Mr. Speaker, it is indeed very gratifying to see Bill C-5 advanced to third reading. After nearly a decade of discussions and consultations, we are finally bringing this legislation into the 21st century. In the process, we will be helping to bring much needed prosperity to oil and gas producing first nations.
This long overdue bill is an important step forward in levelling the playing field for resource-rich first nations that face obstacles to achieving their full economic potential. I remind my hon. colleagues that the Indian Oil and Gas Act has remained unchanged for the past 34 years. To say that Bill C-5 is long overdue, is an understatement. That is why I am so proud to be taking part in corrective action with this legislation to set first nations on a better course for the future.
As I pointed out, the last time I spoke on Bill C-5, this is a concrete example of the Conservative government's commitment to ensure that aboriginal Canadians fully share in economic opportunities. It is an important building block that will enable first nations with oil and gas reserves to build stronger, more reliant communities that can better manage their own affairs. The oil and gas sector represents a source of promising economic development opportunities for first nations. The Government of Canada, through its special operating agency Indian Oil and Gas Canada, currently manages over 1,000 oil and gas producing wells and about 150 new wells are drilled on reserves each year.
In 2005-06 over $270 million in oil and gas revenues were collected by the Government of Canada on behalf of first nations. More than $1 billion in revenues from on reserve oil and gas activity has been collected by Indian Oil and Gas Canada on behalf of about 60 first nations over the past five years. That revenue is then passed on, in its entirety, to those first nations communities. This much needed source revenue is being used by these first nations for training, new housing, water and sewer projects, initiatives that are building stronger communities and a brighter future for their children.
Notwithstanding the current economic downturn, industry remains committed to developing partnerships with first nations. The oil and gas sector is continuing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in exploration and exploitation activities on first nations reserve lands, more than $300 million worth over the last five years alone. While there is great promise, the potential for first nations economic opportunities in the oil and gas sector is dependent upon industry investment.
Private sector interests lament that up until now federal laws governing development activity on reserves have not kept up with industry needs. They also complain that the regulations are unclear in many cases, which can cause delays, additional costs and lost investment opportunities. Industry stakeholders clearly prefer to invest in lands where the regulatory regimes are certain and where communities offer opportunities, not challenges. That is precisely what this bill would provide.
Let me review the many progressive features in Bill C-5 that would ensure first nations lands are every bit as attractive to investors as off reserve lands.
First, the act increases clarity. The amendments clarify both ministerial and judicial oversight powers in high-risk areas such as levying of fines and searches and seizures. Another way that Bill C-5 would clarify would be by harmonizing federal legislation with provincial regimes. This is important because provincial oil and gas laws related to conservation and environmental protection are amended from time to time. If the federal regime does not stay abreast of these changes, it puts first nations seeking investment at a clear disadvantage.
The incorporation by reference of these amendments would ensure the federal regime would keep pace. More to the point, it would eliminate disparities between on and off-reserve lands. Again, this would provide greater certainty for potential investors and facilitate economic development. All of this would be done while, in all circumstances, fully maintaining the federal government's fiduciary responsibilities to first nations.
The second major advantage of Bill C-5 is that it would improve Canada's ability to regulate oil and gas activities on reserve land. Bill C-5 would give the minister, through Indian Oil and Gas Canada, greater authority to audit operators and collect royalties owed to first nations. Once developed, new regulations will establish a clear set of rules to prevent companies from using certain transactions with subsidiaries or related parties to unduly reduce royalties payable to first nations.
Furthermore, the minister would have a 10-year limitation period to commence legal actions to collect unpaid royalties and other amounts owing. This is especially important. There would be no limitation period in cases of fraud or misrepresentation. Without this provision, provincial standards would apply and in some cases the limitation period would be as low as two years. This added protection would ensure that first nations were paid what they were rightfully due.
The final major area of improvement made possible by Bill C-5 concerns environmental protection and ensuring that first nation sites of cultural, spiritual or historical significance will be protected from potentially adverse effects of oil and gas activities. Because the federal regime would be harmonized with provincial environmental protection laws, new enforcement actions to protect the environment from oil and gas activities would be identical to the ones currently available to the province off reserve.
The minister would also be provided new powers to suspend operations if first nation sites of cultural, spiritual or historical significance were discovered or threatened by the oil and gas activities. Oil and gas activities would only be permitted to resume when the minister would be confident that the risk of harm would no longer exist. In addition, the regulations could require first nation concurrence before these operations are resumed.
Another important change in this legislation responds directly to the priorities of first nations. The concern was raised repeatedly that the on-reserve regime did not keep pace with the off-reserve regime. To address this need, the amendments would expand the authority of the governor in council to make regulations and to facilitate regular improvements to them. In fact, the approach taken by Bill C-5 would guarantee continuous changes and improvements to ensure that the federal oil and gas regime would remain current.
Under the act, regulations would be monitored, examined and, when required, amended on a never-ending basis. This means that first nations would never again have to wait for 30 or 35 years before amendments to modernize the act could be implemented.
This is another aspect following on the act in which first nations will play a crucial role. We will continue to work together with oil and gas first nations and their advocate, the Indian Resource Council, during the development of the regulations, just as we did during the development of this act.
I remind the House that before developing the bill, extensive consultations were carried out with first nations with oil and gas interests. Since 2003, Indian Oil and Gas Canada has held one-on-one sessions with over 85% of the oil and gas-producing first nations.
My hon. colleagues can rest assured that passage of this legislation is not the end, but merely a continuation of an ongoing consultation process with first nations. That is not rhetoric. That is a promise.
During the minister's appearance before committee, he mentioned a letter of comfort which he sent to the Indian Resource Council last year. I should explain that the Indian Resource Council is a national aboriginal organization that advocates on behalf of some 130 first nations with oil and gas production or the potential for production.
In writing, the minister outlined Canada's commitment to modernize the on-reserve oil and gas regime. He also committed to continue our partnership with the Indian Resource Council during the development of the regulations. Of concern to many, the minister reassured oil and gas first nations that there was nothing in Bill C-5 that affected first nations' jurisdiction over their resources. Nor did the act extend the jurisdiction of the provinces to those lands or resources.
The minister reiterated that it was the Government of Canada and not provincial authorities that would be responsible for managing first nation lands and resources. The letter of comfort also addressed first nation concerns related to value-added opportunities. For example, the minister pledged to establish first nation energy business centres of excellence in Alberta and in Saskatchewan.
Furthermore, the minister committed to identifying opportunities for greater first nations input and involvement in the decision-making processes at Indian Oil and Gas Canada on issues that directly affected them. As well, he signalled his willingness to explore options for greater first nations control over the management of their oil and gas resources. Of great interest to us as legislators, the minister promised to establish a continuous change or improvement process.
These assurances reinforce our government's determination to ensure first nations share equally in our country's prosperity. Members of government believe profoundly that first nations citizens must participate fully in all that Canada has to offer and be given the tools to achieve greater economic self-reliance and an ever-increasing quality of life. Bill C-5 would help to advance these goals by providing modern legislation, competitive regulations and sound practices that would create the conditions for economic success and social progress.
These goals are shared by all members of the House. The key to unleashing this potential lies in passing this modernized legislative framework into law. By endorsing Bill C-5, we will be confirming, once again, that collaboration and partnership between the federal government, the private sector and aboriginal people can lead to a better future. Indeed, it will help build a better country for us all.
I call on all parties to lend their support and ensure the speedy passage of this necessary and overdue legislation.