Madam Speaker, the bill before us, proposing a national strategy for the repatriation of aboriginal cultural property, is a well-intentioned but flawed piece of legislation. The Conservative Party will support it at second reading, but we will be seeking amendments to correct some of its flaws, which we have already seen highlighted through the questions and the speeches so far.
The aboriginal communities of Canada are truly our first peoples. As such, aboriginal culture is important to all Canadians for its role in informing us who we are, what our roots are, and how that has contributed to making Canada the extraordinary country we are today. Naturally, the culture, artifacts, and art that bear witness to its past have an especially powerful meaning for aboriginal people. An ideal outcome will be one that not just balances competing interests in the property of cultural artifacts, but rather one that builds on common interests to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. While some may see gain in stoking grievances and differences of interest, the sensible Canadian way is that which looks to build on mutual interests.
The question of how museums should deal with aboriginal cultural property is not new. In fact, well before any politician sought to make this an issue, the Canadian Museums Association and the Assembly of First Nations established a joint task force, which conducted consultations for a year. They arrived at sensible and practical conclusions on how museums should work in collaboration with first nations. They jointly recommended a process based on moral and ethical grounds for the use and presentation of cultural objects, and for resolving disputes. Museums across Canada have developed and implemented policies based on this joint Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums Association report, and all of it happened without Parliament imposing legislation. The parties involved are to be commended and recognized for their efforts in working together. It is in that context that we must view this bill.
“Aboriginal cultural property” is defined in this bill as “objects of historical, social, ceremonial or cultural importance to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada”. This could include thousands of everyday artifacts, ceremonial and sacred objects, ancestral skeletal remains and funerary objects, as well as artwork, sculptures, jewellery, or literature produced by Canada's aboriginal peoples.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of these aboriginal cultural artifacts were gathered, purchased, and occasionally appropriated, by missionaries, government agents, anthropologists, and amateur and professional collectors. This occurred in a period when aboriginal culture was believed to be dying out, and the acquisition, preservation, and display of these artifacts was seen as a means to enable future generations of anthropologists and students to study traditional aboriginal cultures. Of course, aboriginal culture did not die out and instead now forms an important part of Canada's cultural landscape, while Canada's aboriginal people continue to make strong and significant contributions to our country.
The Conservative Party will be proposing three amendments, perhaps four, I might now suggest, constituting additional criteria for evaluating the measures to be included in a national strategy for the repatriation of aboriginal cultural property.
The display and interpretation of aboriginal cultural artifacts is broadly in the public interest. Current and subsequent generations of Canadians benefit from developing an appreciation and understanding of aboriginal history and culture, something that is a direct result of seeing and learning about aboriginal culture, often through artifacts and their interpretation in museums. It is not a coincidence that the appreciation of aboriginal culture, and public support to correct historical wrongs, have risen in parallel. This bill does not reflect that reality. For that reason, our first amendment will propose that measures “ensure that consideration be given to the public interest in artifacts being available to Canadians in a way that enhances knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal culture”. The continued public display of aboriginal cultural artifacts will play an important part in helping future generations learn about and appreciate our first nations' traditions. This is a desirable outcome for all.
Another concern is that artifacts are often fragile and require special care. It will be a loss to all Canadians, including aboriginal communities, if artifacts are ultimately lost or degraded due to a lack of appropriate curatorial care. For that reason, we propose a second amendment. Any repatriation strategy should include measures that ensure that consideration is given to how best to adequately preserve and protect the quality and integrity of aboriginal cultural property. The current bill lacks this important consideration.
Finally, because of the sweeping definition of aboriginal cultural property in the bill as “objects of historical, social, ceremonial, or cultural importance to the aboriginal peoples of Canada”, the bill runs the risk of putting in jeopardy Canada's vibrant aboriginal art sector. This sector is a significant element to the economy of many remote aboriginal communities, and the revenues generated by the works produced support aboriginal families across Canada.
In any well-intentioned policy proposal, the greatest danger lies in unintended consequences. One need only look at the generally benevolent motivation behind the establishment of residential schools for aboriginal children and the subsequent suffering and hardship that often took place in those institutions to know the importance of looking beyond lofty ambitions to ensure that our actions actually make a positive difference.
In the case of the bill, there is a risk of placing a cloud over the entire aboriginal art and design community. If prospective purchasers, be they museums, galleries, or private collectors, fear that the repatriation of their newly acquired property is a future possibility, they will think twice about making such acquisitions or price in a discount for that risk.
Such an effort will harm aboriginal creators, communities, and economies. For that reason, we will be proposing an amendment to ensure that such a strategy does not have the effect of harming or discouraging the important commercial trade by aboriginal artists in the creation and sale of art, design, and fashion.
Of course, a fourth amendment reflecting what we heard the hon. member for Cumberland—Colchester express in his speech—that this repatriation policy should only apply to artifacts that individuals are no longer interested in possessing or that museums are going to deaccession—would be a further constructive amendment to help ensure a positive, constructive path forward on a repatriation strategy.
With these four amendments we would be proposing, an aboriginal cultural property repatriation strategy will have the potential to focus on the mutual benefits and opportunities that grow the place for aboriginal culture in the Canadian identity for the benefit of generations to come.
I believe there is a deep well of good faith and existing collaboration between Canadian museums and our first nation communities. All across Canada, aboriginal communities have been engaged and made positive contributions as museums have stepped up their game in enhancing their presentation and interpretation of our aboriginal culture, art, and history. Let us work to ensure that this positive environment continues to grow, something that will benefit all Canadians in the future.