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.