Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in opposition to Bill S-6, yet another bill that the Conservative government is putting forward about which first nations have a great deal of concern. Certainly he NDP believes it is a serious matter and that first nations voices, like on any issue that pertains to them directly or indirectly, must be heard.
I rise to speak to the bill on a very important week, a very important anniversary for first nations in Canada. Five years ago, the Prime Minister rose in the House of Commons and apologized to residential school survivors, their families and their communities and he committed to a new relationship. He committed to a new beginning in the Crown-first nations relationship. Fast forward five years later, and not only have we not seen a new relationship, we have seen the government continue to impose legislation after legislation that flies in the face of that commitment.
Bill S-6, like bills that have gone forward, misses out on the critical piece, and that is first nations consultation. What first nations raise in terms of concerns must be reflected in the bill.
We have a case now with Bill S-6 where the government is applying rhetoric regarding empowerment, the importance of fair elections and stability in first nations, concepts which are very worthwhile and sound great. However, when we scratch the surface and start looking at what was said in the Senate when the bill was being discussed and when we start hearing directly from first nations and first nations leadership, we realize the bill is not about empowerment and it does not provide the kind of stability that first nations need when they come to their electoral system.
The NDP believes strongly that as a result, the bill cannot be supported. The government must go back to the table with first nations and listen to the very concrete concerns they have raised directly with members of the government. As we know, this has been debated in the Senate and changes must be reflected in a bill that purports to deal with making first nations elections fairer to allow greater stability in the community.
The bill establishes rules for elections, apart from the Indian Act. These include an election cycle longer than two years, the ability to have a common election date, elements that have been raised by first nations and need to be addressed. We agree with the need to address these issues, but we share the serious concern that first nations have brought forward, and that is Bill S-6 gives the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development the power to order a first nation with community designed elections to adhere to the new regime.
We want to see first nations' elections improve, but this is basically tinkering around the edges of the Indian Act and does not address the extensive powers of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development over the right of bands to determine their own future.
In making that statement, it is very much founded on a critical concept. We have a federal government that has committed to the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights, yet putting forward Bill S-6 very much disrespects that commitment. I quote from article 18 in the UN declaration which states:
Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.
Unfortunately, when we turn to the legislative summary of this bill, it indicates that:
First Nations may choose to opt in to the new elections regime proposed under the legislation, or they may be brought under the new elections regime by ministerial order in some circumstances.
We in the NDP stand with first nations in expressing our complete and utter opposition to this very point, a point that challenges the commitment that the government and our country made to the UN declaration of indigenous rights. It flies in the face of the promise the Prime Minister made of a new beginning and a new relationship.
According to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 240 first nations hold elections pursuant to the Indian Act, 341 first nations conduct custom or community-based elections rather than elections under the Indian Act, and 36 first nations select their leaders according to their self-government agreements.
We have heard real concern expressed from many first nations about the short term of office for first nations leadership positions, and I certainly know this from the first nations that I represent. We agree with first nations in saying that the two-year term of office imposed on first nations by the Indian Act is too short to provide political and economic stability, often creating deep divisions in communities.
I have had the chance to get to know many chiefs and councillors across northern Manitoba who have struggled when that has been the case in their communities. They have brought forward ideas, a visionary approach to governing their community that perhaps differs from the approach of leaders who have come before them, but two years is not enough time to make changes and get the community on the path that they would like it go down based on the support of their community members. We agree with first nations in saying that the two-year timeline must be removed.
I would like to note that we also agree with the substantive concerns with the Indian Act elections that relate to the degree of ministerial intervention, the lack of an adequate and autonomous appeals process and the absence of flexibility to set the terms of office and determine the size of councils.
We believe it is extremely problematic and, frankly, reeks of colonialism that the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development would be able to interfere through ministerial order, as is clearly stated in this bill, in elections on first nations.
I would like to refer back to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and some of the recommendations they made back in 1996. The Senate committee on aboriginal peoples said:
With respect to elections, a key proposal was to develop community leadership selection systems and remove the application of the Indian Act as a preliminary measure to re-establishing traditional forms of leadership. To accomplish this, the following steps were suggested: community level development of custom codes; community development of local dispute resolution procedures; regional first nations capacity and advisory bodies.
Again, some of the elements that were recommended back in 1996 are not present or appropriately resourced under the current legislation.
We have referenced a sticking point under subclause 3(1), which states that “The Minister may, by order, add the name of a First Nation to the schedule...” of first nations participating in the new election system.
The other problem with this legislation is the regulations in clause 41. The clause provides for the Governor in Council to have broad and general powers to make regulations with respect to elections.
We have had the chance to hear from many leaders and people involved in aboriginal governance who have expressed their opposition to the current iteration of Bill S-6, and I would like to read into the record their voices.
Before I do that, I want to also acknowledge that we have seen a very problematic pattern by the government in bringing in closure on debate regarding first nations bills. We saw it with Bill S-2 and we saw it with bills that came forward prior to Bill S-2.
For us in the NDP, it is absolutely fundamental that first nations voices be heard in committee in order to best shape legislation or to give us the opportunity to challenge legislation on their behalf.
Unfortunately, my experience has been that the Conservative government has done everything in its power to muzzle the voices of first nations and to silence them when it comes to speaking out on bills that have everything to do with their communities. That is unacceptable, and it once again reflects the colonial approach that we have seen from the current government time and time again.
