Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-47. In the debate on this bill yesterday, there were a number of very good points raised by the member for Nunavut.
This bill is an act respecting family homes situated on first nation reserves and matrimonial interests or rights in or to structures and lands situated on those reserves.
The debate has brought a lot of very important dimensions to the crisis that exists on first nations reserves. This legislation is necessary because there is no legislation now to which people can turn. These are the representations of the member for Nunavut, who has been one of the most stellar champions of aboriginal affairs, of first nations peoples, Métis and the Inuit. During her speech, she referred to a couple of stakeholder representations, which I want to review simply to provide a context as to why I have risen to speak.
The Native Women's Association of Canada expressed its views in a press release criticizing this legislation. It expressed its frustration with what it refers to as the government's unilateral action on the bill. The discussion has to do with legislative initiatives and unlegislated initiatives. It is the unlegislated initiatives part that is the source of some of the concern expressed by the Native Women's Association of Canada.
Bev Jacobs, the president of the NWAC, stated in her press release of March 4, 2008:
There is nothing in the legislation that addresses the systemic issues of violence many women face that lead to the dissolution of marriages nor is there any money available for implementation. In the end, we end up with a more worthless piece of paper.
That is a very strong statement.
We just dealt with a report from the Standing Committee on the Status of Women relating to some of the issues, particularly with regard to the violence against many women and also some of the other areas, such as housing, poverty, governance, access to justice and general violence. It is very important to ensure that Canadians understand and our first nations also understand that we are sensitive to this. I have not seen that in regard to the representations of the government. As I listen to the questions asked by government members on Bill C-47, the government seems to be fairly dismissive. The attitude of the government is that we should just pass the bill, that it is a good bill and the government does not have to do anything else.
The government must listen to the stakeholders, those who are seeking some relief in dealing with a serious crisis within the first nations communities.
Also, there is a very significant letter dated April 8, 2008 from the office of the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine. When I read it, I was somewhat concerned about the allegations that were made in the letter. The position generally is that this bill is flawed in both process and substance and that while its assessment of the bill is not finalized, the Assembly of First Nations will want to make further representations. This letter is extremely important. It was very helpful to me in understanding the view of the stakeholders, and it does include the preliminary analysis of the Assembly of First Nations.
Even in the text of the letter, with regard to Bill C-47, Mr. Fontaine said:
While it was a positive and practical step forward to engage in dialogue with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Native Women's Association of Canada in the development of this legislation, the approach falls far short of First Nations' direction that the Crown should fully engage with First Nations in developing policy and legislation that affects First Nations.
The substantive foundation of the concerns that they have has to do with the consultation process. I recall that in her speech to the House, the member for Nunavut commented on that aspect. She said:
--if we want to see real solutions in our aboriginal communities, there has to be real partnership and collaboration, and that they not be token gestures.
The concern is if there is a perception of tokenism, of consultations which are going through the motions but which are not really sincere, it is a recipe for disagreement and maybe discontent. Parliament has a serious responsibility to consult with stakeholders regardless of which piece of legislation with which we are dealing. When we make laws, we are affecting people in one way or another and those people need to be heard.
According to the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, it appears that has been a problem not only with regard to Bill C-47, but generally with regard to many of the issues that have come before Parliament.
Mr. Fontaine went on to say:
Furthermore, the fact that direction provided through this dialogue does not appear reflected in the tabled Bill, leaves us to conclude that the dialogue was of limited value in promoting and implementing a reconciliation approach regarding First Nations aboriginal and treaty rights and Crown sovereignty.
I take this as a very serious alert for parliamentarians and for the government with regard to Bill C-47. We have to step up and take this a lot more seriously and determine whether or not there are appropriate steps to address these legitimate concerns that have been raised by Chief Fontaine.
He went on to say:
In regards to the process of engagement, the AFN has clearly stated, on numerous occasions, and in formal correspondence, the position of First Nations in this regard. In addition, the AFN and First Nations through the dialogue process, detailed alternative approaches and measures to address the issues arising in relation to matrimonial real property on reserve. Indeed, the federal government had many, many opportunities to address these matters properly and effectively.
He went on to say:
Unfortunately, the advice and direction of AFN and First Nations has not been heeded and I must point out that the First Nations assessment of the proposed legislation will likely be that it is unconstitutional in law and of no value to First Nations individuals or governments in practice.
When I read that it made me want to know more. I want to hear more. Should the bill go to committee for review, the questions that were raised in the consultation process and which apparently were not heeded by the government in proposing the legislation, need to be considered. We need to remediate that situation. We need to make sure that the stakeholders, regardless of their basis, are heard and that the issues raised are frontally and effectively addressed so that all understand. Regardless of which side one is on on a particular issue, there is always room for due respect for the opinions of others, but that does not seem to have been the case in this regard.
The bill contemplates an approach that will not provide any effective remedies for individuals seeking redress. That was the intent of the bill and is the intent of the bill. It is why the member for Nunavut, when she spoke before the House yesterday, made this argument over and over again. Yet when the parliamentary secretary rose on questions, he was dismissive of her question and made the assertion that the bill should be passed, that we should move forward because there were other things to do.
