Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to participate in the debate here today on Bill C-25, an act respecting the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Band Order.
The proposed legislation would enable the Governor in Council to fully implement the agreements reached between Canada and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, which provided for the establishment of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Band as a band under the Indian Act. More specifically, the legislation would help ensure that only those with a legitimate claim to membership are entitled to be registered following the completion of the enrolment process.
I want to underscore that the fundamental principle of this legislation is the preservation of the integrity and credibility of the membership in the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation. In that same vein, I want to use this occasion to underscore that the Government of Canada and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians are united in the desire to achieve our shared goal, which is to enable the Mi'kmaq in the province to build a strong foundation for cultural growth and development.
As my colleagues may be aware, in 2007 our government reached an agreement in principle with the Federation of Newfoundland Indians to create the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation and signed the final agreement a year later, in 2008. The 2008 agreement for the recognition of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq band provided for the creation of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation as an Indian Act band and established the enrolment process for its members to be recognized as Indians under the Indian Act.
I want to be very clear that the proposed legislation reflects the original intentions of the parties, Canada and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, with respect to the creation of a founding members list as set out in the 2008 agreement. From the outset, it was understood by both the Federation of Newfoundland Indians and the federal government that the agreement would apply primarily to people who live in or around the communities named in the 2008 agreement.
In that spirit, the 2008 agreement also set out four criteria for membership in the band, as negotiated and agreed to by the parties. These four criteria are Canadian Indian ancestry, descent from a member of a pre-Confederation Mi'kmaq community, self-identification as a member of the Mi'kmaq group of Indians of Newfoundland, and acceptance by the Mi'kmaq group of Indians of Newfoundland, based on a demonstrated and substantial cultural connection.
While non-residents could also become members, they would need to have maintained a strong, substantive cultural connection with a Newfoundland Mi'kmaq community, meaning that they were expected to have sustained an active involvement in their community despite their absence.
November 30, 2009, was the initial deadline to establish the band's founding members. After the end of this first stage, the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Band Order, or the recognition order, was issued on September 22, 2011. Based on enrolment to that point, a total of 22,877 people were determined to be founding members.
However, as set out in the final agreement, there was a second stage of 36 months to ensure that all would have ample opportunity to apply and be added to the founding members list. This second stage of the enrolment period ended on November 30, 2012. It was during this second stage of enrolment that issues with the process became apparent.
As we have heard today, an unexpected and, many would argue, unreasonable number of individuals submitted applications to join the band during the second phase. Approximately 75,000 additional people submitted applications, bringing the total number of applications for membership to the first nation to more than 101,000.
When the application process began back in 2008, Mi'kmaq leaders and Canada expected that somewhere between 8,700 and 12,000 people would be entitled to band membership. This range seemed realistic, given that there were roughly 10,500 members of the Federation of Newfoundland Indians at the time. Imagine the surprise when over 101,000 applications were submitted by the time the enrolment period ended on November 30, 2012.
To put this into perspective, this figure represents about 11% of all registered Indians in Canada.
Almost half of these applications, roughly 46,000, were received in the final three months before the deadline of a four-year process. Most of the applications received were from people living outside Newfoundland.
As Chief Brendan Sheppard has stated:
It was neither reasonable nor credible to expect such a huge number of individuals to become members of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation.
Not surprisingly, the Federation of Newfoundland Indians was worried about the credibility of the enrolment process and the integrity of the first nation. It wanted to be sure that the objectives of the 2008 agreement would be respected, that the enrolment process was fair and equitable, and that those accepted for membership satisfied the criteria set out in the original 2008 agreement.
In response, the parties negotiated a supplemental agreement, which was announced in July 2013. It was introduced to bring greater clarity to the requirements of membership and the enrolment process.
The 2013 supplemental agreement addresses shared concerns about the integrity of the enrolment process for membership in the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation. It clarifies the process for enrolment and resolves issues that emerged in the implementation of the 2008 agreement, such as the fact that the number of membership applications far exceeded the expectations of the parties, that it was not possible to review all of these applications within the time limits provided for in the 2008 agreement, and that the original guidelines for the assessment of the applications did not provide sufficient clarity and detail to reflect the original intentions of the parties.
