Mr. Speaker, in an ideal world, there would be no need for debate on this bill. The outdated and paternalistic elements of the Indian Act governing first nations elections would no longer have any effect, because first nations would be universally self-governing. That is the goal we are all working toward.
Unfortunately, however, this is not yet the case for the majority of first nations across the country. Some communities on their way to self-government have employed different strategies, such as adopting community election codes that help them get around holding their elections under the Indian Act, but not every community has the capacity to take that on either. Others have chosen to focus their energies and resources on the many other high-priority issues that they face.
We want to meet first nations like these halfway, by providing an alternative to the current Indian Act election system. It is an out-of-date system that has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s. It is riddled with weaknesses and problems that destabilize first nations governments. It is a system that is not only frustrating but also, in many cases, undemocratic.
It is little wonder that so many first nations have demanded another option in addition to the systems currently on offer. That is exactly what Bill S-6 would provide. It would provide another way for first nations to hold elections that is outside of the outdated election system set out in the Indian Act.
Before exploring the many benefits of this legislation, it would be helpful if I first explained a little bit about the various electoral systems currently available to first nations.
Different communities exercise different approaches to elections. At the moment, 238 first nations hold their elections under the Indian Act system. This represents about 40% of all communities. The many problems, and even abuses, under this system have been well documented in numerous reports and reinforced by various speakers during this debate.
The majority, 343 first nations, or 55% of the total across Canada, select their leadership under a community-based system. Most of these first nations develop their own community election codes to elect their leaders. For many, this system offers the essential elements of good governance: open and transparent elections and effective mechanisms for redress when necessary.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. A small percentage of first nations with community election codes experience recurring disputes, some of which have led to breakdowns in governance, the imposition of third party management and lengthy and costly court actions between community members.
These disputes are usually based on a lack of community consensus on the actual election rules and procedures, exacerbated by the absence of a viable redress mechanism. There have been occasions when two separate election processes have been held in parallel in the same community, with those elected in each case claiming to be the legitimate and duly elected leaders. Needless to say, all of this negatively impacts community well-being and discourages economic development.
The remaining 36 first nations, or about 5%, have leadership election systems based on their community constitutions under self-government arrangements. As I mentioned earlier, this is the ultimate goal to which most first nations aspire.
As I also noted, many communities still caught with the Indian Act system may not be ready to take on self-government or even go so far as to develop community election codes. However, that does not diminish their desire to have an alternative: a fairer, more transparent and more accountable way of conducting elections on reserve.
I want to be clear that I am not talking about every first nation in the country. There is no question that there are some that seem satisfied with the status quo, while others may accept nothing less than self-government. I can assure the House that Bill S-6 would provide a robust election system for those who may choose it.
John Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs, testified on these issues before the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.
This legislation is precisely what many communities want. People in first nations communities all across the country have told us that they want change that leads to self-government, but they want it to be built on a solid foundation. They want certainty and stability, which they do not now have.
What many of these first nations are looking for is what Jody Wilson-Raybould of the Assembly of First Nations described in her appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples when it examined Bill S-6. She said, “...“stepping stone” legislation, such as Bill S-6...fits into and supports a vision of moving along the continuum of governance....” That is who this legislation is for. At their request, our government has been working in collaboration with first nations partners to develop an optional legislative framework for the election of band councils that covers this middle ground.
We have followed the lead of our first nations partners, the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. They have done the necessary research and conducted consultations in their own regions as well as across the country to come up with the viable new option outlined in Bill S-6. Bill S-6 would provide an optional electoral system that would ensure transparent and accountable governments, while providing first nations with the flexibility to choose the elections system that best suits them.
Our government simply wants to create the conditions for strong, stable and effective first nations governments that are transparent and accountable to their membership. A free and fair leadership selection process promotes accountability of leaders back to their band members rather than to the Government of Canada. It is a cornerstone of greater self-government and better outcomes. Bill S-6 is a concrete step forward in that direction. It is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all remedy for all that is wrong in the existing election system under the Indian Act.
The legislation would help those first nations that choose to opt in to overcome the numerous limitations of the Indian Act election system. It is designed to address the several weaknesses identified in the AFN study on election reform in 2008, the Senate committee's 2009 study and the thorough work of the APC and the AMC, problems that are holding back too many first nations communities at a great cost to their economies and to the well-being of their citizens.
Ideally, we would do away with the outdated Indian Act altogether. However, it cannot be replaced overnight. That would only create more problems than it solves. As the Prime Minister observed at the historic gathering, after 136 years that tree has deep roots. Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole. We certainly do not want to do more harm than good.
The alternative is to modernize the most damaging provisions of the Indian Act. This could be achieved not by updating the Indian Act itself but by equipping first nations with new tools and mechanisms to manage their affairs. That is how we could creation conditions that enable sustainable and successful first nations. As they build capacity and create the certainty necessary for investments they can unlock the untapped wealth on their lands, creating employment and improving social services for their citizens.
