Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by stating I am delivering my remarks on Treaty No. 1 territory and in the homeland of the Métis nation here in Manitoba.
As a Canadian and as a member of Parliament, I deeply respect the oath of citizenship of Canada. The proposed Liberal amendment to the Citizenship Act is something to which Conservatives have given much thought and consideration. The amendment under debate today represents a historic step forward in Canada’s relationship with its indigenous peoples and an important component of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's calls to action.
In my remarks, I will discuss my personal experiences with indigenous history and the Canadian oath of citizenship. I will also highlight the profound significance of the purpose of the words in the oath of citizenship and the equally profound significance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I will also include discussions on the contrasting Conservative and Liberal positions on these important matters. In conclusion, I believe Bill C-8 importantly and necessarily elevates the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and our treaties with them to the institutionally symbolic affirmation of patriotism and loyalty that is our oath of citizenship.
I want to begin by sharing that my personal journey of understanding the realities faced by indigenous peoples and their history in Canada did not really begin in a fulsome way until later in my life, whereas today children are learning about indigenous history much earlier in their education. Frankly, the only learning experience I had before adulthood about indigenous history came in high school when I first learned of Helen Betty Osborne, the 19-year-old Cree woman who lived in The Pas, Manitoba, where she was abducted, beaten, stabbed over 50 times with a screwdriver and killed. It took 16 years to solve her case and it was later found that racism, sexism and indifference from those who had power over her case were the cause of the 16-year delay in justice. The provincial government of Manitoba formally apologized for this injustice in 2000.
Following this experience, I went on to study political science at McGill University and the University of Manitoba. During that time, my understanding of Canadian indigenous history was further expanded. I was fortunate to study under Professor Niigaan Sinclair, who happens to be the son of Senator Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although our policies and politics do not always align, I learned a great deal from Professor Sinclair about indigenous history and took advantage of Canada’s largest native studies faculty located at the University of Manitoba.
Shortly before the completion of my undergraduate degree, I realized I had sufficient credits to graduate with a Canadian history minor, save for one issue. The McGill criteria for Canadian history did not permit the inclusion of native studies as part of the Canadian history minor requirements. I felt that this was an injustice considering native studies is, of course, the study of Canadian history. As a result, I made the formal request to McGill University to change its requirements to consider native studies as Canadian history. It agreed, and I graduated with a Canadian history minor, and it is my expectation that McGill students have been permitted to do the same ever since.
I mention these events because they had a profound impact on me as a young woman. They laid bare just how far Canada and its institutions must travel on this journey of reconciliation. The inclusion of 19 additional words through Bill C-8 to our country’s short but profound oath of citizenship is another important step on this important journey.
That is why Conservatives will be supporting this bill. I have had very positive experiences with the oath of citizenship. In fact, those experiences stand out in memory with their deeply historic Canadian traditions and all the pomp and circumstance that comes with them.
I will never forget the first citizenship ceremony I ever witnessed. It was a very hot summer day in Manitoba, and I was attending the ceremony as the head aide for the Manitoba minister of culture. The ceremony was officiated by Dwight MacAulay, the former chief of protocol of the Manitoba legislature. He spoke so eloquently to the soon-to-be Canadian citizens about the significance of Canadian citizenship and the hope it provided to all of them in their new role as citizens of Canada.
The people there were of many different ages, races and religions, and they were absolutely beaming with pride to be there on this very special day. Some even shed tears of joy after they had taken the oath of citizenship. I remember feeling very patriotic in that moment. To that point, citizenship was something I had really taken for granted, having always had it, but I felt very fortunate I was able to witness such a profound moment in the lives of those new Canadian citizens.
As we debate changing the oath of citizenship today, I believe it is important for us to recognize the rich history of Canada’s Westminster-style democracy to provide context to its sanctity of the oath and the profound importance it has on Canadian culture. It is deeply symbolic and rooted in customs and traditions that have evolved since the first English Parliament was convened in 1215 with the creation and signing of the Magna Carta. Canadian democracy and the freedoms and stability we enjoy are a result of over 800 years of development of our governing institutions. As a result, our customs and traditions are deeply embedded in the fabric of what it means to be Canadian.
That is why the second reading debate today on BillC-8,, an act to amend the Citizenship Act, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's call to action number 94, is so important.
The oath of allegiance makes up the first portion of our oath of citizenship. The oath of allegiance is taken by all those who wish to become judges, policemen and women, members of the Canadian Armed Forces, people who have been elected to serve in Parliament and provincial legislatures and others.
What is the oath of allegiance? It is a powerful, historical, solemn declaration of fealty to the Canadian monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who is the personification of the Canadian state. The oath we use in Canada has roots in the oath taken in the United Kingdom, which was first implemented in 1689 by King William II.
