Madam Speaker, I am happy to speak to this motion moved by the NDP member for Nanaimo—Cowichan.
I would like to clarify something in the last question and comment period. I was not in the 2006-08 Parliament, so that would explain why I was not on the aboriginal affairs committee of that Parliament. I do have a long history with the committee dating back to 1994 and right up until 2006, and then in this current Parliament.
I witnessed the unintended consequences of the 1985 legislation up close and personal because 1994 was not that far removed from 1985. We are now a full generation beyond that, it being 25 years since the 1985 amendments. We are into another attempt to address some of the issues that flow from the whole question of registration. This is a complex and complicated area. The whole question of identity is tied up in questions of registration which fall under the Indian Act, questions of membership which are determined for 230 of the 634 first nations by the first nations themselves, and an allowance for all of them to adopt a membership code if they so desire, and we have questions of citizenship.
From a number of witnesses we heard from on the first nations side at committee, there was a broad statement that became fairly generalized, which was that first nations have the inherent right to determine their membership. I think it would be presumptuous of us to go too far into that discussion during the discussion of Bill C-3. However, it is very germane to the parallel process that we wish to put in place and which has had buy-in from the national aboriginal organizations. We wish to put in place an exploratory process to look at citizenship, membership and registration considerations with a view to further changes that could be adopted above and beyond Bill C-3.
This is a backdrop to what we know we have. We have an archaic Indian Act. Archaic as it might be, we have modern-day treaties that have been negotiated, every point gone through with a fine-toothed comb by legal counsel, and when all is said and done, lo and behold, we find most often that section 6, the portion of the Indian Act dealing with registration, is the only part of the Indian Act that remains intact and built into that modern treaty. The reason for that quite simply is it is such a complex thing to get rid of, it is easier to adopt it.
That is not where the pressure is coming from to make the changes, such as what is being proposed under Bill C-3. That came from the court case of Sharon McIvor in British Columbia.
The Government of Canada is responding to a long debated, long discussed, long considered question about transmission of status to grandchildren where there is a difference in transmission of status between a male Indian who married out and a female Indian who married out. That is where the bill is coming from.
The court recognized that there is no way to address all of the issues without impacting on the people who have been living under the old provisions of registration, citizenship and membership all these years. This then becomes part of the balancing act. The broad, sweeping statements that have been made this morning on this issue have conveniently omitted or forgotten about the other side of the ledger. There are a lot of implications, ramifications and potential unintended consequences that flow from anything beyond the government travelling down the road where it has a court mandate. We should not do that without a full process to look at all of this. That is why we put in place a parallel process called the exploratory process. Until today, I thought that everybody was comfortable with that.
This is an interim step in everyone's mind. It does affect 45,000 potential new entrants across the country. There are some practical implications of 45,000 new applicants. The Registrar of Indians will have to gear up, hire more people, create a whole new regime in order to take a large number of new applications. I cannot imagine the implications for the registrar if we were to go beyond that. I fail to see why this interim step is being viewed with negativity. We know from a lot of ad hoc evidence that there are a lot of people who are very interested in being new entrants. The number of calls that are being made to the department and general conversations indicate that this has really engaged a lot of people.
A witness who came before committee made a statement which was very incisive. She said that we probably would not be debating this bill and that it would not be controversial except for one thing, that there is money involved. I think she hit the nail on the head. We are talking about government certification of ethnicity that has financial consequences in the way of benefits. That is another way to look at this.
We have to be realistic in that this is a complicated issue for the public. The public may not understand why there is so much discussion about what basically amounts to an official designation, but that is what it is all about in terms of some consequences. We want to make sure that we are not endorsing amendments that are of concern regarding unintended consequences which we cannot predict reliably. I would remind the opposition members of this.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission attended our committee meetings with a high degree of interest. Members will recall that the last Parliament adopted the amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, which I had been advocating since approximately 1994 in this place, to delete section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. That section exempted first nations people living on reserve from the provisions of the act. In other words, there were Canadians to whom the Canadian Human Rights Act did not apply and who were pre-empted and prevented from appealing to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
As of July next year, there is a phase-in and under the new legislation that provision is removed. There is an expectation the Canadian Human Rights Commission will be involved in the future in questions of registration in some cases. There is no clarity at this point as to whether it would be some or all, or potentially none, but I cannot imagine that somehow. That is another downstream consequence where we cannot predict exactly where we are going on this train. It is clear there are changes coming, but it is not clear at all what the ramifications will be.
We encouraged the participation of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The commission is encouraged by its participation that it will be able to deal with this. It has set up a committee within the Canadian Human Rights Commission in order to ensure that it is proactively looking at this whole question of registration and any complaints that may flow from it.
Clause 9 in Bill C-3 is very important from the standpoint regarding any implications financially that flow from people being denied status between 1951 and 1985, and who are empowered by Bill C-3 as we have presented it. There would be no liability attached to either the Crown or to the first nations in terms of those individuals being able to seek compensation for their lack of membership during that time frame.
This is not something that has been talked about much this morning, but it is one that was criticized. I think it protects probably the first nations entities more so than the Crown. It is in there for clarity, but it is important clarity and I wanted to mention it.
The legislation we now have before us proposes to achieve two goals: first, to eliminate a cause of gender discrimination in the Indian Act; and second, to provide a timely and direct response to the ruling of the B.C. Court of Appeal.
We are aware of a number of broader issues related to the question of registration and membership. However, given the short timeframe and in the interest of avoiding a legislative void in British Columbia, we are seeking to implement changes that directly respond to the British Columbia Court of Appeal's decision.
Bill C-3 does offer a solution to these specific issues by amending the Indian Act to address the gender discrimination identified by the court. We are aware of broader questions of registration and membership because our government has been acting in collaboration with the people directly affected by the issues at play.
Last year, following a thorough review and analysis of the court's decision, department officials had technical briefings with representatives of five national aboriginal organizations to discuss the decision and Canada's proposed response. Following those briefings, 15 engagement sessions were held throughout the country to present Canada's proposed response to the McIvor decision and solicit feedback. As I have said, there was a lot of feedback but there is also a lot of interest in new entrants wanting to register. They are simply waiting at this point for this bill to go through.
Hundreds of participants came to the engagement sessions and many submissions were received. There were some common themes during the sessions. Many people expressed their concerns about the broader issues of registration, membership and citizenship. These concerns need to be considered and discussed. These broader issues are, as I and others have said, complex and there is a diversity of views among first nations.
For that reason, we will be undertaking a collaborative process with national aboriginal organizations to plan, organize and implement forums and activities that will focus on the gathering of information and identifying broader issues for discussion. This exploratory process, the terms of reference and the mandate are things that will be put together collaboratively. This is not a top-down exercise. I think it is a very enlightened way to approach a very complicated and complex issue.
It is the appropriate thing to do and it should begin promptly but it cannot begin promptly if we do not have an interim step in place, and the interim step is passing this legislation. That is what is was predicated on and that is what will commence it. The wide array of views on status, membership and citizenship must be shared and carefully considered. They cannot be viewed in isolation and they cannot be addressed in a rushed manner.
This will be a process that will inform the government on the next steps. As important as this work is and will be, it cannot take precedence over Bill C-3. Bill C-3 responds to a specific court ruling and prescribed deadline. I can say with certainty that the proposed legislation is precise, compact and focused. Unlike the debate and discussion this morning, the bill is precise, compact and focused.
I will remind members that we are working on a deadline and we need to meet that deadline. The decision to grant that deadline was rendered on April 1 of this year and it takes us through to July 5. We need to get this done in this spring session. We have an opportunity to process Bill C-3.