Mr. Speaker, as my party's critic for indigenous and northern affairs, I am pleased and proud to rise today to speak to Bill C‑29. Being critic for indigenous and northern affairs takes humility and perspective. Certainly the same goes for every portfolio, but I like to mention it.
I rise to summarize everything I heard from witnesses in committee and from people I have talked to about Bill C‑29. It is a bill that is important to indigenous peoples, meaning first nations, Inuit and Métis people. I want to talk about it as respectfully as possible, as I did during the committee study with my colleagues who are here today.
My thoughts are with the first nations living on the North Shore, the Innu and Naskapi. I send them my greetings. They know that I want to do my work very respectfully while keeping their wishes in mind. Even though sometimes first nations individuals and families do not all want exactly the same thing, there is a consensus, and that is what we tried to focus on when studying this bill in committee.
Having said that, I will divide my speech into several small components or several different subjects. These are the subjects that we discussed in committee and that, in my view, really stood out.
The purpose of the council that will be created by the bill will be to monitor the progress and advancement of work done as part of truth and reconciliation efforts. First, I would like to address something that was raised by several witnesses at the committee with regard to the word “reconciliation”. A few minutes ago, some of my colleagues spoke and tried to qualify the term “reconciliation”. They tried to categorize it and say that it must not be this or that.
I must say that, before all that, many indigenous people and members of indigenous communities said that they did not agree with the word “reconciliation”. If we stop and think about it even a little, we realize that that word basically implies that there is already some sort of conciliation and relationship, that something has already been created. However, we have been told that there was nothing at the start, that there was no “us”.
When we talk about reconciliation, we are starting off using a false term, one that I must point out is not even defined. We are working on a bill about truth and reconciliation, but the term “reconciliation” is not even accepted, because it is not considered the appropriate word for the situation and, on top of that, it has not even been defined. As legislators, when we study a bill, we also need to start from that point. At the very start, before we even begin, there is already a stumbling block, a problem, and we need to take that into account throughout our work. I spoke about the word “reconciliation”. That seems really simple, but it is the first principle.
I would like to move on to another subject, namely consultation.
I was surprised to learn that the Innu and Naskapi in my riding, along with members of other communities elsewhere, had no idea that consultations had taken place for this bill. They were not even aware that it existed. At committee, we learned that only a few communities had been consulted. Based on the information I have and my perception, which is not necessarily the truth, I get the impression that the consultations were hastily cobbled together. Clearly, not many people were consulted, but all the communities could have been systematically consulted to get a broader picture. That way, more people would have been consulted, not just those who are more informed than others or who have a network of contacts that allows them to be more aware of what is going on.
That came up in committee too. I will have more to say later about representativeness, because I see that as a very important part of the bill. I am not saying that the consultations were kept quiet, but not everybody was consulted. Only a very small percentage of people were consulted. Furthermore, it was not necessarily representative of what first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples want to see in the bill. For me, that was a concern. It was also a red flag about what else was in the bill, such as the issue of representativeness.
Actually, I want to talk about this right now. I do not mind skipping two or three points that I will come back to later, because this is definitely connected to the issue of representativeness.
The bill creates a board of directors. There was an interim board and a transitional committee, and now there will be a board of directors where positions are assigned to different entities, namely national organizations that represent indigenous people. The committee wanted to make the board more representative. We wanted to know why only three organizations were mentioned in the bill, when there are five that represent indigenous peoples nationally. That was a problem for us. I wanted to know why three were mentioned, when there are five. Not only did we not get a satisfactory answer, but we did not get one at all. We wanted those groups to be included.
People came to testify and said that they did not feel represented by such and such organization and that it was another organization that represented them.
Take the Native Women's Association of Canada, for example. Half the indigenous population is made up of women or people who identify as female. They should also be represented. They were not included. We often come back to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, and we are currently talking about the whole issue of violence, including sexual violence, but those were nowhere to be found in the bill either.
From the standpoint of equity and representativeness, I would be remiss if I did not say that this is part of the work the committee did. It was done as a team. Earlier, I heard comments about how people were antagonistic, but we really did have some very interesting discussions, including some with my colleague from Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River. There were some good discussions; it was remarkable.
There are other groups that were not represented. Although I am not an indigenous person myself—I am white—I do spend time with people, I have friends, I am aware and open, so I have absorbed some indigenous culture, including Innu-aimun and Innu-aitun in my riding.
Consider elders, for example. When we think about reconciliation and residential schools, elders were not automatically represented in the bill. That was the first thing that occurred to me. I did not stop there. I consulted people. Witnesses were also asked whether the bill ought to include elders, or rather survivors. They said that we were talking about elders, but that we should be calling them survivors of colonial practices and policies. This was also included in the bill.
