Mr. Speaker, it is indeed a pleasure to join in this debate.
It is disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising, to see that the opposition is once again standing up for the status quo when it comes to first nations issues. Our government knows that for too many years, 137 years to be exact, first nations communities have been governed by an outdated and archaic Indian Act that has been holding them back from achieving their full potential.
That is why I am proud to speak today in this House in support of this bill brought forward by my colleague, the member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, which seeks to modernize certain outdated sections of the Indian Act that will help to empower first nation communities, take the minister out of the equation, and create the conditions for healthier, more self-sufficient first nations communities.
Our government believes it is time to take action to address and confront the issues contained within the Indian Act.
Our government and our Prime Minister have also been very clear that no grand scheme exists to unilaterally replace the Indian Act. On the contrary, our government remains committed to working with willing first nations to make changes to elements of the Indian Act that are barriers to first nations governance and economic growth.
At the Crown-First Nations Gathering in January 2012, the Prime Minister stated about the Indian Act, “After 136 years, that tree has deep roots, blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole”. Creativity and collaboration, as provided by this bill, would go a long way toward the practical incremental changes that are required.
I want to commend my colleague from Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River for his willingness to bring forward this bill. His personal story as a first nations individual growing up under this act is a compelling one, which has led him to take action. His private member's bill is a positive step in the right direction. It proposes concrete action that would provide greater autonomy to first nations, lessen the role of ministerial involvement in the day-to-day lives of first nations citizens, and give back the responsibility for several key areas, such as bylaw-making powers over the first nations where it rightfully belongs.
This is consistent with our government's own approach to providing first nations with practical, incremental and real alternatives to the Indian Act. It would lead to real results for grassroots first nations people and enable them to achieve greater self-sufficiency and prosperity. For example, this past month I was pleased to attend an event in my home province of British Columbia, with the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, to announce that 18 more first nations, including six from my own riding of Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon, the Cheam, Scowlitz, Soowahlie, Boothroyd, Chawathil and Skuppah, have joined the first nations land management regime.
This regime exempts these first nations from 34 land-related sections of the Indian Act and allows them to develop a land code to manage their own reserve land and resources so they can take greater advantage of economic activities in their communities without having to wade through bureaucratic red tape.
As my hon. colleague has already noted, several technical improvements were made to the bill at the committee stage to address some of the concerns that first nations have raised and to ensure that first nations are best able to take advantage of these modernized provisions in the Indian Act. For example, section 85.1 of the Indian Act has to do with the ability of first nations to pass their own bylaws related to intoxicants, in other words to create a dry reserve. That was an amendment that was made at committee to ensure that first nations communities would maintain their right to control alcohol on their reserves.
In addition, the committee made another change that would provide first nations with greater flexibility in the publication of bylaws. They would be able to choose the manner in which they inform their community members about changes to their bylaws, either through a first nation's Internet site, the First Nations Gazette or a newspaper that has general circulation on the band lands.
Also, the committee heard from a number of witnesses about the complexity of moving forward with clause 7. That had to do with the administration of wills and estates and the need to study this further or risk creating an even more confusing regime than already exists. As a result, the committee agreed to delete this clause during clause-by-clause consideration.
However, there remain two coordinating amendments that must be made to clauses 3 and 4 of the proposed bill in order to move it forward. These motions seek to correct an oversight during clause-by-clause consideration of the bill at committee, following the removal of the wills and estates section of the bill. To not make these amendments would create unnecessary uncertainty and confusion for first nations.
Instead of taking the minister out of the equation, not making these coordinating amendments to clauses 3 and 4 would extend the minister's authority over wills and estates to all those living on designated lands and to all status Indians. This is clearly not the intention of my hon. colleague's bill.
These are all changes that are consistent with the direction that our government has been taking for the past six years. It is one that is focused on bringing forward initiatives that would unlock this economic development potential by removing certain barriers to first nation governance, which currently exist under the Indian Act. Ultimately, I believe that the bill is yet another example of the concrete action our government is taking to empower first nation communities to manage their own affairs and to encourage stronger, more accountable and prosperous first nation communities, where first nations' citizens have access to the same rights as all other Canadians.
Our government is proud to support Bill C-428. I urge all members of the House to help us swiftly pass it into law. First nations have waited long enough for changes to the Indian Act.