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House of Commons Hansard #166 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was c-15.

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First NationsPrivate Members' Business

October 22nd, 2012 / 11 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

moved:

Motion No. 386

That, in the opinion of the House, the Indian Act is the embodiment of failed colonial and paternalistic policies which have denied First Nations their rights, fair share in resources; fostered mistrust and created systemic barriers to the self-determination and success of First Nations, and that elimination of these barriers requires the government to initiate a formal process of direct engagement with First Nations within three months of passage of this motion, on a nation-to-nation basis, which focuses on replacing the Indian Act with new agreements based on: (a) the constitutional, treaty, and inherent rights of all First Nations; (b) the historical and fiduciary responsibilities of the Crown to First Nations; (c) the standards established in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the principle of free, prior, and informed consent; (d) respect, recognition, reconciliation and support for First Nations; (e) partnership and mutual accountability between the Crown and First Nations; and (f) stability and safety of First Nations; and that this process be completed within two years before reporting with a series of concrete deliverables for the government to act upon.

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the chance to move the motion and to participate in the discussion on it.

I hope there is a general consensus in the House that a piece of legislation that was first passed in 1876, which reflected the power relationships and the values of that particular time in our history, is hardly the basis upon which we need to go forward in the 21st century in this critical question of the relationship between first nations, Inuit and Métis people of this country and the governments of Canada, including the provinces.

The motion requires the government to start a process of discussion and negotiation with respect to replacing the Indian Act with a new set of laws, treaties and understandings that would establish a new relationship on a basis of genuine equality, not on the basis of paternalism, not on the basis of a colonial relationship that stems from the past, not on the basis of a severe power imbalance between the governments of Canada and the aboriginal people of the country, but on a basis of true equality.

Like everyone in the House, I was genuinely moved by the Prime Minister's speech, which he gave on the unforgettable moment when the government and the Prime Minster in person delivered an apology to those who had been forced to go to residential schools. We all recognize that the Prime Minister's apology went well beyond the issue of residential schools, as significant and important as that issue is. What I think the Prime Minister was doing was stating on behalf of all Canadians that this is a relationship that has somehow gone wrong historically and that it is important for us to get it right.

Since the first Europeans landed on the shores of what we call Canada today, there has been a great deal of tension—let us face it—between those who arrived as immigrants, that is, representatives of a colony, and those who had been living in Canada for centuries. These people have known illness, death, war, discrimination and racism. Relationships have been difficult.

If you read the debates of the House of Commons from the 19th century, when the Indian Act was first passed, it becomes clear that people at the time thought that aboriginal people would probably not survive very long as a population.

Now the reality is quite different: over 1 million aboriginal people live in Canada. Young aboriginal people are studying at college and university and have professional careers or are business people.

Quite a change has taken place. We must recognize that their communities are no longer isolated, even if they are geographically remote and without resources. At two or three years old, aboriginal children watch the same television programs. They see the possibilities that exist in the world.

However, they do not have the same opportunities to access those possibilities.

I continue to believe that, although this issue may well not be top of mind among a great majority of Canadians, according to the polls we see, and it may not be a subject that people think is the most important question we need to deal with, when the House considers the question we have to show some leadership to the people of Canada. We need to say it is time for the country to wake up and realize there are steps that need to be taken, barriers that need to be broken and bridges that need to be built so we and all Canadians can look at ourselves in the mirror and say we are one as a country, we are one as a family, we are one people.

Throughout my political and public life, I have found it difficult to somehow square the discrimination and inequality that we see around us all the time with this notion that we are one country providing the same level of opportunity. The statistics are there. We can recite all the statistics with respect to the incomes, the outcomes, the tragedies of suicide or the appalling and difficult conditions that exist on many reserves and in many communities, as well as the sense of bafflement and loss we can see in any major city just walking down the street and encountering those who are lost, those who are marginalized and those who will say, “This is where I come from. Can you help me out?” All of us have faced that, and all of us know that something is not quite right.

In a way we often say this and then turn back away from it, but I say to my colleagues on the other side of the House that this is not a partisan question. If anyone on the other side of the House wants to stand up and say we did not do enough, our party did not do enough when it was in power, we did not do enough when we were in government, we did not take the steps they have made and they are better than us, I will not enter into that argument because I do not regard this as a partisan question. It is not something any of us can look at and say all governments have done something and we have seen some important progress.

At the same time, we have to recognize that we simply have not done enough. I am convinced that part of the problem is that there is a key tension in the legislative and legal framework that surrounds this relationship. We should think of what we have done. In adopting the Constitution in 1981, we accepted the fact that treaty and existing aboriginal rights were in fact protected. We then had a process of negotiation, which did not go anywhere under Prime Minister Mulroney. He tried hard. He believed in it. He created a royal commission to point out the problems and inequalities to Canadians. We had negotiations at Charlottetown. We made great progress on self-government in the Charlottetown accord, but it was voted down by Canadians in a referendum.

The courts have made great progress in recognizing self-government and the duty to consult, but we still have real tensions. We have a relationship of inequality. We have a government and governments that decide what budgets will be and allocate funding, and frequently that funding is allocated on a discriminatory basis. It has taken the first nations people three years to get the issue of discriminatory funding on social welfare in front of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal because it was fought all the way by the lawyers on the other side.

The minister says he wants to do the best he can for education, and I am prepared to accept him at his word. However, there are a lot of arguments about what resources have actually been provided and are being provided.

Just last week I was in a northern community in Nunavik in northern Quebec. There is a housing shortage of as many as a thousand units in one community in Kuujjuaq. We see this situation every day. The most touching situation we have seen is that in that very same community three kids committed suicide in the space of a week, and on the wall in the school was a big agreement signed by the students saying, “I promise to live”. They all signed it because they wanted to make that commitment.

I wonder if internationally we can really hold our heads up high when we recognize the discrepancy between the conditions that exist for the majority of Canadians and the conditions that exist for those who are first nations and aboriginal people. I do not think we can. Therefore, how do we deal with this?

The way we need to deal with this is to get back to the fundamental fact that people and communities were here before the Europeans arrived. Treaties and laws existed before the Europeans arrived. Contrary to the orthodoxy of European-based law, this was not terra nullius, no one's land. This land belonged to people who had laws, customs, religions and a way of life.

Since coming here, yes, some treaties have been signed, but many have been broken or not lived up to in spirit. We need to get back to a relationship of equality, a relationship of genuine respect. As long as there is fundamental, paternalistic and colonial legislation that drives the power of the government, the minister and the powerlessness of others, then something is wrong. It has been said that power corrupts, and that is true, but it has also been said that powerlessness corrupts, and that is true as well.

We have allowed something in this relationship to fester, not just over a few years or through one administration or another, but over centuries. Something has been deeply corrupting in this relationship and to make it better, to go beyond words of reconciliation, we need to take action with genuine negotiation and a changed relationship. We need a different relationship in terms governance, authority and power. We need mutual accountability so that aboriginal communities and their leaders are accountable and transparent but governments must also be accountable for what they do.

As we talk about this new relationship in terms of governance, we also need to talk about new relationships in terms of resources. Canada's vast resources and wealth are not being appropriately shared with those whose lands of this great country first was. No one should have a begging bowl to go to the governments of Canada to ask for a share of the resource revenue. Governments of Canada need to wake up and understand that it is not just the power imbalance but it is also the financial and fiscal imbalance that must be met.

These will not be easy discussions and negotiations but they are discussions and negotiations that need to happen. However, unless the House has a sense of the timetable to be followed to get us to where we need to get to, we will not make the progress that we need to make.

