Mr. Speaker, I do not know if I have had the opportunity to do so, but I would like to congratulate you on your excellent position as my neighbour and as Speaker of the House.
As we are talking about the relationship between first nation people, I rise on a question of privilege pursuant to Standing Order 48, to state that I believe my parliamentary privilege was violated by the Minister of Justice and his staff.
It is my belief that the minister and his staff misled the House on a fundamental issue, which is the legal cost of fighting indigenous children at the Human Rights Tribunal and in federal court. I consequently believe that, because they have provided this misinformation, the minister should be held in contempt of Parliament.
We have had a lot of talk this week about the importance of the rule of law. I find this issue especially pertinent when we are talking about the actions of the justice department and the Attorney General, who apparently believe they are above Parliament when it comes to their obligation to respond to Order Paper questions on fundamental questions of fact, not opinions on facts. If you will indulge me, Mr. Speaker, I will present the facts of this case as succinctly as possible.
On December 9, 2019, I gave notice pursuant to Standing Order 39 of a written question seeking information regarding the legal fees for the hours and the associated costs the government has incurred due to legal proceedings related to Human Rights Tribunal cases against first nation children between 2007 and 2019. The Department of Justice provided a written response to this question in late January 2020 stating, “Based upon the hours recorded, the total amount of legal costs incurred amounts to approximately $5,261,009.14, as of December 9, 2019.”
As a stand-alone figure, the idea that the federal government would have spent $5.2 million fighting the rights of the most vulnerable children in this country is shocking. However, it has come to my attention that these numbers are extremely misleading. I have brought this forward because evidence contrary to the justice official's came out last week when I was representing Canada in Washington, so this is my first opportunity to address this.
Ms. Cindy Blackstock, who has been involved in this case from the beginning, has tabled documents she has received through multiple ATIPs from the justice department about the costs incurred between 2007 and 2017. The number Ms. Blackstock has provided, through the justice department's own documents, is $9.4 million spent fighting indigenous children in court.
APTN has analyzed the numbers and has come up with a slightly more conservative figure of $8.3 million as of 2017, but that is still substantially higher than what the Minister of Justice stated the department has spent up until now. This does not include any of the costs incurred after 2017.
I will remind the Speaker that when the government was found guilty of reckless discrimination against first nation children in 2016, the Prime Minister made a solemn vow that he would respect the rulings of the Human Rights Tribunal. He said he would address this and would not fight this.
However, there have been nine non-compliance orders, as well as a battle in federal court attempting to quash the ruling and deny the rights of children who are in the broken child welfare system. It is clear the numbers we have up to 2017 from the Minister of Justice's office are higher than $8.3 million and higher than the false $5.2 million he provided through the Order Paper.
How can the House make sense of these contradictory numbers? We are not talking about opinions. The issue goes to the heart of the Prime Minister's promise on reconciliation to create a new relationship based on trust. It must also be based on the trust of parliamentarians, when they use tools like the Order Paper question to get factual responses so they can do their jobs.
This ongoing legal battle against first nation children has had a corrosive effect on the Prime Minister's brand and it would appear to me that it cannot be explained away as a matter of opinion attempting to downplay the numbers.
Page 111 of Erskine May: A treatise on the law, privileges, proceedings and the usage of Parliament explicitly states that misleading the House can be considered an issue of contempt. It states, “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.”
Similarly, page 82 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice quotes the United Kingdom Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in listing various types of contempt, which includes “deliberately attempting to mislead the House or a committee (by way of statement, evidence or petition)”.
We know being wrong is not a matter of privilege, but misleading the House is. That is why various Speakers, your predecessors, have used the test laid out in page 85 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice. It states:
...the following elements have to be established when it is alleged that a Member is in contempt for deliberately misleading the House: one, it must be proven that the statement was misleading; two, it must be established that the Member making the statement knew at the time that the statement was incorrect; and three, that in making the statement, the Member intended to mislead the House.
I believe these tests can be met in this case.
First, if we review the criteria that I have just read, the statement given to me was misleading because there exists in the public domain, in the documents of the Minister of Justice, conflicting information regarding these documents. The minister only provided me with the costs of the hours recorded, but not with the associated legal fees.
Second, the minister knew that his statement was misleading since the ministry with which he is charged provided different information to Ms. Cindy Blackstock, yet his signature on the document was tabled in the House.
Third, the minister intended to mislead the House since he intentionally avoided answering parts of the question that would provide clarity, a point made clear by the fact that the minister omitted to mention all additional legal fees and only provided the cost of hours.
This is not about being wrong; this is about the fundamental question of the obligation of the government to speak truthfully in this chamber.
I note that previous Speakers have ruled that in the event of contradictory information, the matter can be brought to the House to be dealt with.
For example, the Speaker, on March 3, 2014, stated:
...the fact remains that the House continues to be seized of completely contradictory statements. This is a difficult position in which to leave members, who must be able to depend on the integrity of the information with which they are provided to perform their parliamentary duties.
Accordingly, in keeping with the precedent cited earlier in which Speaker Milliken indicated that the matter merited “...further consideration by an appropriate committee, if only to clear the air”.
I believe that the same situation exists today and that the remedy should therefore be the same.
The fact that the Canadian government even spent a cent fighting the most vulnerable of its own citizens in court to deny them their indigenous rights and human rights is callous and shameful. However, the fact the government misled the House and provided incomplete or inaccurate information regarding the amount of money that it has wasted on such reprehensible actions is unacceptable. I asked the government to answer these fundamental questions. We need to know that the government will respond with true and accurate figures to an Order Paper question about how much money was spent at the Human Rights Tribunal.
That is in accordance with page 63 of Erskine May's Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, which states that “...it is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
Also, I am demanding that the Minister of Justice explain to this House and the Canadian public why the information that was provided in response to the Order Paper question differs so much from the information that was provided to Ms. Cindy Blackstock through multiple ATIP requests in his own department. The Canadian people have a right to know.
I will wrap up here. In conclusion, this matters because what we are dealing with are the lives of children. It mattered to Kanina Sue Turtle, Tammy Keeash, Tina Fontaine, Amy Owen, Courtney Scott, Devon Freeman, Chantell Fox, Jolynn Winter, Jenera Roundsky, Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace, and all the other children who have been broken in this system that failed them. Parliament needs to know that these children were loved. We had an obligation to do better.
The Parliament of Canada called on the government and the justice minister on December 11, 2019, just after we learned the horrific details of the death of Devon Freeman, to end his legal battle against the children. He has ignored the rule of Parliament. He has ignored the obligations under the Order Paper question. I ask you to address this.