Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a question of privilege for an issue that I think goes beyond merely the procedural wrangling that often happen in the House. It speaks to issues that are confronting us as a nation and very much goes to the heart of what our obligations are as parliamentarians and what we need to do as a nation to address historical wrongs.
As I walked to Parliament Hill this morning, I noticed that the national flag continues to fly at half-mast. It is an extraordinary move that flags across this nation are at half-mast. They are there, of course, to pay respect to the 215 children of the former Catholic residential school in Kamloops whose bodies have been found. We now know about children found in Manitoba, and we know that we will find many other children who never got to go home.
I am sure members took the time to stop at the eternal flame to see the extraordinary outpouring of sadness and respect for the children who have been taken. It shows that Canadians, from all walks of life, are not only shocked and saddened by what has happened to indigenous children, but are looking to these institutions to correct it. The deaths of these children were not accidental. These children died through deliberate policies that were made in the chamber of the House of Commons. The taking of indigenous children from their families was done to destroy indigenous identity in Canada, and it meets the international test of genocide, as the destruction of a people involves the taking of children.
I say this, in leading up to my point of privilege, to encourage my colleagues and citizens to go see the memorial that is at the flame right now. For the indigenous people of this country, these are not historical wrongs, although the government always uses that term. It is a present-day attack through the broken social welfare system, through the taking of children that has continued without pause since Confederation. We have more children in the broken child welfare system today than were ever taken to residential schools.
The background to this, of course, is that in response to the revelations in Kamloops and the shock on the part of Canadians and the demand for action, we brought to the House, on June 7, a motion that was passed unanimously. It reads:
That, given that,
(i) the discovery of the grave of 215 children at Kamloops Indian Residential School has led to an outpouring of grief and anger across Canada,
(ii) the vast majority of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action remain uncompleted, despite the clear path to justice and reconciliation that the Commission provides,
(iii) survivors, families and nations are demanding concrete action to advance real reconciliation, as opposed to just more words and symbolic gestures,
the House call on the government to:
(a) cease its belligerent and litigious approach to justice for Indigenous children by immediately dropping its appeal before the Federal Court in file numbers T-1621-19 (compensation) and T-1559-20 (Jordan's Principle for non-status First Nations kids recognized by their nations) and to recognize the government's legal obligation to fully comply with Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders in this regard;
(b) agree to sit down with the St. Anne's residential school survivors organization Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin Association to find a just solution to the fact that survivors’ access to justice has been denied as a consequence of the actions of government lawyers in suppressing evidence at the Independent Assessment Process;
(c) accelerate the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, including by providing immediate funding for further investigation into the deaths and disappearances of children at residential schools in compliance with calls to action 71 to 76;
(d) provide survivors, their families, and their communities with appropriate resources to assist with the emotional, physical, spiritual, mental, and cultural trauma resulting from residential schools; and
(e) within 10 days, table a progress report on actions taken in compliance with paragraphs (a) through (d) of the present motion, and that this report be deemed to have been referred to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs for consideration upon tabling.
I want to stress the call that within 10 days, we “table a progress report on actions taken in compliance with paragraphs (a) through (d) of the present motion”, which was passed unanimously in the House of Commons, and we refer the report to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
Late last night, the Liberal government presented a report at the eleventh hour, but this report in no way addresses the seriousness and specificity of what was laid out in the motion. In fact, it looks like some staffer did a cut-and-paste job and looked some stuff up on Google, and then had the temerity to present it to Parliament. What we see are Liberal electoral claims and claims from the previous budget announcements, but they in no way meet the test of what was laid out in a very serious motion about reconciliation and justice, particularly in the call to end the federal court cases in files T-1621-19 and T-1559-20 and recognize the government's legal obligation to fully comply with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings. The report did not respect the right of members of the House to receive the documents and information needed for us to see whether the government has respected the will of Parliament.
We know that only days after Parliament instructed the Prime Minister to end his belligerent and toxic legal war against indigenous children, he opted instead to instruct the Minister of Indigenous Services and the Attorney General of Canada to return to federal court to try to quash the two federal cases specifically referenced in the motion. Once again, if we look at the memorials for the dead children that have been put up across this country, wherever we look they will show us pictures and stories of the children still being taken today. The Human Rights Tribunal found in 2016 that the government was guilty of systemic discrimination through “wilful and reckless” policies that it knew were harmful to the children. Parliament called on the government to end those court cases and negotiate a just solution.