As a country, I believe that we genuinely have a rendezvous with who we are, with our past as well as with our future. I believe more strongly than anything in politics that this is an issue whose time has really come.

We cannot put it off. We cannot pretend that simply tinkering around the sides of the issue will work. We need to address these questions of this relationship. The respect and dignity that we owe each other must be put at the heart of this relationship.

We need to return to a world of respect, a world of dignity and a world of equality. Frankly, it is everyone's duty, not just that of parliamentarians, but of all Canadians, to see this country as a great country not only because of its resources and wealth, but also because of its values and our commitment to ensuring that those values are implemented and that they become a reality, since this has not been the case so far.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Rob Clarke Conservative Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, SK

Mr. Speaker, I was proud to open the first hour of debate on my private member's bill last Thursday, which proposes amendments to the Indian Act that would take concrete steps to help first nations escape from the shackles of this outdated, colonial and archaic act. My bill would provide greater autonomy for first nations people and lessen the role of the federal government's involvement in the day-to-day lives of first nations citizens. It would give back key decisions and powers to the first nations people and would repeal provisions that allow for the establishing of residential schools.

Why is the hon. member opposed to repealing sections of the act that would prevent residential schools from being established or that would hand over more power to first nations people?

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have had the opportunity to look at the private member's bill that stands in his name and I congratulate the hon. member for taking an initiative, for the spirit in which he posed the question and for the spirit of his amendments.

My concern about his particular measure is twofold. One is that I do not think it goes far enough and, in a sense, lets everyone off the hook a little too much. The second is that, to my knowledge, the amendments have not been thoroughly discussed and negotiated with the people who would be affected by them. I think that is the only criticism that has been raised by people on our side. I would be quite happy to sit down and talk with the hon. member about his legislation if he would be willing to talk about my motion.

It is not a matter of competing motions and bills. If there is a common objective that is shared with the people of the first nations leadership, then, by all means, let us proceed. I have spent a lot of time discussing my measure with the leadership of the first nations and I think there is substantial support for what we are proposing.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for tabling this motion on a very important matter for which my party is also very concerned.

As the member has pointed out, which is something that the House needs to be reminded of daily, it is the unilateral powers and responsibility of the federal government to implement the measures to provide for the government to government and nation to nation relationship with first nations, which it promised to do as recently as this past January. We have seen case after case where first nations have had to go to court to force the government to live up to the Supreme Court Mikisew decision on the duty to consult and accommodate. Superceding that, we now have the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

I wonder if the member could speak to what particular measures he thinks should be first and foremost in order to move this agenda ahead so that we can start moving forward with treating the first nations as an order of government and allowing for and facilitating self-governance.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

I genuinely hope, Mr. Speaker, that we in the House can commit to making progress in this field. I am certainly not one who is opposed to making some progress as opposed to none at all.

However, we need to recognize that we have international obligations as a country. The government, for example, in the case of the social welfare case, continued to fight it for three years in terms of getting access to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The minister is still able to exercise very arbitrary powers with respect to whether an aboriginal government even exists, as in the case of Attawapiskat.

The government needs to tell us what it is prepared to do in order to show good faith as we go forward, but a negotiated process needs to be set out. We tried to set it out in Charlottetown with a timetable but that was not successful in a referendum. It has now been 20 years since the adoption of the Charlottetown accord by all of the premiers, leaders of the first nations and the Government of Canada. I would have thought that governments themselves could go back to that agreement and say that they agreed to that in the past and that they will move forward, particularly given the strength of the court decisions that have been taken and the fact that Canada is now a signatory to the UN convention.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Rob Clarke Conservative Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today against the motion brought forward by the member for Toronto Centre. This motion is nothing more than an empty promise that contains nothing concrete or deliverable for first nations people. I am convinced that anyone who examines this motion closely will arrive at the same conclusion.

The first part of the motion before the House today states:

That, in the opinion of the House, the Indian Act is the embodiment of failed colonial and paternalistic policies which have denied First Nations their rights, fair share in resources; fostered mistrust and created systemic barriers to the self-determination and success of First Nations....

It is for those exact reasons I introduced Bill C-428, the Indian Act amendment and replacement act. The preamble to my private member's bill acknowledges the following important points:

...the Indian Act is an outdated colonial statute, the application of which results in the people of Canada’s First Nations being subjected to differential treatment;

...the Indian Act does not provide an adequate legislative framework for the development of self-sufficient and prosperous First Nations’ communities;

...the Government of Canada is committed to the development of new legislation to replace the Indian Act that better reflects the modern relationship between it and the people of Canada’s First Nations;

...the Government of Canada is committed to continuing its work in exploring creative options for the development of this new legislation in collaboration with the First Nations organizations that have demonstrated an interest in this work;

The preamble in my private member's bill would more than adequately accomplish what the member for Toronto Centre is trying to say in the first part of his motion, though my bill would go much further to actually take concrete action for first nations people.

The second part of the motion calls on the government to eliminate these barriers by initiating “a formal process of direct engagement with First Nations...on a nation-to-nation basis, which focuses on replacing the Indian Act with new agreements...and that this process be completed within two years before reporting with a series of concrete deliverables for the government to act upon”.

The Liberals had 13 years to begin such a process but they did not get it done. First nations people do not need more talk about failed colonial paternalistic policies. They need concrete actions. First nations should not have to wait another two years before the government starts a process that would enable the first nations to get out of the Indian Act. I believe the time is now to start correcting the injustices that have been done to my people and begin equipping them with the tools to get out from underneath the colonial and paternalistic legislation that is holding my people back from achieving their full potential and becoming full participants in Canada's economy.

I had the pleasure of opening my debate on my private member's bill this past Thursday. The goal of my bill is to: eliminate the minister's role in the administration of estates and the approval and voiding of wills; remove the minister's bylaws disallowance powers and, in doing so, hand over greater control and accountability to first nations; remove outdated and archaic provisions of the Indian Act, such as the requirement for permission to sell produce; repeal all references to residential schools; and, most important, require the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to report annually to the parliamentary committee on action taken in partnership with first nations and other interested parties to develop new legislation to replace the Indian Act.

Anyone can see that this is not an attempt to completely overhaul the Indian Act. Rather, these amendments would bring about concrete, practical changes that would lead to real results for first nations people and enable them to achieve greater self-sufficiency and prosperity. I also emphasize that this is not an attempt to unilaterally impose changes to the Indian Act on first nations people. Rather, it would provide for greater communication and collaboration in a way that is respectful and modern as we work together toward our shared objective of healthier, more self-sufficient first nations communities.

As members know, a private member of the House of Commons has limited resources to conduct extensive consultation. However, I have made significant efforts to consult with first nations on this bill.

My riding has 23 first nation communities and the second largest first nation population in Canada. I have also spoken to chiefs, tribal councils and grassroots members over the past four and a half years about the importance of moving forward with the scrutiny of the Indian Act. I have served in the House, written all 636 first nation communities on four separate occasions and spoken in a number of public forums on the substance of my bill. I have also encouraged and invited feedback from first nation chiefs, members and other interested parties on the bill, including through my website and direct communication with my constituents.

I am also looking forward to the study of my bill in committee, which will provide yet another venue to hear first-hand from first nations and other interested parties on the content of the bill.

As we can see, I have not arrived at the current set of changes in the bill on my own, but rather through consultation with other first nation members within my own constituency as well as around the country. One important point is that I have revised my bill four times based on feedback that first nations have provided to me. In fact, I am also open to amendments that may come forward through this important dialogue.

