadership there. Only four countries in the world have refused to sign the declaration and, unfortunately, to our great shame, Canada is one of those countries. Canada still has not ratified this important Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I read that more than 100 jurists and experts have criticized the Conservative government's lack of leadership and pointed out in an open letter that this government's legal arguments to justify its refusal do not hold water.
The Conservatives give very little importance to recognizing human rights. In addition to refusing to ratify the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they have also abolished the court challenges program, the preferred tool of minorities wanting to exercise their rights, and let us not forget the government's draconian funding cuts to Status of Women Canada and to the aboriginal literacy program.
There is no use in the government talking about how very important it is to help aboriginals, to improve their conditions and quality of life, when it keeps cutting and cutting. Otherwise, who will pay the bill?
Obviously those who would have received the services that have been abolished, that is who. In this specific case, refusing to become involved more specifically in the services offered to aboriginals will not improve the situation.
The United Nations has worked patiently and thoroughly, together with aboriginal peoples, for more than 20 years to come up with this tool for defending aboriginal rights. Unfortunately, the government is rejecting all this work out of hand.
We have another warning for the government. We are supporting Bill C-30, which is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, the government and its minister have to understand that the situation is not getting any better. Even though this bill is a step in the right direction as far as specific claims are concerned, the government's policy falls short when it comes to aboriginal rights.
Something really shocks me, and I want to choose my words very carefully. I learned yesterday that this government is prepared to invest $30 billion in military equipment. At the same time, Status of Women Canada programs are being slashed, the court challenges program was eliminated and there have been cuts in aboriginal literacy programs. Certainly people do not understand what is going on. I want to choose my words very carefully. Here is my point: I am not saying that we should not have a defence policy, but the problem is that the policy still does not exist. All that is being done is to announce that $30 billion will be invested over a 20-year period to buy all sorts of equipment.
First, there should be a very precise foreign affairs and national defence policy, so that we can determine what we need. Yesterday, in fact, some of the soldiers who attended the Prime Minister's press conference spoke publicly, as the newspapers reported today, saying this was just a sprinkling of money. They say they will be buying planes or this or that other equipment, but no one is sure whether this is the equipment that is really needed in the field. There has to be some housecleaning done in this regard. I will end my parenthetical comment here so as not to confuse things.
On the one hand, we see this pathetic situation on the aboriginal reserves, where there are people whom we should be looking after, since the federal government is trustee for the aboriginal peoples. On the other hand, we get announcements of billions and billions of dollars for military equipment. There is a big disconnect, an enormous gulf between the public's real needs and this government's goals.
To get back to the bill, I want to say that the Bloc Québécois supports the aboriginal peoples in their quest for justice and recognition of rights. The Bloc Québécois recognizes the 11 aboriginal nations of Quebec for what they are, nations. The Bloc Québécois also recognizes the aboriginal peoples as distinct peoples who are entitled to their cultures, their languages, their customs and their traditions, and to their right to decide for themselves how to go about developing their own identity.
We have had a lot of discussion this week and last week about the history of the birth of Canada, which the Conservative government is trying to rewrite, as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Quebec. Some absolutely absurd things have been said, like some of the documents that have been released. Nonetheless, everyone has to agree on one thing: the aboriginal people were here before Jacques Cartier arrived, and before anyone came to spend time in Newfoundland or elsewhere. The first nations were here. We agree on that. We must respect that fact absolutely.
Speaking of respect, we cannot let the Erasmus-Dussault report go unmentioned. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples submitted a comprehensive report that proposed far-reaching changes over a period of 20 years leading to self-government for aboriginal peoples by respecting their customs, cultures, languages and ancestral institutions. Since that time, the Bloc Québécois has been pressuring the federal government to act on the report's recommendations.
This is another warning. This program has been in place since 1996, but there are still many recommendations from the report that the government must act on.
I will conclude by talking about implementation of the bill. There are three scenarios in which a first nation could file a claim with the tribunal. The first is when Canada turns down a claim for negotiation but fails to meet the three-year time limit for assessing claims. The second is at any stage in the negotiation process, if all parties agree.
The third occurs after three years of unsuccessful negotiation. The tribunal will examine only questions of fact and law to determine whether Canada has a lawful obligation to a first nation.
All of that to say that we now have an opportunity to improve the situation, and I am convinced that all parties in this House will support this bill.