The motion could not be considered unfair by the government, nor can it say we are not giving it enough time, because we know that the Assembly of First Nations has an offer on the table for the government to get out of court and settle. The government was instructed to do that. The motion was timely, and the issue of the 10 days was important because we knew the government was getting ready to return to federal court. Instead, the government has opted to be held in contempt by the House.
Members should listen to the explanations by the government about why it ignored Parliament. As we know, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Indigenous Services and all the key people on this file did not even bother to show up to vote on the motion. They said they did not vote because they did not want to show contempt for the courts. However, they were more than willing to show contempt for the indigenous people of this country, and they were more than willing to show contempt for Parliament.
If we believe, as a fundamental principle, that it is okay for members of cabinet to absolve themselves of the obligation to respect the will of Parliament and show contempt for Parliament, we are, I think, on very dangerous terrain. We are at a historical moment in this country, and that is why I bring this question to the House with such urgency. I have brought forward questions of privilege in the past about governments doing this or not doing that, but we are talking about the policies that led to the widespread death and damage of generations of indigenous children. The government says these harms are historical, but that has been proven to be untrue. It is ongoing.
What is incredibly cynical is that, in ignoring the order of Parliament, the Minister of Indigenous Services has misled the House time and time again, because we see what is actually in the legal case by the federal government. He claims that it is just trying to clarify jurisdictional questions. No, it is not. It is trying to quash the ruling.
He claims that the tribunal failed to give due consideration to Canada's right to procedural fairness through this process, and that when Canada raised concerns about the lack of procedural fairness, the tribunal stated that any procedural unfairness to Canada is outweighed by the prejudice born by the victims of discrimination.
The minister took that statement, which clearly says that the harms that have been done to children far outweigh the procedural fairness to the government, and is using that to attack the tribunal at federal court.
I raise this because the motion speaks about St. Anne's residential school survivors. In that case, the federal government took the exact opposite position and said that St. Anne's survivors were not entitled to the basic principle of procedural fairness. When it comes to denying basic services and rights to indigenous people, the government flips its argument.
I am getting to the point of the issue of contempt. The House of Commons Procedure and Practice says that while contempt can be hard to define:
The United Kingdom Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege attempted to provide a list of some types of contempt in its 1999 report...[including] without reasonable excuse, refusing to answer a question or provide information or produce papers formally required by the House or a committee [and] without reasonable excuse, disobeying a lawful order of the House or a committee.
Contempt is not limited to specific circumstances. It is intentionally meant to be wide-ranging and to provide the House the ability to determine when that bar has been reached.
In this case, the government has been ordered by Parliament to end its toxic legal war that has cost over $10 million in legal fees, resulted in 19 non-compliance orders and seen obstruction after obstruction. The government has been ordered to end this legal war, and to sit down and negotiate. We know there is a negotiating table waiting for them.
The government has also misled the House continually. Just the other day, the Minister of Indigenous Services claimed that because he has not put a six-year-old on the witness stand technically he is not fighting these children in court. In fact, the government's legal argument rests on the dubious case that because these children were found to have suffered systemic, mass discrimination, which the tribunal refers to as wilful and reckless discrimination, none of them is individually eligible for compensation. How can that be?
The government has also said that there has to be a test. That means that unless these six-year-olds, 12-year-olds and 15-year-olds are brought before a government body to be tested for how much suffering they have endured, the government will fight the tribunal.
The reason that the government was hit with $40,000 of compensation per child has to be understood very clearly. When the ruling came down in 2016 and the Prime Minister said he would not contest the order, he had an opportunity to work with Cindy Blackstock, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, the Assembly of First Nations and other players, and to sit down and negotiate a way to end these harms. Instead, the government did not. It fought, obstructed and continually ran on the principle that it was not accountable for the lives of children. In the end, the tribunal was so frustrated that it gave the maximum penalty of $40,000 per person, per child in this case, because it said it was the worst case of indifference that the Human Rights Tribunal had ever seen. That happened under the Liberal government.