It is my hope that one day the changes proposed in my private member's bill will help lead us closer to a more modern, respectful relationship between the federal government and first nations, and will continue—

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The member is talking about his private member's bill and not the motion. Could he please focus his thoughts on the motion?

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

For the member for Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing and the benefit of all members, members are afforded a great deal of freedom in terms of how they wish to create parallels with different ideas around the question that is before the House. As I have followed the speech, I have not heard anything that is particularly not pertinent. Of course, it is up to the member to keep those ideas referenced to the question that is before the House. I am sure he will be summing up that way in short order.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Rob Clarke Conservative Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, SK

Mr. Speaker, this is the same paternalistic approach that the opposition always takes regarding first nations, that we are not good enough to be able to present speeches in the House of Commons.

The government and first nations continue on a path to repeal and replace the Indian Act in its entirety. A yearly report by the aboriginal affairs minister on the progress made in this regard will be invaluable in gauging the development of new legislation to replace the Indian Act. It will establish a collaborative approach to work our way out of the Indian Act in a manner consistent with a renewed relationship between first nations and the Crown.

The government, under the leadership of our Prime Minister, has made significant strides toward improving the health and well-being of our first nation communities in collaboration with first nations.

I am very excited about the prospect of working with first nations to create a more contemporary and beneficial piece of legislation to replace the Indian Act. As I stated Thursday, this is not a partisan effort. I am bringing forward the bill as a proud representative of my riding, as a proud first nations man and a proud Canadian who wants to see a better life for all first nations and all Canadians.

I urge my colleagues to oppose this motion and support my bill. The motion does nothing to improve the lives of first nations, while my bill would take incremental and concrete steps that would pave the way for first nations people to get out of the Indian Act entirely.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Jonathan Genest-Jourdain NDP Manicouagan, QC

Mr. Speaker, since the issues we are studying in this rather odd bill are quite philosophical in nature, the arguments I will make in this House will be very much inspired by the clan dynamic of my community of origin.

For the past year or so, members of Parliament—especially the Conservatives—have told me a number of times that they have a hard time understanding my reasoning and that they have tried to see where I was going with my arguments and speeches. I will say the following: I come from Uashat, a community not far from the 52nd parallel in northern Quebec. When people come to visit my community for the first time, I tell them that it is a whole other galaxy and that the way the rest of the country thinks does not necessarily apply in isolated communities. That is why my speech today will seem similar to many others I have made, in that it will be a bit outside the box and will be empirical.

There is obviously a reason why the communities seem galaxies apart. Even their cosmogonic concepts are different, their views on creation and relationships between individuals, nature, animals—are all different. There is no comparison between European concepts and concepts that can be found around the country and around the planet. That is why, sometimes, it is good to be empirical and philosophical, which I will do today.

Right now, aboriginals across the country are questioning the very idea of community management organizations—band councils. The fact that members of these communities are rejecting a number of management institutions has resulted in individuals disassociating from the measures endorsed by band councils.

We are seeing aboriginal communities becoming more politically, economically and culturally assertive. This is first and foremost an individual affirmation. I do not want to generalize, but I am going to base my remarks on the experiences of the Mamit Innuat and the people in my riding. There are approximately 15,000 Indians in my riding. The members of these communities are using their personal strengths to assert their rights, and sometimes this assertiveness goes against the band councils' agenda.

It is important to understand that the band councils were a joint creation. We like to think that they were created jointly with the Government of Canada back in the days when the legislation referred to aboriginal people as savages. The band councils were created because the Canadian government needed a designated spokesperson within the communities. That is why a very similar regime, namely a chief and a certain number of councillors depending on the size of the population, was imposed on each community. In my riding, the Innu Takuaikan Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam nation has nine councillors and a band chief. This model was imposed almost universally; however, it was inconsistent with the existence and traditional way of life of the Innu people living in the forest. They lived in small families made up of a maximum of 10 people and met just twice a year when they gathered near the river in the summer to get away from the mosquitoes or on other very specific occasions.

The decisions that are made and implemented by the band councils in 2012 are sometimes coloured by the agendas of individuals outside the communities. It is important to understand that anything to do with the development of natural resources in the territories generates hundreds of millions of dollars. That is a huge amount and it can be enticing for individuals outside the communities with different agendas. These individuals may want to interfere in the band councils' administrative decisions. Thus, there is interference.

The fairly low level of literacy in aboriginal communities can also affect our decision-makers. Often, they lack the wherewithal and do not necessarily have the training to manage files worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For that reason, they call upon external experts and, too often, blindly delegate the management of these files, which results in interference and a wait-and-see approach. Then, people outside the community take control. That is why, in 2012, many members of aboriginal communities are disavowing and dissociating themselves from the decisions made by the band councils.

I will now make the connection and talk about the matter before us today: replacing the Indian Act with new agreements, which I think is desirable. However, any innovation must arise from and effect change within the communities first. I know that, ultimately, the Canadian government will be involved in writing the legislation, obtaining royal assent and so on, but change must begin within the communities.

There is a troubled history, and we must revive the process of emulation traditionally used within bands, when people spoke candidly to one another. This approach must prevail in 2012 if we truly seek to change and improve the lives of first nations people. If we want to help communities achieve more intellectually, economically and socially, these truths must be spoken, but they must be spoken first within the communities. The Canadian government's role is therefore limited in that regard.

Beyond that, I feel it is important to point out to the House that initiatives intended to modernize the Indian Act must be set in motion by individual first nations members themselves. Given the tremendous burden that would fall on the government as a result of the proposal before us today—that is, change driven primarily by the Canadian Parliament—that burden would be better left to the communities, which will be responsible for managing it in the end. One member mentioned that there are millions of Indians in Canada. I could never pass judgment on actual compliance rates with each band council's policies. However, with respect to my community, the Canadian government would be wise to allow aboriginal peoples and individuals to take responsibility for change to ensure that it comes from within.

According to traditional conflict resolution models, members of aboriginal communities in Canada should tackle problems within their own clan structures directly, which means bringing to light financial wrongdoing—which does occur—and abuses of power committed by prominent individuals who have benefited personally from social dysfunction fomented by the unhealthy relationship between the Canadian government and their communities. I am not necessarily talking about our leaders, but about the individuals who wield significant power in our communities.

I will now introduce a concept that will be quite new here, after 500 years of cohabitation. In the Innu language, we say menashtau when referring to individuals who mainly live in our own communities and who have adopted a self-centred lifestyle. We use the term menashtau. This can apply to individuals who, more often than not, have access to financial resources and who establish businesses. They carry the burden of ensuring the economic development of each of the communities. They have key positions.

The problem is that, in 2012, many of these people are menashtau. They put their own well-being first because they know that their term of office or political life may not last long, because it tends to be short-lived in these communities. They definitely know that they have about two, three or four years. So they decide to raid the kitty when the opportunity presents itself.

I would say that the first step in effecting change is to ensure that we raise the bar. These issues must be dealt with directly. The communities themselves will have to air their dirty laundry. Menashtau individuals will have to be held accountable for their actions, by the communities, Indian to Indian, and then they will be able to find common ground.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in favour of the motion. It is critically important that all members reflect on what the motion attempts to do and vote accordingly.

I listened the Conservative member's speech, as we all did. I tried to understand what he was trying to share with members. I think, in good part, many members would acknowledge that what he spoke about was very important. I am sure, upon reflecting on the motion before us, that he, along with the government members, would see the merit in supporting it. It is imperative we recognize that any sort of movement on the Indian Act has to be led by our first nations people.