That is exactly what our government has been doing. We are taking important incremental steps forward to achieve the results first nations desire and that our government is determined to deliver. For example, we support Bill C-428, the Indian Act amendment and replacement act. It proposes a series of modifications to the Indian Act, some of which eliminate paternalistic sections such as those dealing with residential schools and bylaws. Other parts of the bill propose amendments that help contribute to healthier, more self-sufficient first nations communities. They dovetail with aspects of Bill S-6, which reduce ministerial involvement in community businesses. Bill C-428 would provide greater accountability and responsibility of first nations governments to their members and improve their capacity to meet the needs of their communities. This would be achieved by diminishing the role played by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development in the day-to-day lives of first nations.
The numerous proposed amendments to the Indian Act contained in Bill C-428 are our government's larger objective of providing first nations with the tools, resources and authorities they need to eventually transition completely out of the Indian Act.
This same objective and philosophy are at play in the First Nations Land Management Act. Prior to the enactment of the First Nations Land Management Act, first nations were hamstrung by the cumbersome land management provisions of the Indian Act. Instead of moving at the speed of business, the Indian Act slows the system to the pace of internal approval processes within the federal government. Needless to say, this often stands in the way of time-sensitive economic opportunities. Both first nations and their private sector partners complained loudly about the challenges of delayed decision-making.
The first nations land management regime enables first nations to opt out of the land resource and environmental management sections of the Indian Act. It removes many of the impediments of the outdated Indian Act, allowing for the creation of greater economic development opportunities and allowing communities to seize business development opportunities.
The legislation gives first nations that opt into the program the freedom to manage reserve lands under their own land codes. They can also negotiate contracts and enter into joint ventures with other communities, governments and with the private sector without ministerial approval.
Chief Ann Louie of the Williams Lake Indian Band in B.C., one of the first nations that opted in to the First Nations Land Management Act, is on record as saying, “It represents almost freedom, getting into self-governance away from the Indian Act so that we can manage our own lands so that our people can become prosperous and develop economically.” Her enthusiasm is backed by studies of the regime by KPMG. It has concluded that in addition to increased job creation on reserves in communities that utilize it, the First Nations Land Management Act option is proving to be a practical step toward self-government.
The First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act is another example of legislation that diminishes the minister's role for communities seeking greater control over their financial affairs. The legislation provides an alternative avenue to the Indian Act for first nations determined to achieve self-sufficiency. It allows first nations to develop a sophisticated, transparent and responsive property tax system on reserve. It also creates a securitized first nations bond regime that gives them access to municipal-style financing to invest in infrastructure on reserve. And it supports first nations' capacity in financial management, all of which support economic development.
Communities that choose to utilize its provisions can draw on the services and supports of the first nations institutions created under the act. As they do, outside investors can proceed with confidence and first nations can negotiate from positions of strength because the act provides the type of certainty that is lacking under the Indian Act.
The improvements contained in the acts I have talked about today have come about at the request of first nations that want greater control over their communities' day-to-day activities. We have been listening, and we are acting.
Bill S-6 is yet another piece to join the family of legislation to support first nations by offering a legislative alternative to first nations elections that would not involve the minister. It would provide the foundations for more stable and effective first nations governments through longer terms of office. With four years between elections, first nations governments would be able to work with potential partners for longer term development opportunities that would bring prosperity.
Bill S-6 fits with what other legislative initiatives have done, which is to provide alternatives to the Indian Act for willing first nations on important subject matters. These acts lay the groundwork and provide the frameworks for first nations to be successful, and successful first nations means a better quality of life for their members.
Bill S-6 is opt-in legislation. First nations could choose to adopt it or not to adopt it as they see fit.
From Bill S-6 to Bill C-428, these examples of modern legislation that empower first nations send a strong signal. We are focusing the federal role to that of an enabler rather than that of an impediment to progress. Our government is committed to putting an end to the historic isolation of first nation communities that has marginalized these members of our society for far too long.
Step-by-step, bill-by-bill, we are responding to first nations calls for greater decision-making powers and less ministerial involvement. In the process, we are creating the conditions for strong, effective and accountable governments for first nation communities. We are providing first nations with the tools they need to become more self-sufficient as they work their way toward self-government.
It is now up to us, as parliamentarians, to take the next step forward on this path of steady progress. We must support first nations, which are demanding change. We are calling for all-party support to unleash the tremendous potential of Bill S-6, the latest in a series of legislative reforms that remove the shackles of the Indian Act for those first nations that opt to take advantage of its new authorities.
I am asking all members to join us in our efforts to help first nation communities achieve their goals, for the benefit of their residents and our country as a whole.