The fact that the government has continued with these actions is contrary to the will of the House and is therefore an affront to the House. It is now up to the House to determine the action that is needed. I say this again, because we are at a historic crossroads. People are looking. Indigenous people are looking to see whether we take this seriously. Canada's argument all along has been that there is no evidence of children having been harmed through systemic, wilful and reckless discrimination. The government says there is no evidence that children have been harmed.
We know that we lose a child every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in those broken systems. We lose three children a week, and no one over there seems to even notice.
Now the government has clarified that it has changed after all this losing, time and time again. My God, the government has had more failures than a Ford Pinto when it comes to fighting indigenous kids in court. It has lost every single decision.
This is not the first time the government has failed to comply with a motion on this exact issue. On December 13, 2019, the member for New Westminster—Burnaby raised a question of privilege alleging the government had not complied with a motion I had presented that was adopted unanimously in the House. It called on the government to abide by a decision made by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on compensation for residential school survivors. In his Speaker's ruling of January 27, 2020, which was the Speaker's very first ruling, he said:
For a motion to constitute an order of the House, it would have to pertain to those matters where the House, acting alone, possesses the power to compel an action. This is true, for example, when the House sends for persons, papers or records, or when it regulates its own internal proceedings. Only in such circumstances will the Chair determine whether disregard for the order in question constitutes a prima facie case of contempt.
We were unsuccessful at that time, but today's case is substantially different because the motion put forward was a substantive debatable motion placed on the Order Paper, and that motion was subject to a recorded division. Therefore, it carries more weight because of the unanimous consent that was expressed in 2019. In this case it was clearly the will of the House that a document be produced and referred to the appropriate standing committee, and that this document was specific to the issues related to the court cases and whether the government was going to respect the will of the House.
Earlier this week, I will remind members, the government was found to have breached privilege on some issues that are very pertinent to this. The official opposition house leader argued this week that, in a May 2019 report on the power to send for papers, the United Kingdom House of Commons procedure committee concluded, at paragraph 16:
The power of the House of Commons to require the production of papers is in theory absolute. It is binding on Ministers, and its exercise has consistently been complied with by the Government.
The Speaker was very wise on ruling on that matter. He stated:
While they are not being challenged, it is still worth recalling that, at the heart of the parliamentary system, and firmly anchored in our Constitution, there are rights and privileges that are indispensable to the performance of members' duties.
For this, we need to receive the documents that treat matters as urgent as the lives of indigenous children and the issue of the finding of systemic discrimination with seriousness and respect.
I am going to conclude, but I want to mention two children: Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox. They were 12 years old and died on Wapekeka First Nation, and I keep their photos with me in my office. The people of Wapekeka begged the government during the Human Rights Tribunal to get help to children in Wapekeka. The government claimed that it was its right to decide whether these children got services, and these two 12-year-old children died. They were loved and they are mourned, like so many other children who have died. The government was found guilty by the Human Rights Tribunal, in one of many non-compliance orders, of being complicit in their deaths and for its attitude that it is not accountable to the Human Rights Tribunal.
Parliament, in paying tribute to the deaths of those children and the other children who suffered, has called on the government to change track, and it is refusing. The vote was a vote for reconciliation. It was a vote for recognizing the role that this institution played in policies that deliberately attempted to destroy children and destroy indigenous people. It was a vote that told the government these issues are not historic wrongs, but ongoing policies that have caused, and continue to cause, serious damage to the indigenous families of this nation. From the residential schools to the sixties scoop, the millennial scoop and the children being taken today, there is an unbroken line of intent, damage and systemic abuse.
I urge members that we are standing at a historic moment of reckoning. Now I would like to quote the member for Nunavut, who just spoke this week, and I will finish on this. She said:
This place was built on the oppression of indigenous peoples.... Our history is stained with...the blood of children, youth, adults and elders. It is time to face the scales of justice.
On one side we have a mountain of suffering, and whenever the government gives us a grain of sand of support, it seems to think the trauma from our past has been rectified and that somehow it deserves a pat on the back. However, it will take a mountain of support to even begin the healing process. As long as these halls echo with empty promises instead of real action, I will not belong here.
I urge the Speaker, in his role representing Parliament and all our members, to hold the government to account for its contempt, its breach of privilege and its ongoing attack on the indigenous families and children of this nation.