Over the years, there has been a great deal of discussion and dialogue with regard to the need for change. I can recall, shortly after being first elected in 1988, meeting with individuals like Phil Fontaine, Ovide Mercredi and many other aboriginal leaders, who are still there today. They wanted to see this file move forward.

For the last couple of decades, a great number of leaders from within our first nation communities have recognized how outdated the 1867 Indian Act. It is important that we also recognize that. The legislation needs to be changed and modernized. To that extent, we want to see the government respond to that.

I applaud the fact that we have a Conservative backbencher who has taken it upon himself to bring forward a private member's bill. We respect that, but we want to see action from the Prime Minister's Office.

This issue dictates that we need a government that is prepared to work with our first nations and the different stakeholders to address the critical issue of getting rid of the Indian Act and modernizing it so it fits the present. Failing that, we will continue to see the many different stakeholders frustrated. In this heightened sense of frustration, there are many different types of problems that are created.

Back in 2011, there was an interesting Winnipeg Free Press article, and I want to quote from it because it touched me. I believe, ultimately, through this report, it sends a very strong message of which we all need to be aware.

In fact, a committee was established by the Senate. The committee chairman, Gerry St. Germain, who is a Conservative senator from British Columbia, said in the conclusion that we needed to recognize the fact that first nations education was in a crisis. The report found that seven in ten aboriginal children living on reserves would never graduate from high school. In many communities, children who attended school would never enjoy things such as libraries, science labs or athletic facilities and some would never set foot in a real school at all.

This is just one report of many reports over the years that have tried to highlight these issues that are very real, that are very tangible and, I would ultimately argue, that destroy lives. There are thousands of children's lives and future prospects at stake.

If the federal government does not recognize the need to overhaul or get rid of the Indian Act, we will destroy the potential of so many children going forward. The leadership and our first nation people want the government to come to the table in good faith and work with them on ways in which we can improve the system.

There are many different ideas and thoughts out there. We all have a responsibility to get a better understanding of the issue and then to encourage the leadership, whether from our first nations, or on the Hill in Ottawa, or inside our legislatures across Canada, working with our municipal leaders and bringing them together with the leadership of first nations, recognizing the role they have to play in replacing the Indian Act. If we fail at doing this, we will let down the generations of children, who will be lost or disadvantaged because we chose not to act.

What I like about this resolution is the fact that it has a very responsible approach to try to deal with what is the core of the motion, and that is a formal process of direct engagement with first nations within three months of the passage of the motion and with the idea of replacing the Indian Act with new agreements. It is based on things such as our constitutional agreement and other points.

That is the heart of the motion. That is why I was concerned when the Conservative member recommended that members might want to vote against it. The motion is not a reflection on an individual's private member's bill. We want to get a better understanding of the member's bill referred to, but the motion is for the House to take some responsibility for what the aboriginal leadership, in particular, first nation leadership, has talked about for years.

The motion is really all about that. It asks members of the House to take note of this. There is nothing new, in the sense of anything I could say, or the leader of the Liberal Party said in his speech, in terms of huge policy announcements. We are saying that we have to recognize that our aboriginal peoples, in particular first nations and their leaders, have been talking for years about how important to redefine the Indian Act and replace it. Our aboriginal community, in particularly our first nation leadership, will have to drive this. It is looking forward to a government that is going to respond to that need. That is what we are asking the House to do, and there is a timeline. There is nothing wrong with that.

My challenge to members, as they decide to either vote for or against the motion, is to reflect on two things: first, the stakeholders, in particular first nations, that have demanded the importance of this issue; and second, how important it is for future generations that this issue be dealt with. I ask all members to vote in favour of the motion.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Kenora Ontario

Conservative

Greg Rickford ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity. I want to talk today about a couple of observations I have made so far in the debate. First, the spirit of both the leader of the third party and the member from this side have some kind of common objective or goal. I think everyone in the House agrees that the Indian Act does stand in the way of successes of first nations communities and continues to prevent first nations from becoming more autonomous, self-sufficient and full participants in a Canadian economy. The question is the pathway.

The motion today, in my respectful view, proposes an ill-conceived process to get rid of the Indian Act and would jeopardize current progress made by this government and first nations. Indeed, whether we talk about the Indian Act or the legislation that has been produced, going back the past couple of decades but particularly in the last six years, the motion says that we should undo all of that and recreate something in three months.

It seems a little unusual, and probably not achievable, given the number of communities across the country that are implicated in this, which raises my final point in this observation with respect to the debate so far. It appears as though the leader of the third party was using a frame of reference for a number of Inuit communities that actually are not under the Indian Act.

I hope, when the member says that he had consultations with first nations leaders or aboriginal Canadians, they were people who had a thoughtful reflection on the Indian Act.

This motion ignores the fact that the government has been engaging directly with first nations communities and organizations to conclude a number of agreements and develop legislation, tangible options that go outside of the Indian Act. There are some examples. The First Nations Land Management Act brings a community out of more than 25% of the act, read together, for example, with the substantive proposals in my colleague's private member's bill.

We are dealing with a number of important things: removing once and for all any legislative reference to the Indian residential school; dealing with the powers of bylaws at the community level; and dealing with wills and testaments. These are substantive changes that are overdue, not to mention the fact that the Conservative member who has brought the private member's bill is a first nations Canadian. He falls under the Indian Act for the purposes of his status. He brings, in the context of a private member's bill, and as I understand as a person who is generationally tied to the Indian residential school, a particularly meaningful and thoughtful perspective to incremental changes that need to be made.

At the historic Crown-First Nations Gathering held this past January, the Prime Minister reiterated our commitment to working together with first nations. He said:

—there are ways, creative ways, collaborative ways, ways that involve consultation between our government, the provinces and First Nations leadership and communities. Ways that provide options within the Act, or outside of it, for practical, incremental and real change.

The good news is that the Prime Minister has seen to it that this is already in process and we continue to bring legislation before this place that is substantive and dynamic to the extent that it incrementally chips away at the scope of the Indian Act and certainly attempts, in best efforts and good faith, to deal with those parts of that legislation that are no longer useful and that no longer apply and hold us all back as Canadians, not just first nations for the purpose of the Indian Act.

We know from past experience that proposals to significantly overhaul the Indian Act did not work and many of them came from that side of the House, from that third party. The Liberals passed attempts to overhaul the Indian Act, all of which were met with complete and utter failure and failed substantively to develop modern legislation and meaningfully dismantle the Indian Act.

In 1969, for example, Jean Chrétien published a white paper that sought to introduce measures to assimilate first nations people. That paper was overwhelmingly rejected by first nations people.

In 1996, the same party introduced the 1996 Indian Act optional modification act that attempted to introduce major changes to a number of areas, such as band governance, bylaw authority and legal capacity and the regulation of reserve lands and resources. It was also met with significant opposition and died on the order paper.

Most recently, in 2002, Bob Nault, the former MP for Kenora, from where I hail, introduced the first nations governance act, which would have involved significant changes to aspects of band governance. Many of those proposed changes were quite positive, but the bill died on the order paper.

For the past six years, in stark contrast, this government has been taking real action to provide first nations with alternatives to the Indian Act. Here I would like to expand on a series of targeted incremental initiatives that demonstrate the government's firm resolve to addressing the challenges the Indian Act presents to the political, social and economic dynamic and development of first nations communities that fall under the Indian Act. Our approach is to bring incremental change in consultation with first nations through new measures, investments and legislation that would provide alternatives to the Indian Act.