I recently took the oath of allegiance to the Queen as part of the process to be officially sworn in as a Canadian member of Parliament. It was a short, but hugely symbolic phrase that reminded me of the serious obligations and responsibilities I was about to assume. I rested my hand on a bible and swore under my name, “that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.” When Members of Parliament swear these words, we are swearing allegiance to the institutions the Queen represents, which includes our Westminster-style democracy and when we swear the oath, we are pledging to conduct ourselves in the best interests of Canada. Our obligation as MPs to swear this oath of allegiance dates back to the Constitution Act of 1867.
However, the oath of citizenship, which was adapted from the oath of allegiance, came as a mandatory requirement for citizens many years later. It was not until 1946 that Canada’s House of Commons passed the Canadian Citizenship Act, which officially established the creation of Canadian citizenship. Interestingly, the oath of citizenship in Canada only became law when the Citizenship Act was amended in 1977, which was 110 years after Confederation, and it marked the introduction of the symbolic affirmation of patriotism and loyalty into our oath of citizenship.
Bill C-8 represents the first change to our oath of citizenship in over 40 years. Given the history and symbolic significance I have just highlighted, this amendment to the citizenship oath is, to put it plainly, a very big deal. In sum, the oath of citizenship connects new Canadians to our constitutional monarch, who embodies our governing institutions in a timeless way and by doing so, it brings people into the historic Canadian identity.
The oath of citizenship, in its current form, is as follows:
I swear (or affirm)
That I will be faithful
And bear true allegiance
To Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second
Queen of Canada
Her Heirs and Successors
And that I will faithfully observe
The laws of Canada
And fulfil my duties
As a Canadian citizen.
Bill C-8 would add 19 words to our oath. Should the bill pass, the oath of citizenship will be as follows, “I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, including the Constitution, which recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
By including the historic amendment to include indigenous and treaty rights in our oath of citizenship, it elevates and signifies the inherent dignity of Indigenous peoples and the agreements that were made with them. It informs newcomers of the Canadian commitment to both our national duty and allegiance to the Queen of Canada as well as our commitment to truth and reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
Given our discussion today on Bill C-8, it is of course important that we include mention of the purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was activated by former prime minister Stephen Harper and organized by those involved with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to document the historical impact and the lasting legacy of the Canadian Indian residential school system on the indigenous peoples of Canada. There were more than 130 residential schools in Canada and 150,000 first nations, Métis and Inuit children were subjected to them. Seven generations of indigenous Canadians were impacted by residential schools.
More than 6000 witnesses were interviewed during the commission. Their stories shared the horrors and abuse, including sexual abuse, that was inflicted on them during their time in residential schools. We have learned that 3,200 children died of tuberculosis, malnutrition and other diseases while attending these schools. Many indigenous parents were never informed of the deaths of their children. For those parents, their children were simply taken from them, never to be seen again. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.
The mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was as its name is: telling the truth about what happened to indigenous peoples in Canada, notably the horrific abuse and forced cultural assimilation of indigenous children in residential schools as well as the failure of over 150 years of federal governments to fulfill treaties rights that were agreed to in partnership with indigenous peoples in good faith.
Senator Murray Sinclair has said that the process of reconciliation follows and involves educating the broader Canadian public on that truth and asking the public to accept that there are more things that need to be done to reconcile with Indigenous peoples. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we understand that residential schools are one of the defining factors of why indigenous people continue to suffer disproportionately in Canada. One in four indigenous persons lives in poverty and 40% of indigenous children live in poverty.
The 2016 Canadian census found that over 33% of indigenous Canadians did not have a high school education or equivalent certificate compared to 18% of the rest of Canada's population. Further, indigenous people have historically faced much higher unemployment rates than non-indigenous Canadians. Moreover, the number of indigenous people in federal prisons has never been higher, with more than 30% of all federal inmates identifying as indigenous despite making up only 4.3% of the Canadian population.
Tragically, suicide rates are five to seven times higher for first nations youth compared to non-indigenous youth and the situation is even more dire for Inuit youth, who have the highest suicide rates in the world, 11 times higher than the Canadian national average. It is unbelievable, actually. In fact, suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for first nations youth and adults up to 44 years old. Shamefully, in Canada, women and girls are twelve times more likely to go missing or be murdered than other Canadian women.
When considering these statistics and many others, it is clear that the policies put forth by centuries of governments have failed indigenous Canadians. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a significant, symbolic and historic effort to move past the “Ottawa knows best” approach, to speak and hear directly from survivors of failed government policies and to learn about their experiences and implement their solutions for building a better Canada for all.