Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the constituents of the great Kenora riding for this opportunity to speak on Bill S-6 and, in particular, one of our newest constituents, the very special Abigail Mae Rickford.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about Bill S-6, the first nations elections act.
Over a year ago the Prime Minister spoke at the Crown-First Nations Gathering about the approach our government is taking to enable first nations people to share fully with other Canadians the prosperity, security and promise of our great country. Specifically, the Prime Minister stated that our approach is to work as partners with the first nations to replace elements of the Indian Act that are outdated with modern tools—a constellation, so to speak, of options, like this bill, to provide opportunities for modern first nation political economic development.
The fact is that the Indian Act election system has some significant and serious flaws. To start, the Indian Act requires that first nation communities hold elections every two years. This requirement restricts first nations chiefs and councils from initiating long-term projects and working closely with investors, business owners, partners and other governments, and from taking full advantage of emerging opportunities to improve the lives of people in their communities.
Also, the Indian Act does not prevent any person from running and being elected chief and to a councillor position during the same election. The current system's loose nomination process also enables the names of candidates who are neither dedicated to running nor serious about serving to be placed on the ballot without their approval and, in some instances, without their knowledge. Because of this omission in the law, some first nations elections have had more than 100 candidates vie for as few as three positions.
The mail-in ballot system under the Indian Act is also open to abuse. In addition, the act does not provide for offences or related penalties when abuse is uncovered. As a result, it is virtually impossible for a legal entity to prosecute those involved in corruption. If illegal, corrupt or abusive practices are alleged to have taken place, department officials launch a lengthy appeals process, which has proven to be slow, inefficient and paternalistic.
Bill S-6 enables first nations people to shed a piece of the Indian Act by providing an alternative to its flawed election provisions. Bill S-6 presents an open, transparent and accountable election system that first nations people expect and deserve. We only have to consider some key provisions of the bill and what these provisions will set in motion to understand its value.
To that end, I would like to categorize the main provisions of the bill under four headings: term of office, election mechanics, candidates, and offences and penalties. Let me speak to those.
The bill provides for terms of office of four years. This is a much more reasonable timeframe for stable first nation governments to launch important initiatives and obtain concrete results before embarking on another election.
Furthermore, the first nations election act enables first nations communities to line up their terms of office and hold elections on the same day if they so choose.
Taking advantage of this provision makes perfect sense for communities in the same province or region. By aligning the terms of office of their elected leaders, they provide governance stability among first nations across a given region. As a result, these leaders can more easily collaborate on long-term projects, work closely with investors and seize opportunities whenever they emerge.
Bill S-6 also deals with important aspects of running elections.
It contains regulation-making mechanisms that will address a large number of concerns about candidate nominations and the mail-in ballot system that regularly arise during elections under the Indian Act. From this perspective, the First Nations Elections Act provides for a much more consistent, effective, reliable and legitimate electoral process.
In terms of candidates for election, the bill specifies that no individual can be a candidate for more than one office in the same election and requires that nominees consent to being a candidate prior to actually becoming one. This is a key point, as it means only the names of those persons who have agreed to be a candidate will appear on the ballot, which is not currently the case.
In terms of offences and penalties, Bill S-6 would fill a significant void. Just like the provincial and federal election laws, the new act would include several clearly defined offences and penalties surrounding questionable activities, such as vote buying, intimidation and obstructing the electoral process.
The new provisions will discourage these activities from taking place by making it possible for authorities to investigate and prosecute those who engage in such acts and they will empower our courts to adjudicate over fines and sentences of those found guilty.
Together, the provisions I have laid out remove the destabilizing effects of perpetual electioneering from first nation governments. They help eliminate potential abuses of power. They help communities elect governments that are be truly representative of the needs and interests of residents.
In stark contrast to the Indian Act election system, Bill S-6 offers an appeals process that does not involve the department, the minister or his successors. Appeals of elections held under Bill S-6 will be addressed in the courts, where election disputes in municipal, provincial and federal elections in our country are resolved.
I also want to speak briefly, but I think importantly, about ministerial authority.