Earlier this year, we welcomed 18 new first nations to the first nations land management regime, which I referred to earlier. The regime enables first nations to opt out of more than 34 land-related sections of the Indian Act and, in the process, assume greater control over their reserve lands, resources and governance.

There are now 56 first nations operating or developing land laws under enabling legislation known as the First Nations Land Management Act. Participating first nations are better able to pursue economic activities, create jobs and have more self-sufficient communities. To improve the regime, we collaborated with the First Nations Land Advisory Board, removing legislative barriers that prevent or delay first nations from taking advantage of the benefits of assuring land management responsibility. Yet the opposition voted against these amendments.

At committee we are doing some hard work around land management and land use planning and I appreciate the collective efforts of many of my colleagues, if not all, on the standing committee for their substantive contributions to this important work. The modernization of lands management regimes helps unlock the potential of reserve lands and natural resources and frees first nations from some of the economic limitations imposed by the Indian Act.

Another example of legislative change that would unlock the potential of first nations is Bill S-8, the safe drinking water for first nations act, presently awaiting second reading in the House. The objective of this proposed legislation is to ensure that first nations have the same health and safety protections for drinking water in their communities as other Canadians. It focuses on capacity, reporting, monitoring and maintenance of state-of-the-art facilities that often involve intensive management given the lands that many of the first nations communities live on in isolated and remote parts of this country. It deals with an ongoing commitment to water infrastructure. Finally, Bill S-8 is a mechanism for both governments to develop in partnership enforceable regulations to ensure for the first time that there is access to clean and reliable drinking water, the effective treatment of waste water and the protection of sources of water on first nations land.

This is about working together on a process that has led to the development of these and many other pieces of legislation. As someone who has invested the greater part of his professional life to areas where the Indian Act applies, including health for first nations communities and water and waste water treatment, for example, I would say that we are seeing across this county a collective effort and the need to continue the consultation process for legislative tools outside of the Indian Act so that communities can thrive. These are in areas of infrastructure and economic development. Here we look forward to studying my colleague's private member's bill at committee, hearing from witnesses and, as always, moving on to bigger and better things.

The motion before us now calls for a new approach, one that we cannot support, as it would jeopardize the progress being made. I encourage my hon. colleagues to reject the motion.

First NationsPrivate Members' Business

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The time provided for consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

Noon

Battlefords—Lloydminster Saskatchewan

Conservative

Gerry Ritz ConservativeMinister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board

moved that Bill S-11, An Act respecting food commodities, including their inspection, their safety, their labelling and advertising, their import, export and interprovincial trade, the establishment of standards for them, the registration or licensing of persons who perform certain activities related to them, the establishment of standards governing establishments where those activities are performed and the registration of establishments where those activities are performed, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to the many merits of the safe food for Canadians act, Bill S-11. As you have already outlined the comprehensiveness of the act, I will not repeat the title.

I urge all hon. members to help our government pass this bill as expeditiously as possible.

Consumers remain this government's top priority when it comes to food safety. We know that consumer confidence is critical for Canada's food industry and our agricultural sector overall. That is exactly why this government will never compromise when it comes to the safety of Canadians' food.

Canada's food safety system is world class. A recent report of OECD countries called Canada's food safety system “superior”. Every day over a hundred million meals are served in Canada. Over the past six years, our government's efforts have driven the number of incidents of E. coli illness down by over 50%. We will continue to work to reduce that number even further. Passing the safe food for Canadians act is another critical step along that path.

The safe food for Canadians act will strengthen and modernize our food safety system to make sure it continues to provide safe food for Canadian consumers. In fact, this bill contains new provisions that will strengthen the authorities of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. This legislation gives the CFIA more powers for food safety oversight than ever before.

To be crystal clear, the proposed bill is not about self-regulation. In fact, nothing in Canada's regulatory process for food safety is self-regulating. The bill is about continuous improvement in food safety oversight. Canadian consumers deserve a food system that anticipates the direction in which the food industry is headed. Bill S-11 does just that. It modernizes existing legislation to ensure that the CFIA has the tools necessary to manage today's food safety risks.

The proposed act focuses on three important areas: improved food safety oversight to better protect consumers, streamlined and strengthened legislative authorities, and enhanced international market opportunities for the Canadian industry.

For an example of improved food safety oversight, we need only look at the new provisions against food tampering, deceptive practices and hoaxes that this bill provides. Currently, tampering or attempting to tamper with food can only be addressed by engaging the police. Under Bill S-11 the CFIA, which is often the first to be notified of when such issues are detected, can act right away. This new act will provide new authorities to immediately address food safety systems and will build additional safety into the system. While oversight and prevention are always best, related penalties and fines will also be increased to deter wilful or reckless threats to health and safety. This new act includes a provision for fines of up to $5 million, far beyond the existing $250,000 cap. These fines will make people think more than twice before intentionally threatening the safety of Canada's food supply.

This proposed legislation will provide the CFIA with strengthened authorities related to traceability and the recalling of food, and new tools to take action on any unsafe foods.

The timing of this bill, tabled last spring, could not be more appropriate given the concerns raised by the recall of beef products from XL Foods Inc. During a food recall, one of the most time-consuming activities is getting access to a company's records to try to sort out who their suppliers are and who in turn they supply.

The CFIA also needs to know what food was processed at precisely what time and precisely where in the facility that processing went on. Every business keeps records in its own unique way. This information is usually kept in a format that expedites shipping and receiving or accounts payable and receivable. This is the way business operates.

However, what we need to speed up food safety investigations is full traceability. Having enhanced authority to require industry to have traceability systems in a standardized format will be a powerful tool in the hands of food safety investigators at the CFIA and, of course, the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Furthermore, this legislation provides for an authority that will require industry to keep and provide records in a manner that is more easily understood by these regulatory bodies. It would also provide for an authority to compel industry to turn over records in a more timely manner. This last part is key.

The Liberal Party has claimed that this provision already exists. That is false. While currently CFIA inspectors can require a company to produce documents, inspectors have no provision to demand those documents in a more timely manner. While the Liberals refuse to accept this, those who understand the issue know that this discrepancy exists.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean of the University of Guelph's College of Management and Economics, recognizes that this power is currently missing from CFIA's arsenal. He said:

The CFIA...does not have the authority to compel the speedy delivery of information from industry during an outbreak.

This is testimony coming right from the member for Guelph's own riding. Our government knows this is something that must be remedied and the safe food for Canadians act would do just that.

The bill also provides improved import controls at our borders. The new act would strengthen import controls by including powers to license all importers and prohibit the importation of unsafe food commodities. Holding importers ultimately accountable for the safety of imported food sustains a level playing field between importers and domestic producers.

Canadians know that the CFIA is made up of professionals who take their jobs seriously. In fact, Ellen Goddard, an agricultural economist with the University of Alberta, recently said she thinks there is nothing more CFIA can do and that they are taking every precautionary step they can to ensure the system is as safe as it possibly can be.

With the passage of the bill, the CFIA will have even more authority to protect Canadian consumers because the bill has numerous provisions, which the Speaker outlined, that seek to strengthen our already robust food safety system.

Our government takes the safety of Canadian food very seriously. With all the added attention to food safety, the opposition has continuously tried to muddy the waters when it comes to our government's record of supporting food safety. Allow me to clarify our record right now.

