Mr. Chair, I welcome this opportunity tonight to discuss and learn about the experience of indigenous people within our justice system.
There is no question that indigenous people are grossly overrepresented in the system, and there are many varied opinions why this is. This evening's debate was precipitated by the unfortunate event in my home province of Saskatchewan, when a young aboriginal man by the name of Colten Boushie was killed. I am not going to go into any of the details, as I believe everyone knows about this court case.
I had the chance to meet Colten's mother and some of his family members today. I personally expressed my condolences to her, and in return, she said that I have a warm heart, and it is beating. I also learned of the racist attacks her friends and neighbours have faced over the last few days in Saskatchewan.
I believe Colten's mother, Ms. Baptiste, is watching the debate here tonight. It is my sincere wish that she can take some comfort in knowing that there are people here who are genuinely concerned about the well-being of the indigenous peoples of Canada.
As I said earlier, there are many options on the causes of the overrepresentation of indigenous people in our justice system. I believe one of the core elements is the educational system. Prior to entering politics, I was a school board trustee for many years, so I have first-hand knowledge of the educational barriers that face many first nation youth in my province and of the dismal graduation rates.
My wife Ann has over three decades of experience helping indigenous students reach their goals. She was a classroom and resource teacher. Now my daughter Courtney and my son Geoff have followed my wife's footsteps and are educators. They all have first-hand experience with first nation students in their classrooms. I believe the many hours of conversations, both at home and at board meetings, have given me a pretty good perspective on where we can improve in this area. In fact, as a member of the indigenous and northern affairs committee, I moved the following motion last November 28, 2017:
That, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the Committee undertake a comprehensive study of Indigenous education and graduation rates from secondary schools; that the scope of the study include standards for high school graduation, standard curricula, standard qualifications for educators and statistics for national graduation rates from reserve schools in comparison to Indigenous students off-reserve and also to non-Indigenous students; that the witness list include responsible Indigenous Services department officials, band councils, band members, Statistics Canada officials, First Nation organizations responsible for delivering education services such as First Nations Education Steering Committee, and community groups; and that the Committee report its findings to the House within twelve months of the adoption of this motion.
My motion has not been voted on yet, but I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all my committee colleagues to support this study. I would also say that I am encouraged by the Prime Minister's statement earlier today when he said, “Indigenous youth should not grow up surrounded by the things that place them at elevated risk for suicide, such as poverty, abuse, and limited access to a good education and good health care.”
I am a firm believer that an education is a powerful tool. It can open many doors, and I would like to see many more doors opening for Canadian indigenous children, not slamming shut behind them as they enter the justice system.
Just this afternoon, I had a conversation with Bobby Cameron, who is the chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.
He explained that their intention with the inherent and treaty rights memorandum of understanding with the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre, with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, and the Saskatchewan School Boards Association is to educate and create more knowledge on the whole aspect of inherent and treaty rights as first nations people, to help curb some of the false attitudes and perceptions that some people have, and to make it mandatory for all high school students in Saskatchewan to take a hereditary treaty rights class in order to earn a grade 12 diploma.
He is absolutely right. Non-aboriginal peoples in this country also have to learn more about the rights of aboriginal peoples, which they are entitled to under our own Constitution. Anyone doubting this needs to only read section 35.
In the news release announcing the MOU, treaty commissioner Mary Culbertson said, “Education was the vehicle used to oppress first nations people”. Through education about the spirit, the intent, and the treaty relationship, “Reconciliation can be one day achieved (and) education will be the vehicle to take us there.”
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the second reading of Bill C-262, an act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. During my comments, I noted that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada was chairing a cabinet committee reviewing Canada's laws, policies, and operational practices to ensure that the Government of Canada is fulfilling its constitutional obligations and implementing its international human rights commitments, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The committee undertook this review a year ago, and to my knowledge, we have not yet seen a report. Let me just say it is a step in the right direction.
I am also encouraged by the comments made recently by Saskatchewan's new Premier Scott Moe and our justice minister, Don Morgan. They both agree that there are some serious and probably uncomfortable conversations that have to be had on racism, on rural crime, and on the justice system. Premier Moe stated:
We respect the decisions of the justice system and its independence.... But as we move forward it's incumbent on us as a government to have those very important, very challenging discussions with our aboriginal community in the province, and all of our communities in the province.
He went on to say:
I've been made aware of a number of comments that are racist. There's no place for that in the province of Saskatchewan.... This isn't an easy thing to talk about for anybody, but it's something we have to talk about.
Justice minister Don Morgan said:
...we want to hear from first nations leaders, but I think the comments that people are making, that they want to see more indigenous people involved in the system, is a fair comment.
He also said:
I think we're open to have those kinds of discussions with the federal government. ...we'd be willing participants....
As Conservatives, we are always interested in hearing from Canadians on ways in which we can improve Canada's justice system. We would welcome and carefully consider proposed legislation that would improve the justice system.
Finally, my remarks this evening have made reference to the province of Saskatchewan a number of times. I would like to assure everyone watching this take-note debate that these problems by all means are not limited to my home province. They are a national problem and they require a national plan to overcome them. It is the duty of all 338 of us, as representatives of the citizens of this country, in concert with the indigenous representatives, to work on these critical problems and find solutions.