Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-3, the Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act, and explain why I am encouraging all members to join me in supporting it and the amendments we have before us today.
I believe all of us in the House stand opposed to discrimination based on gender. Obviously, the Court of Appeal in British Columbia has identified some specific clauses in the Indian Act that are discriminatory under the charter of rights. If we do not fix those clauses before the July deadline, there would be a period of limbo where the courts have said that the Indian Act would not apply, but we do not have a new act to bring it into line. Children born after that date would not be able to be registered, which would be a shame. Admittedly, there are many other issues to be dealt with. We have to deal with issues that came up during our consultation process.
It is important for people to understand that these changes are not being made in a vacuum. These changes are not being made willy-nilly. This is being done after extensive consultation. There was, if not a white paper, certainly a discussion paper that was circulated based on the Court of Appeal ruling. That ruling was quite specific about the changes in the clauses that were contrary to the charter of rights. The court was very specific about what we should do about that and said that we needed to move quickly. The court gave us a year to do that, in order to fix the gap that would occur in the legislation if we did not do that.
There were broad consultations. Consultations were done with national organizations. They were done at the regional levels. They were done on the Internet. People could make proposals, identify other issues, identify steps to move forward and so on.
While everyone wants to fix the problem of gender inequality, it became clear over the last year during that consultative period that there is no consensus in first nation country on how far we should go or what the next steps should be or all the other issues. Those issues include everything from membership, who can vote, who can run for office, who determines citizenship on a first nation, how treaty first nations are dealt with, how self-governing first nations are dealt with, whether people under the Indian Act are different, separate. On and on the questions went. It became clear that there is no consensus on just fixing it, as I hear sometimes from the opposition. It is not as easy as fixing it if we are serious about consultation.
We had extensive consultations and it became clear that we needed a process that engaged people at a more serious level on the other bigger issues of the day. It is not a matter of simply throwing in an all-encompassing amendment, the amendment that came forward in committee, which was ruled by the chairman to be outside the scope of the bill, overruled by the majority on the committee, and came back to the House. The Speaker himself had to rule on it that yes indeed it was an inappropriate amendment. However, that is committee life and that is life in a minority Parliament. The reality is that the House agrees that we are dealing with the issue of discrimination against aboriginal women in this case, and what we can do about it based on the Court of Appeal decision.
We have taken a measured approach in dealing with this. We have expanded it slightly in order to make it equal among family members. We have not only followed the spirit, but we have followed the ruling that came down from the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court refused to hear any appeals to that ruling. In other words that was the ruling and we had to deal with it. We cannot go to the Supreme Court on this. We have to deal with it and we have to do it quickly.
We came up with the suggestion of not only fixing the gender inequality identified by the court, but also in freely acknowledging and recognizing there are other issues, that we need another exploratory process. We have been working hand in hand with the national aboriginal organizations and other interested bodies to determine what they would like it to look like, how extensive they want the consultation and exploratory talks to be.
I mentioned last week what came back to us is that we need more representation at the regional level. That makes some sense, because there are regional differences. We do not want to chat only with the national organizations when there are regional differences that need to be addressed in these exploratory talks.
We have also struck an expert panel to discuss what the costs will be. Everybody is taking a guess at how many people will sign up, how many people will want to move back to reserve if they currently live off reserve and how many people will be affected by this. We have an expert panel of not only demographic experts but also experts who have been through the Bill C-31 experience and people who can make sure the costs and implications will all be part of the mix.
We could speculate and pull numbers out of the air, but it would be much better to have an expert panel with first nation representation on it to give us ideas of what the implications are and what their experiences are. When I was in Atlantic Canada about a month ago, first nation representatives mentioned that they had certain experiences on Bill C-31. I said that was exactly what we needed to hear. I told them to tell us exactly what the implications are, because we want to know. I do not want to sit here in the rarefied air in Ottawa and say that I have all the answers.
It is clear that we have to work with first nations. When we work with first nations, it means that we work hand in hand. We explore the next steps. We do not come down by fiat. Those days are long gone. We work in partnership with first nations and aboriginal people to find out the next steps and where they would like to go.
That is exactly what we are doing. The exploratory talks are being developed hand in hand with first nations people who tell us what they think should be involved, what issues should be on the table, how they would like to proceed, how much could be done electronically through the web, how much could be done in face-to-face meetings and so on.
We want to be complete. We want to be open to the ideas that first nations will be presenting to us. Even the process itself needs to be developed by working hand in hand with first nations so that they do not come back later and ask who dreamt up this consultation process. We want them to be satisfied. That is why there is a genuine effort to make sure that the exploratory talks are worked on closely. They are being worked on as we speak in order to make sure that they are as complete as possible.
I point out the problem with rolling the dice and throwing them on the table because that is exactly what I felt happened in committee in the study of this bill. A proposed amendment came forward. It was ultimately ruled by the Speaker of the House to be outside the gamut of this bill. It should not have been brought, but they have the numbers to force it through in committee. It would have more than doubled the number of status first nations people in this country.
It would have eliminated the Métis completely. The Métis would have been toast if that amendment had gone through. It would have doubled the number with no idea of the costs and implications on membership, voting, who can run for office and how they would handle more than a doubling of the number of status first nations in this country.
To me, it is irresponsible to throw that amendment on the table without any consultation with first nations. First nations have never asked me for that amendment. I have never been given that amendment in the exploratory talks we had previously or in the discussion paper. It has never been given to me by any national organization at all. We need to work closely and hand in hand with first nations groups so that we do not surprise them in committee with an amendment.
What we have is a measured approach on the bill itself, which addresses the needs of the court. We were ordered to do so by the court and we are happy to comply. We also have a measured approach on a process that engages first nations meaningfully at regional, local and national levels so that we get the best information and advice on how to move forward.
If we do that today, if we pass the bill, fix the gap, address the court case and then work with honour with first nations to get to the next steps, we will have done a good thing for first nations and for relationships between us going forward.