Since taking office, our government has hired more than 700 net new inspectors. This includes 170 dedicated to meat. Our government has increased the CFIA's overall budget by 20% since 2006. Dr. Sylvain Charlebois again stated recently, “Canada spends about $10 per capita on food safety, which is more than most industrialized countries”.

With respect to the XL facility in Brooks, our government has increased the number of CFIA inspectors at this plant by 20%.

Budget 2012 included an additional $51 million to further strengthen our food safety system. This is built upon our government's food safety investments of $100 million over five years in budget 2011. As members can see, this government consistently provides the CFIA with the workforce and the resources it needs to protect Canadian food.

As minister, my first job is to ensure that CFIA has the workforce, the budget and the regulatory powers it needs. Second, I work with CFIA to make use of this capacity to ensure consumer confidence.

Let us contrast this with the record of the opposition. It is no secret that while our government provided tangible resources for Canadian food safety, the opposition voted against our investments at every opportunity. If the opposition had its way, the CFIA would not have a single penny to operate.

Further to its repeated record of opposing food safety improvements, certain members of the opposition have gone above and beyond to publicly fearmonger about the safety of Canadian food. As the House will recall, just last spring the member for Welland accused our farmers of trying to put roadkill on the plates of Canadian families. He has since been forced to stand down from those remarks, and I am glad that he did.

Last week the member for Guelph rose in the House and spoke of a four-year-old girl from Alberta who had suffered kidney failure due to E. coli. We on the government side certainly empathize with this little girl and her family. No child should have to experience something like this. However, the member for Guelph rose in the House and asserted that this girl had contracted her E. coli from the XL plant in Brooks. This is not true. This case has not been linked to XL. In fact, the CFIA and the Public Health Agency of Canada have tested 30 different samples with regard to this case, and time and time again it has been found to be completely unrelated to the particular strain of E. coli found at XL Foods.

This is exactly the type of fearmongering that Canadians cannot afford to hear from the opposition parties but unfortunately is reflected in the opposition's overall stance on food safety.

I would remind the hon. member that food safety should never be a matter of politics. It is not a matter that can be strengthened by fearmongering or posturing. Food safety is strengthened by real actions, by voting in support of important investments, measures and legislation like Bill S-11, the safe food for Canadians act.

Last week I and a number of my colleagues moved a motion that would have expedited this legislation to committee. The motion was an important step to make sure the safe food for Canadians act gets passed as quickly as possible. The opposition once again chose to play politics with Canadians' food safety and blocked those attempts to move the bill to committee.

Canadians and our government know the importance of this legislation and we know that the CFIA needs the additional powers the bill would provide. I have outlined numerous provisions that will strengthen our food safety system when the bill is made law. I stand here again to give my opposition colleagues another chance to do the right thing for Canadian consumers. I call on them to put politics aside and vote with the government to move the safe food for Canadians act through the House and to committee. We must act quickly to provide Canadians with a modernized food inspection service and the increased protection they require.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:10 p.m.

NDP

Malcolm Allen NDP Welland, ON

Mr. Speaker, I always listen with great interest and intent when the Minister of Agriculture gets to his feet and does revisionist history. It is always a marvellous experience to hear revisionist history according to the minister.

It reminds me of something he said: “Which part of yes don't you get?” Mr. Speaker, you can check Hansard if you like.

When the response is yes, it means yes. A little while ago the minister referred to that debate with a term that I refuse to use. He did retract and apologize for his comment, but nonetheless, he did use it.

We said yes then, that we would move Bill S-11 to committee, and we are saying yes now to the minister. Clearly, we have said that for a while. It begs the question of why the bill languished for so long in the Senate. The minister is asking that opposition move this along quickly, yet in his response to a question about why it was in the Senate for so long, the minister said they had to take a holiday. One would think that if this was expeditious legislation, the Senate should have sat, like the parliamentary secretary and I did during the month of August when we were working on the co-op and writing the report.

You should have asked the senators to sit. You should have made them pass it along. We would have this done by now if you had not sat on that legislation. Answer that question—

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Before I go to the minister I would remind all hon. members to direct their comments to the Chair rather than their colleagues.

The hon. Minister of Agriculture.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

Gerry Ritz Conservative Battlefords—Lloydminster, SK

Mr. Speaker, the old adage “the proof is in the pudding” applies here. The member opposite would recognize that although opposition members said yes all along, their actions did not support that yes.

They had a chance on Thursday at several different opportunities to agree with motions, which were presented during the debate they hosted, to move this on to committee very quickly. We could have had committee meetings as early as tomorrow. They did not do that. The proof is in the pudding.

When it comes to the work in the Senate, the member should also be honest with Canadians and explain that it was 22 sitting days in the Senate. That is amazingly fast for government operations. I certainly welcome the great work the Senate did.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

Mr. Speaker, the minister in his remarks said to the member for Welland that the proof is in the pudding. It certainly is. It is under this minister that we have had the worst two food safety crises in Canadian history. After he uses his talking points of 700 new inspectors, et cetera, we still had a crisis.

I have a couple of specific questions about the bill that I would like to ask. I would also remind the member, and I know he will recall this because we worked on Bill C-27 together, that it included many of the powers he is talking about here. We worked quite well together on Bill C-27 in around 2004 or 2005. However, the Conservatives dragged their feet. One of the items was tampering with food in stores and so on. However, my question really relates to the powers under the current Meat Inspection Act.

We will be supporting the bill. However, the minister is rewriting history. Bob Kingston, the president of the union backed this up. With the powers under the current Meat Inspection Act, the government has the authority to have stopped XL Foods and shut down the plant.

My second question is: Will the bill add new inspectors to check imported food at borders coming in our country from foreign countries?

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

Gerry Ritz Conservative Battlefords—Lloydminster, SK

Mr. Speaker, the member opposite is great at rewriting history too. Bill C-27 was under a majority Liberal government. If it saw fit to move that through it had the ways and means to do that. There were a number of problems with Bill C-27. At the end of the day, not even the Liberals supported it. This continued, even when it was brought back when they had a minority government in the following days.

There are a number of things in Bill S-11 that are required. Regardless of what Bob Kingston or other people say, we have analyzed and worked with industry on this. We have worked with a number of other entities to do an assessment as to what the gaps are. Bill S-11 tends to plug the holes on those gaps.

When it comes to addressing the manpower, as in the quote from Sylvain Charlebois, we actually spend more than a lot of the other industrialized countries on our food safety. In most cases it is not a matter of manpower, it is a matter of budgetary capacity, which we keep enhancing by some 20%. We have added the front-line inspectors and we want to make sure that they have the tools, and Bill S-11 gives them more tools, to make sure that they can do their jobs efficiently.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, I represent the rural riding of Simcoe—Grey. We have a significant number of individuals who are involved in the agricultural community, whether that be in livestock or growing potatoes. In fact, we are delighted that we grow about 90% of Ontario's potatoes in my riding.

The Senate has brought forward this piece of legislation to truly enhance the opportunities that CFIA can utilize to implement exactly what Canadians require and what the farmers in my riding are asking for. However, I would like to ask the minister if he could clarify it, as we have had a lot of confusion from the opposition and a lot of issues brought forward that really just muddy the waters.

My constituents are actually quite confused and concerned about what the opposition is raising. Could the minister please clarify for my constituents exactly what we are doing and why we are bringing forward this piece of important legislation?

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Gerry Ritz Conservative Battlefords—Lloydminster, SK

Mr. Speaker, I have had the great opportunity to be in the member's riding. I had a farm round table there in the early days of the summer, which was well attended by some tremendous farm operators in her riding. She is right to be proud of the great work they do.