Having said that, I would like to read into the record some of the messages we have heard from first nations people when the bill was at the Senate committee.
I would like to start with a quote from the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Derek Nepinak. He said:
This proposal does not fulfill the recommendations put forth by the AMC. It appears to be an attempt by the Minister to expand governmental jurisdiction and control the First Nations electoral processes that are created pursuant to the Indian Act or custom code. I am hopeful that Canada will engage in meaningful consultation with First Nations in Manitoba in order to fix some of the problems, instead of unilaterally imposing a statutory framework that will greatly affect the rights of First Nations.
There are a number of key messages here, including the reference to the need for meaningful consultation. He acknowledges that there are problems, and that one of those problems is the unilateral imposition of this framework that would greatly affect first nations.
I would also like to quote Jody Wilson-Raybould, the B.C. Regional Chief from the Assembly of First Nations. She spoke to the problems with clause 3. She said:
These provisions essentially give the minister the ability to impose core governance rules on a First Nation, which, if ever used, would be resented by that First Nation, would not be seen as legitimate in the eyes of that nation, and would probably add fuel to an already burning fire.
Ultimately, each nation must, and will, take responsibility for its own governance, including elections.
Tammy Cook-Searson, Chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, noted:
My main objection to this bill is the lack of positive change from the old Indian Act. Neither the Indian Act nor Bill S-6 incorporate the constitutional principles of the inherent right to self-determination and governance. The authority in this bill remains with the cabinet and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada instead of moving towards a greater responsibility with First Nations for our governance.
Aimée E. Craft, chair of the national aboriginal law section of the Canadian Bar Association, came to the Senate committee on February 29 and presented, saying:
[D]ealing with the level of ministerial discretion to include First Nations in the schedule of participating First Nations, this changes the opt-in nature of the legislation. It continues minister discretion to exercise control over First Nations governance and it would result in some First Nations being subjects of the act rather than participants. In addition, the bill lacks clarity as to the standard that the minister will apply in making determinations about what constitutes a protracted leadership dispute that has significantly compromised the governance of a First Nation.
These are first nations leaders, and Aimée Craft is a specialist when it comes to the legal aspect of the bill. They all express serious concern about a number of points in Bill S-6.
It was also noted that:
Ultimately, how attractive this legislation will be to any First Nation will depend greatly on what is, or what is not included or provided for within the Regulations. However, it should be kept in mind that Regulations are designed and intended to be amended easily and quickly. Therefore, while a First Nation may opt into the First Nations Elections Act on the basis of what it considers to be attractive Regulations, there is no guarantee that the Governor in Council will not change those Regulations to something that a First Nation may find less appealing.
There are a number of concerns. What I find extremely problematic here is the Conservative government's continued approach in imposing legislation and refraining to hear from first nations on very serious matters that have everything to do with their capacity to be self-determining for their own people, yet the Conservatives turn around and use broad-sounding language that may sound great to a lot of Canadians but that certainly hides the true facts.
I think of the first nations that I have the honour of representing and the kinds of challenges that I have heard from people when it comes to their election systems and the barriers they face when it comes to the Indian Act.
I know that the Conservative government has also jumped on the bandwagon of critiquing the Indian Act, yet it is ironic that so many first nations point to the Indian Act as being a colonial tool that oppresses first nations further.
Is imposing legislation on first nations not a sign of further oppression? Is that not a sign of that spirit of the Indian Act that sets out to impose systems and attitudes from the outside upon first nations?
The imposition of legislation without proper consultation, without heeding the calls for changes to this legislation, speaks to the attitude that the federal government somehow knows better than first nations, that somehow it can intervene and fix what is happening.
If there is anything that we have learned from history, it is that such an attitude will not get us anywhere, that it will further marginalize and disempower first nations. That is something I hope would cause some real concern among government members and would cause them to think twice about what they are doing on bill after bill.
Many government members, as was evident in the debate around Bill S-2, represent first nations. What are they hearing from their members? There are repeated messages of repealing the Indian Act and putting an end to the kind of oppression that has been imposed by a history of federal governments, by the Crown, but this is not the answer.
First nations must be at the centre of the future that they carve out for their communities. First nations must be at the forefront. The issues of governance and elections are fundamental to first nations' capacity to determine their own future. Instead of imposing legislation, the Conservative government ought to sit down with first nations and make changes that reflect their needs and their voices.
Unfortunately, we have not seen that kind of attitude from the federal government. Instead we see a continued attack against first nations in bill after bill. These bills fly in the face of respecting first nations' treaty and aboriginal rights and they fly in the face of the UN declaration on indigenous peoples. They disregard the serious concerns that first nations are bringing forward as they demand that the federal government step up and take leadership.
On the issue of elections, I have heard a lot of concern from first nations that they simply do not have the capacity to put forward the kind of governance plan that they would like. That lack of capacity is fundamentally tied to the lack of funding and the cutbacks that we have seen by the federal government, building on cuts by previous Liberal governments when they froze funding to first nations at 2%. Now we are seeing cuts to advocacy organizations that also are involved with service delivery in education, training, housing and health.
First nations have always extended a hand out. They want to work with the government. They want to make change in their communities. We in the NDP are proud to stand with them in opposition to Bill S-6. We call on the government to change course and truly begin a new relationship with first nations people in this country.