Mr. Speaker, together with the parliamentary secretary for aboriginal affairs, I look forward to contributing to the debate.
An important issue needs to be understood properly. The record needs to be set straight. The members for Winnipeg North and Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte are asking for exactly the opposite of what they claim to be asking for. They are asking that due process and a thorough review not take place. Our duty here before the House, on behalf of the government, is to show why best practices and due diligence are necessary on this important issue.
As we know, historical context is important here. There is archeological evidence of first nations' presence in Newfoundland and Labrador going back to at least 7000 B.C. Archaic maritime aboriginal peoples were there. We know the tragic story, as my colleagues from St. John's East, Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte and Avalon will know even better, and as our once and future colleague, Peter Penashue, would know best, of the Beothuk. There was a Beothuk institute in Newfoundland in 1827, but the last reported confirmed member of that first nation passed away in St. John's in 1829.
Then, of course, we have the European presence, the Norse 12 centuries ago and other European nations starting five or six centuries ago. We know the context of Newfoundland and Labrador's aboriginal reality.
As the member for Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte put it, Canada only joined Newfoundland and Labrador in Confederation in 1949. Let us remember that there was no agreement between the province and Canada on if, how and when the Indian Act would apply to the Mi'kmaq of Newfoundland. In the absence of that agreement, the Indian Act was not applied. It was only in 1989 that the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, established to advocate for Mi'kmaq interests, brought forward its lawsuit against the federal government, which we have heard about here.
In 2008, our government agreed to recognize the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band to acknowledge the fact that Newfoundland's Mi’kmaq communities were not recognized when Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949.
This history underscores that we are dealing with 60 years of non-recognition of the Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland. The member for Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte mentioned that time had run out for the government on this issue. In fact, we have been working on this issue non-stop.
What happened between 1993 and 2006? Four years after the court decision, through 13 years of Liberal governments, we do not seem to have had action on this issue.
The Conservatives have been taking action, and the agreement we have reached is yet another plank in the platform of achievement we have in moving forward relations with first nations.
Clearly, this complicated history will not be resolved overnight. What is important is to achieve certainty in the enrolment process and the rules of eligibility for membership so that all applicants are treated fairly and equitably. That is what Canadians insist on with regard to all the programs delivered by our government, especially those delivered under the Indian Act.
Remember that status brings with it a range of important benefits. This cannot and should not be taken lightly.
Even more important: it is crucial that the criteria for becoming a member be based on the expertise provided by the leadership of the Federation of Newfoundland Indians and by the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band. That is absolutely vital to the credibility of the process and the integrity of this First Nation.
This motion overlooks the fact that concerns about enrolment are coming from community members in the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation itself. They share our concerns and have a direct stake in the outcome of this process. They must have a say in these matters.
As the members opposite are well aware, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has put forward a chief federal negotiator. Work is happening on an intensive basis.
However, there is consensus that, whatever the final number may be, new members should contribute to the community and to the province of Newfoundland. All parties want to be sure that the membership is valid and that the original intention of the parties to the 2008 agreement is reflected, but also that the members are actually contributing to the community in which this first nation is being established or re-established. Members can understand the concern. Almost 70% of more than 100,000 applicants do not reside in any of the Mi’kmaq communities targeted for recognition in this initiative. They live elsewhere in Canada.
This last point gets to the real heart of the matter. When the agreement was signed, it was estimated there would be 9,000 to 12,000 people joining this first nation. It seemed to be a reasonable assumption based on the 2006 census, which showed roughly 23,500 residents of Newfoundland and Labrador who identified themselves as aboriginal. That includes, of course, Inuit and Innu members from Labrador and it includes others of aboriginal descent who were not, and did not want to be, part of this first nation. However, it was neither reasonable nor credible to expect more than 100,000 applications to become members of the Qalipu band.
The concerns in this regard are coming from the community. We are giving voice to them. Let us let the work take place. Let us ensure due diligence. Let us ensure it is quality work.