Those same farmers have embraced traceability. We have a system that we are starting to put in play for biosecurity and traceability right from the farm gate to one's plate, whether that is what we have here in the lobby for lunch today or what will be served to our families tonight.

What is missing is some of the traceability of foodstuffs as they move forward. The retail level has great traceability within the stores, but we are looking at the primary processing sectors, like XL Foods, the secondary processors their product goes to and then, from there, the tremendous inverted pyramid that sends product out across the country. We need traceability on all of those products so that when there is a recall, such as the size and scope of this recall, we could get it done much quicker.

I know that there is a lot of angst out there when we announce recall after recall. It is the same product and it defines that inverted pyramid. We are getting out there and making sure we have captured it all or at least letting people know to check their fridges and freezers to see if they have any of that product.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, we appreciate that the government has finally brought the bill before the House. Obviously, there has been a lot of concern within the Canadian public about the safety of food. They are hoping for strong powers in mandating staffing and intervention by the government.

Under previous governments and different agencies, when new “improved” legislation was brought forward, they also tabled an enforcement compliance policy. Why did they do that? It was because they recognized that a law is hollow, it is vacuous, if one does not show that one is serious about enforcement. They also tabled a plan of required staffing and training for each one of the provisions. Therefore, the minute the bill was proclaimed in effect, the staff was on the ground with the appropriate powers.

There has been a lot controversy around the switch from enforcement of food safety legislation to voluntary compliance. I wonder if the minister could speak to whether or not he is willing to have an open public review with the inspectors on returning to an enforcement compliance strategy rather than a voluntary compliance regime.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Gerry Ritz Conservative Battlefords—Lloydminster, SK

Mr. Speaker, there is no such thing as a voluntary compliance regime in this country. There is no self-regulating of food processing in this country. There is a very dynamic set of rules and regulations that our processors follow and that we expect imports to follow as well, to level that playing field.

I am certainly happy to share information with the member. We have made technical briefings available to members and we will continue to do that should they want to take advantage of that.

Having said that, as minister, my job is to ensure that CFIA and agencies such as that have the powers in regulation, which they do. A lot of the go-forward with Bill S-11 will be regulatory to ensure that they have the manpower and the budgets to continue to move forward.

However, at every opportunity we see the NDP members vote against these types of things. If we add staff to verify more of what Bill S-11 does, I am sure that they would vote against it, and that is really unfortunate.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

NDP

Malcolm Allen NDP Welland, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join the debate on food safety, which is a critical issue, especially at this moment in time when we are witnessing somewhere close to, I think it is, a million pounds being dumped in the Brooks city dump. It is being dumped there because there is no other place to put contaminated beef, or supposedly contaminated beef because we are not really certain.

Clearly, this is the largest beef recall in Canadian history. This is not an insignificant event. This is one of the most significant events in Canadian history. This is the largest beef recall.

What we do know is that under the current government and indeed the same minister, we saw the listeriosis crisis of 2008, which was a hugely significant issue because 22 people died.

One would have thought, coming out of that, we would have done some things that would have averted what has now just transpired.

However, what we saw was a subcommittee, in 2009, that was established by this House through the ag committee, and then an independent inquiry commissioned by the government side, conducted by Sheila Weatherill, who basically paralleled the subcommittee, worked at the same time and came back with a series of recommendations, I believe 57 in total.

One was to clean up the ready-to-eat area and ensure we had the resources in the inspection facilities, because that is where 22 people contracted listeriosis and actually died from that contagion.

So, when the minister and the government talk about 700 net new inspectors, of course, we now know that 200 of those 700 are out looking for invasive species. It was highly recommended that we do that. We do not need to have invasive species in this country that would be detrimental to our agriculture and indeed to other animals, plants, insects, et cetera. So, that is desirable.

What we do know when we sort of pull back from that is that 170 went into meat inspection, but they did not go into an inspection plant like the one at Brooks. They went into what is called the ready-to-eat meat plant, where the listeriosis crisis came from. So, that was addressed. One can actually say and give the government credit that it addressed the ready-to-eat meat part, after 22 people died.

Now, because it has now taken care of that piece, one would have thought the government would then have turned its attention to what we call the hygiene plants, or the slaughterhouses, to use the vernacular term, and done something similar.

We are now aware of this plant that has been operating in the last year or so, perhaps two, at a capacity of 4,000 to 5,000 animals a day.

I had the great pleasure to be in Nova Scotia during the constituency week and met with the minister of agriculture for Nova Scotia, Minister MacDonell. He told me that they slaughter 5,000 cattle, in Nova Scotia, annually. This plant does in a day what Nova Scotia does in a year.

What kind of resources do we need there?

The minister has told us it put 20% more. Actually, if we unfurl that back, we would see that those were not actually new; they were new people. There is no question that they were new inspectors, new people. It could have been a new Bob or a new Frank or a new Josephine. I am not sure what their names would have been. That might have been the new part. What the government was actually doing was filling vacancies in the plant that had existed for quite some time. So, it was not a 20% increase from a number before. It was just simply filling the vacancies that already existed.

So, as I said earlier, there are 4,000 to 5,000 animals a day going through this plant. There were 6 vets and 40 inspectors, at that particular time. Divide that by two shifts, because they run two shifts a day, and that means 20 inspectors and 3 vets to do somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 animals on a shift. It is pretty easy to do the math on that one, I think, as to how many animals they are responsible for. Not only has the vet seen them come in before they were slaughtered, but throughout the process, as well as having to do all the other things that happen in those plants.

Why do I raise that?

We now know there is a compliance verification system, which is the backbone of CFIA's new inspection regime. That is what had been decided after a pilot that was run in 2007, which actually started in 2005, all the way through to 2008.

One of the major components of the Weatherill report was that they have to know if CVS works, the compliance verification system. She said that they do not know, that they ran a pilot. She said they do not know if the system works the way they think it does and they have no idea if they have resourced it to make it function properly. So she said, first and foremost, to verify if the system they intend to have as the backbone of their meat inspection system actually does the functions they want and, second, if they have enough resources and people doing it in the plants they are responsible for.

We know the Conservatives decided to go ahead and do what they called an audit. At least, they said from time to time that it was an audit but the reality ended up being that PricewaterhouseCoopers, which came in to do the so-called audit under the Weatherill recommendation, did not do an audit.

Carole Swan is no longer the president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, but she was at the time of the Weatherill report, and she was at the time when this supposed audit was done, as attested to by the government. She said they did not conduct a traditional audit:

They didn't conduct it as an audit. An audit is a very specific process. It was a detailed review.

For the government to still lay the claim out there that it has actually committed and done all of the recommendations Ms. Weatherill put in her report, is not absolutely accurate. That is why this side is saying yes to moving Bill S-11 to committee and the Conservatives should say yes to our amendment that says we want to have an audit of the system done now.

I say “now” because the government has agreed to an amendment to do an audit in five years. I would hope that is going to be an independent third-party audit conducted in a traditional audit fashion. If the Auditor General decides he would like to do that, it would be wonderful and we would love for him to do that, but we cannot instruct the Auditor General to do something. We can only ask him if he agrees and it would be wonderful, and perhaps he will. If not, there are other agencies out there that can conduct a third-party audit. We would expect that to be done and we would expect it to be a full and wholesome audit, not a review. Clearly, reviews do not quite measure up.