We have things to do. We have to get Bill C-47 right. The objectives of this place are to have full debate and to properly identify those issues which should be addressed.
The first nations wanted to articulate, as laid out in Chief Fontaine's letter, the principles that should guide the search for solutions and the standard upon which proposed solutions should be evaluated. He went on the list about a dozen. He lists strengthening first nations, families and communities, fairness, respect for traditional values, protection of aboriginal and treaty rights, no abrogation or derogation of first nations' collective rights, protection and preservation of first nations' land for future generations, recognition and implementation of first nations' jurisdiction and community based solutions.
I had the opportunity to be a member of the Standing Committee on Health when we dealt with aboriginal health issues. The committee travelled to a number of reserves to consult with stakeholders and to determine some of the non-legislative areas of which we should also be cognizant.
It was clear to me that there were substantive differences between reserves. Some are in much better shape than others. One thing I noticed was some of the fundamentals, like clean water and a sewage system, were not present.
There were a number of health issues in program areas. I remember I went into a modest community centre on one reserve. In the basement was a large lineup of people and I wanted to know why. I found out that people were lining up to buy cases of cigarettes for resale. However, next to that was the jail. It is hard for Canadians to understand the realities of the lives of first nations and the challenges they face.
As a consequence of that review, we found that the problems which existed on first nations reserves, which exist throughout Canadian society, were multiple times more in terms of severity as well as the occurrence levels, whether it be substance abuse, or domestic violence, or problems with children or social problems, et cetera. These are areas which Canadians demand that Parliament address in an appropriate fashion.
I thank Chief Fontaine for his letter of April 8 and the preliminary analysis. I will not go through this, but it is available and if members do not have a copy, I would be happy to provide it for them.
I want to comment generally on the bill. The Liberal Party supports the bill to go to committee. Like many bills where second reading occurs, we are often approached by stakeholders and constituents who suggest the bill should simply be defeated at second reading. This happened with regard to animal cruelty legislation. It is happening with regard to Bill C-51, which has to do with natural health products.
Canadians and all interested parties should understand that when a bill comes before the House at second reading, we have representations in an informal way from those who are interested parties. We have our own knowledge, some of our own research and some historic research.
What we do not have at second reading is the present assessment and the current input of the experts. We do not have the formal position of the stakeholders on both sides or all sides of the argument. What we do at second reading is debate, in principle, the aspects of the bill and whether there are any major problems.
Members know that when we pass a bill at second reading, we pass it in principle and get it to committee where there can be, as necessary, full consultation and public hearings to allow the stakeholders to come before the committee to articulate very clearly the positions and concerns they have to proposed amendments, et cetera. Some of the best work in Parliament happens at committee, where it is not just a handful or 12 members of Parliament who make the decisions. They are there participating in a consultation process with the necessary expertise, not only from the government and the officials of the department, who will answer the questions of the members and explain the bill in great detail, but also with those stakeholders, which is extremely important.
I am quite sure the bill will pass at second reading. However, I am also quite sure throughout this place there will be a strong representation that we should have very comprehensive public hearings and hear from the stakeholders to identify how we can deal with those matters which may not have been reflected in the bill, even though they may have been raised under preliminary consultation with the principal stakeholders.
There are many stakeholders in regard to the bill. We can never forget that this is a matter of human rights for women and children living on reserves. The whole objective of the bill is so they can have safer and healthier lives and therefore happier lives. Those are fundamental objectives. Who is against that?
How we deliver that will be the issue. Legislating certain things will help for those matters which require a legislative solution because we need a law to guide it. We cannot achieve the full impact and the benefit of the law without having the non-legislative component and the initiatives, the support and the funding necessary to provide an environment in which those laws can operate in a fair manner.
While we support the intent of the bill, we do not support the unilateral process the government has taken in introducing the legislation. We were instrumental in making critical changes to Bill C-21 to ensure that aboriginal Canadians would have the time and the capacity they needed to deal with changes. We continue to push the government to address issues such as the human rights needs of aboriginal Canadians, education, jobs, poverty, water and health, which are much the same kinds of conclusions that we reached in the health committee I back in 1994, which was when the new Parliament started.
It was an education for me, as an urban Canadian with very little exposure prior to coming to Parliament, about the challenges faced by our first nations and their people, the Métis and the Inuit.
The bill itself establishes a federal matrimonial real property regime, combined with the mechanisms for first nations to develop their own matrimonial real property laws.
By way of background, in 1986 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that when a conjugal relationship broke down on reserve, courts could not apply provincial or territorial family law because reserve lands fell under federal jurisdiction. We can see the need to address that condition.
As a result, aboriginal women living on reserves have not enjoyed the same rights as women living off reserves. That is an important matter to be resolved. They are not entitled to an equal share of matrimonial property at the time of the marriage break down. Matrimonial real property refers to the house and the land that the couple lives on while they are married or in a common law relationship.
The government began preliminary consultations on this matter, but it focused on recommendations made by committees. The next step was to move to the legislation solution. As I had indicated, this is not simply a matter to be addressed by legislative proscriptions. It also requires a non-legislative approach.