Bill S-6 would not give the minister of Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development any more power than already found in the Indian Act. I am referring, specifically, to provision in the bill that will permit the minister to order a first nation to hold its elections under the proposed new law when there is a protracted leadership dispute that has significantly compromised the governance of that first nation.
The minister already holds this power, under the Indian Act, where he or she may order a first nation hold elections under the act if it is deemed advisable for the good governance of the band.
Ministers have only used this power three times, as far as I can tell, for the purposes of solving an ongoing governance dispute in a given first nation and only did so after several attempts to support the community in reaching its own resolution had failed. More important, in instances where the power was exercised, the dispute had compromised the overall well-being of the community.
History has shown that this power under the Indian Act has not been exercised frivolously.
In fact, the power afforded the minister, under Bill S-6, would be much narrower. The condition that must be present before the minister could order an election under Bill S-6 is clearly defined, and it bears repeating. That condition is, “a protracted leadership dispute has significantly compromised governance of that First Nation”. This stands in stark contrast to the vast discretion afforded the minister as it stands under the Indian Act.
Even though it is rarely used, it is vital that Bill S-6 provide this power as a measure of last resort. A long-standing dispute over leadership selection in elections paralyzes governance in a first nation. Eventually, the well-being of the whole community is compromised. The delivery of programs and services has to be placed, in many instances, in the control of third parties.
Without clear and legitimate leaders, strategic decisions are not made, partnerships with other first nations, other governments and private enterprises become virtually impossible to forge potential economic development opportunities, good governance can disappear.
I know that many first nation leaders in this country agree that Bill S-6 presents a better election system than that found under the Indian Act. After all, they played an indispensable role in creating Bill S-6. Two first nation organizations deserve our special recognition for bringing this bill to life.
The first is the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs under the leadership of former grand chief Ron Evans, who is the former chief of Norway House first nations, a community that I had an opportunity to spend some time in as a nurse in northern Manitoba. The second is the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs. Both of these organizations recognize the deficiencies of the Indian Act election system and their destabilizing negative effect on first nations governance.
In their own parts of the country, they held several consultation sessions with first nations leaders, governance experts and community members. The consultation led to a list of potential electoral reforms, which included inter alia terms of offices of four years and the ability for first nations in a given region to line up their terms of office and hold their elections on the same day.
They called on the federal government to develop a new law, but the process did not end there. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Atlantic Policy Congress partnered to lead a national engagement effort to further discuss electoral reform with first nations leaders and members across the country. They communicated with leaders of the 241 first nations communities that hold elections currently under the Indian Act, inviting feedback on their recommendations.
These two organizations also set up websites to post important information and receive inputs and comments from first nations members. All who responded agreed that the proposed reforms would be a major improvement over the election system under the Indian Act. When we took the recommended election reforms and prepared a draft version of Bill S-6, the former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs then wrote to every band council elected under the Indian Act to outline the new bill's contents. He encouraged the councils to share the draft with their community members and to provide comments on the draft bill directly to him.
The minister did not receive a single negative comment during this exercise. All the credit for this achievement goes to first nations members and leaders, especially the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs, for their creative and collaborative consultative efforts. In particular, I would like to recognize the work, as I said earlier, of the former grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Ron Evans; Atlantic chiefs, Lawrence Paul, the late Noah Augustine and Candice Paul; as well as the Assembly of First Nations regional chief Morley Googoo, for their remarkable leadership and for the essential roles they played in helping create Bill S-6 as we have come to know it today.
These leaders saw the need to reform their election system and then took action to bring about practical changes. They all deserve our heartfelt thanks. They have brought to life the Prime Minister's words and found creative ways to move beyond the Indian Act. They did so because they know the value that stable, effective governments can bring to first nation communities.
They know that political stability makes it possible for first nations communities to attract investors and business owners and thereby create new jobs, rising incomes, higher standards of living and quality of life on reserve. They know that empowered elected officials and effective councils can access capital, plan and carry out long-term projects, and work productively with partners to unlock the economic promise of first nations lands and resources.
Perhaps most important is the empowerment gained by their people when they exercise their fundamental right to vote within an election system that is strong, open and transparent.
This is why I ask all of my colleagues to join us in support of Bill S-6 to support and encourage all members of first nations communities to realize their aspirations and good governance in their communities.