Therefore in five years we would get an audit. The problem is if we do not get one now, we will have no idea five years from now what we are measuring it against. It is like saying that five plus something will be just five plus something. If we have one and it is five years later, we have six, and in another five years we have eleven. However, if we have five plus “I don't know”, we have five plus “I don't know”, and at the tenth year when we do the next five-year audit, we can measure against the last five years and we would have a measurement point. When we do not have a measurement point to start from, then what are we measuring? Clearly it is imperative that the government does this with this legislation, not five years post. That is one of the weaknesses that is presently in this particular legislation.

I will take a moment to speak to the idea that somehow this legislation would have averted what has happened at the XL Foods plant. Unfortunately, it would not have. Yes, there is a piece in here that talks about the speedy delivery of documents that companies have, and that is true. It articulates that and that is a good thing. We can actually wave the document to the company CEO or managers and say, “You are supposed to give me this at this particular moment in time; now you will have to go ahead and do that”. So what happens when the company says, “Yeah, we'll get to it”? As my colleague from Edmonton—Strathcona said, where is the enforcement piece? Where is the compliance through enforcement?

It reminds me of driving down highways in Ontario with signs that say if we speed it will be compliance through enforcement. In other words, someone on the highway, an OPP officer, will write a big ticket for speeders and if they go a certain number of kilometres over the speed limit, the car will be impounded for 24 hours and drivers' licences will be taken away for the day. That is compliance through enforcement. I do not see that in this legislation.

While they are divided into different pieces—fish, meat, et cetera—we know the previous legislation pieces also require fines for those who abrogate the rules and responsibilities they are subject to. However, most times they are not actually applied. Therefore if we do not have the application of those, then we just have a toothless tiger. We have a piece of paper. We have a bill that says people can be fined $5 million but we are never going to, just like we could have fined them a couple of hundred thousand dollars and we did not do that either. There is nothing wrong with the sense that the fine is $5 million. We would agree that $5 million is perhaps an appropriate amount to be fined. We disagree with the question of how they intend to do that. If people have abrogated their responsibility, if it is found to be true that they abrogated their responsibility, when will they get fined and how will they get fined? Will we take the enforcement mechanism and make people comply by enforcing the fines, or will we keep doing what we are doing now, which is basically saying, oh, it is okay.

Why not do a voluntary recall and avoid the fine? The voluntary recall is probably the greatest misnomer in recalling food products that I have ever seen. It takes on a wholly different attribute when we find out who the players are who discussed the voluntary recall. This is not about a company putting its hand up right at the very beginning and saying it will have a voluntary recall. There are negotiations that happen between CFIA and sometimes the minister and sometimes CEOs and managers as how to do that. Why the plant puts its hand up is that it can avoid the fine if it does a voluntary recall. It is not voluntary in the sense that most folks would recognize they were volunteering willingly to do something. It is not quite the voluntary recall that folks think it is.

Where are we headed with this legislation? We are going to head to committee. We are happy and pleased to move the bill as quickly as possible to committee. I am hopeful that members on the other side are amenable to concrete and good suggestions we will place before them to actually make the bill work.

If we are going to make food safety the number one priority, as I heard the minister say, let us make it such that in the House we can come together and say the bill will actually improve food safety for Canadians and will do all of the things we want it do: protect consumers, which is our number one concern to ensure that folks do not get ill through contaminated food, but also to protect industries so that they do not again suffer the way Canadian cattle producers are suffering today. Through no fault of their own, cattle producers are seeing the price for their cattle go down, seeing it being held in feedlots and other places. Different things are happening whether it be cow culls, or calf operators finding a lack of transportation, all manner of things, because there was a weak link in the system. It was not the cattle producers. They were not the weak link in the system.

One particular processor was the weak link in the system. If we had good food safety legislation in place that was tougher than this and had the appropriate measures in place, we could strengthen those links so that we have that strong link all the way from the producer through to the consumer's plate and can reassure our international trading partners that the beef they get from this country is the finest they can get anywhere in the world because that is the type of producers we have. We must make sure processors do not let those primary producers down.

That is what this legislation should start to do. The number one concern is to protect consumers and enhance the reputation of the entire industry from the primary producer to the plate at the end. That is what it should do. It does not do it yet, but that is why we are going to take it back to the committee. That is why we are going to offer some real positive and concrete suggestions around how to make it better.

At the end of the day this is not about being partisan and saying that only one group of individuals who support one particular party eat. We all eat. My grandson, who is 16 months old, eats meat and he likes it. I want him to be safe. We all want to be safe, and not only for ourselves personally. Most of us still like to eat meat, although there are some who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to, but that is a personal choice and there is nothing wrong with that personal choice.

However, for all us, it is about ensuring the safety of the food we get, wherever we happen to get it from, whether it is a farmers' market or a retail outlet. We absolutely want to ensure that when Canadians take that product home, they can be convinced in their heart of hearts that product safe, knowing how hard everyone along that food system has worked to ensure it is the safe product that we all deserve. This would go a long way to convincing our international partners that they should trade with us when it comes to those types of agricultural products.

As we can see, it is an absolute goal on our side, as the official opposition, to get the best safety legislation we can. I will touch on the timeline for a moment.

My House leader informed me that he offered the government the opportunity to debate this bill last Thursday afternoon and, if memory serves me correctly, it was the government side that declined. Everyone has reasons, and it is understandable why people would say yes or no to a particular request, but this back and forth as to who offered what and when it was offered needs to be put behind us.

We need to concentrate on how to make this the legislation into what it needs to be. This may be the one and only crack this Parliament takes at food legislation. As my friend from Malpeque said earlier, the government has been trying to do this for quite some time. It actually goes back to 1990s. I think it was Bill C-80 at the time, if memory serves me correctly. When the opportunity was taken then, it was on the order paper but it died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved. Bill C-27 came along after that but that died on the order paper as well.

Now we find ourselves with Bill S-11. I am hopeful that this is the bill that will finally get enacted but enacted with the bits and pieces that we think can make it a better bill. It seems to me that this is the one opportunity the House can take, because I know there is a lot of partisanship back and forth, as with the omnibus bill, or OB2 as it is being called in the vernacular. I understand the difficulties with that and the back and forth on that.

Ultimately, we all agree that food safety is a number one priority for all of us across the country. We ought to be able to find a way to take the best ideas and incorporate them, regardless of who has that best idea, whether it is a member of my caucus, a member of the Liberal caucus or a member of the Conservative caucus, whether they be on the agriculture committee, the health committee or another committee. We should consider all ideas.

I am pleased that the legislation is finally here but I am disturbed that it went the other way. As New Democrats, we believe that the people's legislation should start in the people's House, not in the Senate. The Senate is clearly an unelected body. Under our present system, the Senate does what it needs to do to pass legislation and get it to royal assent. No one disputes that.

However, in my humble opinion, the people's business starts in the people's House. It is unfortunate that it did not start in here but it is here now. We are bound and determined to make this legislation better and to move it expeditiously because Canadians deserve no less than that. It will be our absolute attempt to ensure that actually happens.

Safe Food for Canadians ActGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I think a large number of Canadians are watching what the government is doing with regard to the food crisis and a great deal of concern from the consumer and industry perspectives as to what the government has actually done to date. With the bill being brought forth today, the government is trying to say that it will deal with the situation.

To what degree does the member believe that the passage of this bill will facilitate the return of public confidence given the public confidence that was lost because of the lack of transparency in the way the government has responded to the issue as a whole? My understanding is that the current legislation would enable it to shut down the plant and so forth. I am interested in his thoughts on that issue.