For example, the 2013 supplemental agreement extends the timelines to review applications, ensuring that all previously unprocessed applications will be considered and also ensuring that all applicants will be treated fairly and equitably. Especially important is that the 2013 supplemental agreement guarantees that anyone whose application is reviewed will be sent written notification and that those who have submitted valid applications will be given an opportunity to provide additional documentation.
The parties also clarified how an applicant's self-identification as a member of the Mi'kmaq Group of Indians of Newfoundland is assessed. As well, guidance is provided in relation to an individual's acceptance by the Mi'kmaq Group of Indians of Newfoundland.
In other words, anyone wishing to join the first nation needs to prove his or her eligibility for membership.
Regarding group acceptance, applicants have to demonstrate that they were accepted by the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq Group of Indians through their active involvement in Mi'kmaq culture before the first nation was officially formed. This information is particularly relevant to individuals not residing in Newfoundland Mi'kmaq communities.
Determinations on eligibility are being made by the enrolment committee, which includes two federal representatives, two Mi'kmaq representative, and one independent chair.
This reasonable approach is the only way to ensure the integrity of the enrolment process and to ensure that the rules of eligibility for membership are fairly applied so that all applicants are treated equitably. This is what Mi'kmaq residents of Newfoundland demand and what all Canadians expect. Let us remember that status brings with it a range of important social and economic benefits, something that cannot and should not be taken lightly.
The supplemental agreement was a result of extensive discussions and negotiations with the Federation of Newfoundland Indians and addressed all the major concerns that had arisen during the second phase of the enrolment process.
I want to assure the House that the criteria set out in the original 2008 agreement remain unchanged. The supplemental agreement only provides clarity about the kind of information people need to provide to establish that they meet the criteria to demonstrate their eligibility for membership, as well as providing guidance to the enrolment committee on how it should be assessed.
The assessment process is currently under way and will take approximately two and a half years to complete. It is expected that the enrolment committee will complete its work by the summer of 2015, followed by an appeal period.
Let me be very clear. During the review process, there will be no change in Indian status for existing members of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation. While the process is under way, individuals who are currently registered as Indians under the Indian Act will retain their Indian status and, therefore, their access to programs available to registered Indians.
However, at the end of the enrolment process, it is possible that some individuals who are not found to have a legitimate claim to membership may lose their Indian status as a result of the reassessment of their application. Those individuals would no longer have access to programs and services provided to registered Indians.
Bill C-25 is an essential part of that enrolment process. It would enable the Governor in Council to amend the schedule to the recognition order, which will list the final approved names of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation founding members. The existing list must be updated to reflect the changes that will have taken place as a result of the review launched under the supplemental agreement.
While the Governor in Council has the authority under paragraph 2(1)(c) and subsection 73(3) of the Indian Act to declare a body of Indians to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act, there is no express authority in the act to amend an order establishing a band.
While there is likely authority to add names to the schedule of the recognition order, it is unclear whether the act currently allows the Governor in Council to remove names from the schedule. Certainty is required to ensure that the supplemental agreement can be fully implemented. That certainty can only be obtained by enacting legislation that would provide the Governor in Council with the appropriate authority to make the required corrections to the recognition order, specifically to revoke the Indian status of those individuals who are found not to be entitled to be members of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation.
The legislation is an essential part of the enrolment process, in order to fully implement the agreements. It would ensure that the Governor in Council is properly authorized to carry out the last step in the process, which is the issuance of a new founding members' list to modify the existing one.
This may all sound quite complicated, but at the end of the day, this process and this legislation is about ensuring that people who are truly eligible to be members of the band are granted that privilege.
Acquiring first nation status will help the Mi'kmaq of Newfoundland create and maintain a strong foundation for Mi'kmaq cultural growth and development. This will lead to a better future for today's generation and all who follow. This is something that generations of Mi'kmaq residents of the province have fought long and hard for since the 1970s. It is time to resolve this complex and long-running matter so that those who belong to the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation can fully realize this potential.
I call on all parties to join us in passing Bill C-25. Let us help preserve the integrity of the first nation in a fair and equitable manner. Let us ensure that the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation can get on with the work of building a proud Mi'kmaq first nation in Newfoundland.