Mr. Speaker, transparency and proactive disclosure are important goals for all governments, including first nations governments, and these are goals that the Liberal opposition supports.
The Conservatives have a duty to work with first nations to improve mutual accountability, not just impose made in Ottawa legislation.
First nations are willing partners on issues of governance but the government must stop treating them as adversaries. The Conservative government's recent decision to cut the National Centre for First Nations Governance is hardly a promising start.
Despite the Prime Minister's rhetoric at the recent crown-first nations gathering about resetting the relationship, the Conservative government has shown a total disregard for the rights of indigenous people.
The Supreme Court of Canada established that both federal and provincial governments have a duty to consult aboriginal peoples before making decisions that might adversely affect their aboriginal rights and, in some circumstances, accommodate aboriginal peoples concerns.
Further, we must not forget that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada signed, obliges Canada to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples for matters affecting rights, territories and resources.
The government now defends its lack of progress toward implementing the declaration by claiming that it is merely aspirational in nature.
Now the Conservative government is imposing major changes to first nations financial reporting requirements with no significant prior consultation with those who will have to implement these changes.
The government has used the same flawed approach on drinking water and on matrimonial real property.
The government did not hold any discussions on the specifics of these bills with stakeholders, never mind the opposition, before tabling them.
We have seen the Conservative government explicitly exclude aboriginal participation from their government's hunting and angling advisory panel despite the fact that they are the only Canadians with constitutionally protected hunting and fishing rights.
The Conservative government is a government that seems to have a pathological aversion to consultation with those impacted by their decisions.
When major changes to employment insurance and health care were recently introduced, it was done without any prior consultation with provincial governments, leaving them to sort out major structural changes in their jurisdictions with no federal-provincial dialogue.
When the Prime Minister announced major changes to our pensions, he did so to a foreign audience without having raised it during the federal election only months before or discussing the proposals with experts, stakeholders or Canadians.
The government’s approach violates the Crown’s constitutional duty to consult with first nations before changing laws or policies that affect first nations people, institutions and rights.
The previous Liberal government worked with first nations to develop a broad-based and comprehensive mutual accountability framework. This framework was included in the Kelowna accord, which the Conservatives tore up in 2006. The accord established a first nations auditor general, an independent body funded to oversee the accountability framework. This was broadly supported by aboriginal people. It was creative. It was the way forward in terms of building accountability and transparency. The Conservatives cancelled this initiative in 2006.
First nations funding arrangements are currently subject to annual allocations, changing program parameters and reporting obligations, as well as unilateral realignment, reductions and adjustments. We lack a legislative framework for predictable federal fiscal transfers based on the actual cost of delivery of services.
This will require transforming the fiscal relationship with the federal government to respect first nations rights and appropriately align responsibilities. Any effort to improve accountability and transparency must be mutual and should include both enabling provisions for a first nations auditor general and a commitment by the federal government to be accountable for its spending on first nations programs.
Bill C-27 does nothing to streamline the current overwhelming reporting burden, especially for small first nations with limited administrative capacity.
The Auditor General has repeatedly called for meaningful action to reduce unnecessary first nations reporting requirements that shift limited capacity from community programs.
In her 2002 report, the Auditor General recommended that the federal government should consult with first nations to review reporting requirements on a regular basis and to determine reporting needs when new programs are set up. Unnecessary or duplicative reporting requirements should be dropped.
As recently as June 2011, the Auditor General reported government progress toward achieving this needed rationalization as unsatisfactory. The government has failed to make meaningful progress on this issue.
First nations provide a minimum of 168 different financial reports to the 4 major funding departments: INAC, Health Canada, HRSDC and CMHC. That is three per week. The majority of these communities have less than 500 people. AANDC alone receives 60,000 reports from first nations annually as a requirement under existing funding agreements. Legislation that adds additional reporting requirements for first nations must also deal with this overwhelming and often outdated and unnecessary burden of existing reporting requirements.
As I have indicated, the Liberals fully support the principle of proactive disclosure of financial information for first nations chiefs and council to band members. Clearly, cases of first nation citizens being denied access to this information are unacceptable and it may be that existing legislation provisions should require proactive disclosure.
However, as the courts have ruled, this right of access to information does not extend to the general public. Therefore, the proactive disclosure provisions in this legislation must be changed so they provide proactive disclosure to first nations citizens alone.
There are existing models from first nations that already have strong governance models which can be adopted. There are examples of bands that are already proactively disclosing financial statements on password protected websites. These are the types of creative solutions that result from thorough two-way consultations when the government does not just speak but listens and internalizes what stakeholders have to say.
Bill C-27 would force first nations to disclose financial information related to band-owned businesses to all Canadians, not simply remuneration paid out of federal grants and contributions. This is inconsistent with the principles of first nations self-government and contravenes the Privacy Act, as well as a ruling by the Federal Court.
This measure could potentially make band-owned businesses vulnerable to predatory practices, and put them at a competitive disadvantage.
I am very concerned about the double standard that would be applied under this legislation. Non-aboriginal private corporations are not forced to publicly disclose consolidated financial statements. This could very well defeat the government's stated goal of stimulating economic development on reserves, as my colleague from Nanaimo—Cowichan has said.
I will also point out that paternalistic lectures about accountability are a little rich coming from the Conservative government. It is a government that has decided to rule by ideology, blind to facts, blind to the reality of everyday Canadians and free from accountability offered by access to reliable statistics. To facilitate this, it has muzzled scientists, bullied non-governmental organizations and slashed programs focused on gathering and analyzing evidence-based data.
In the 2006 election, the Conservative Party of Canada was fined by Elections Canada for overspending its campaign limit by $1.3 million and to have tried to inappropriately collect $800,000 from taxpayers in rebates.
In 2011, Conservative senators, Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein, as well as senior campaign officials, Michael Donison and Susan Kehoe reached a plea deal for misleading Elections Canada. It also seems increasing likely that there was a coordinated effort to keep Canadians from the polls last year. Elections Canada is currently investigating these allegations.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister is now facing a serious investigation by Canada's independent election authority for spending irregularities. The same individual is shockingly the government's spokesperson on election fraud. So much for accountability.
What about transparency? Canada's Information and Privacy Commissioners have publicly stated that while other nations are moving toward more open and accountable federal governments, our government remains one of the most unaccountable and secretive in Canada's history.
Bill C-38, the recently passed 425 page budget implementation bill, amends over 70 different acts and could end over 50 years of environmental oversight in Canada. Not only were these changes put forward without proper consultation, they were pushed through Parliament in a way to circumvent democratic scrutiny.
First nations have little to learn about accountability and transparency from the government.
As I have stated, the Liberals support the underlying goals of the legislation but are very concerned about how it was brought to the House.
The bill, as written, is inconsistent with the principle of first nations self-government.
It is inconsistent with the new approach to relations between the Government of Canada and first nations which was supposed to have resulted from the residential schools apology in 2008.
It is inconsistent with the Conservatives' belated and half-hearted support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Prime Minister's commitment at the crown-first nations gathering to reset this relationship.
We also have deep concerns about some of the unintended consequences of the impact on local capacity and first nations owned businesses. This legislation will need significant improvements and much further consultation with first nations.