I am talking about elders. I also talked about women. Basically, we wanted to ensure that membership on the board was not limited to certain groups selected by the minister himself from the outset.
This brings me to a point that I have not yet mentioned, but it is something that I do want to talk about: independence. I am not talking about Quebec independence. I am talking about the independence of the board. Independence is important to us.
Of course we need to start doing something, and we understand that the minister is involved, because this is his bill. Of course we want him to start the work, but we also want the board to eventually become autonomous and independent, with members appointed by the members of the transitional board. That is what we want, and we have talked about making the council more independent. The word “independent” was a key word in our discussions.
“Transparent” was another a key word. My Conservative Party colleague made a very worthwhile proposal that the Bloc Québécois completely agrees with, because we believe that the nations are nations unto themselves. The leaders are leaders of nations and should therefore be able to address their Quebec or Canadian government counterparts.
We wanted the Prime Minister himself to be required to respond to the report that will be tabled by the council every year. That was extremely important to most of us. There is talk of a nation-to-nation relationship, but such a relationship requires that the Prime Minister himself be held accountable for responding to the council's requests.
As we come to the end of the process, I must say that the opposition in particular has done a lot to strengthen Bill C‑29. It has improved representativeness by enabling more indigenous people and more indigenous groups from different backgrounds to add their own colours to the council.
Earlier, we talked about economic reconciliation. Yes, the Conservatives are talking about it, but some indigenous groups are also talking about it. We need to look at reconciliation from all angles. In short, sectoral committees may be struck at that time, and the council itself would be responsible. I really think we have improved the bill in terms of transparency, independence and representativeness.
I would really like everyone to keep in mind that everything can be improved. I hope that the voice of indigenous people will be heard through this new mechanism, which will have significant power because it will be able to monitor the government's progress.
Symbolism is something that comes up a lot. Previous speakers talked about it. Other people generally get the impression that actions vis-à-vis indigenous groups and individuals are merely symbolic. I said “other people”, because I was not thinking of myself as part of that group, but I could be part of it.
Symbolic gestures may cost money, but they do not cost the government anything. They do not have a negative impact on the government or force it to take more meaningful and nuanced action. Admitting wrongdoing is one thing, but making it right is another. Saying sorry is not enough.
All I want to say is that we really hope to see more action. We hope indigenous people themselves will get really involved in this. We hear talk of a nation-to-nation relationship on the one hand and “by indigenous people for indigenous people” on the other. They are the ones who will be able to assess, draw conclusions and make recommendations. That is what will enable us to go beyond symbolic gestures, which may confer a temporary halo upon the government but do not really change anything in the day-to-day lives of indigenous people. It may have an impact on those who are close by, but not on those who are far away.
I would like to invite all members of the House to visit my riding. Kawawachikamach, Matimekush‑Lac John or Unamen Shipu are far removed from statues and celebrations. I completely agree that we must celebrate indigenous cultures, but they face other difficulties. I used the word “difficulties”, but that is an understatement because these communities have major problems that must be resolved. Naturally, the council could speak to that.
In closing, I would like to again address my constituents to point out that even though it is quite simple, the testimony and the fact that consultations are held, and not just superficial consultations, really help improve bills.
I am thinking, for example, of Marjolaine Tshernish of the Institut Tshakapesh, an organization that promotes Innu culture across Quebec, but also in Labrador, because there are Innu communities there. She told me that it was difficult for her. She was concerned about what would happen next, for example with the council. For some, Innu is their first language, but for others living elsewhere, their first language may be French or English. She said that she did not yet have that information and that she was concerned that she did not have it. Innu is her language. She also speaks French, but she does not speak English. She said she wanted to ensure that there would be a francophone presence on the council.
I also worked to ensure a francophone presence on the council. For me, that is a big win in terms of representation. Some may say that I thought about French or francophone issues because I am a member of the Bloc Québécois, but that is not even the case. I must humbly admit that this idea did not come from me. It was the people at the Institut Tsakapesh who pointed it out to me. In short, it is thanks to them that we managed to amend the bill. I apologized to them for not thinking of it myself, but it is something that could have been brought to light through consultations with people and communities whose first, if not second, language is French.
I would like to close by telling you about a very witty Innu chief, Mr. Piétacho, from Ekuanitshit on the north shore. Mr. Piétacho has been a chief for over 30 years. I appreciated his quick wit when he appeared in committee. We all sometimes run into minor technical difficulties in committee. In short, he forgot to take himself off mute and, as soon as he began to speak, our chair told him that he could now speak. Chief Piétacho told the chair that he had been on mute for 500 years but not to worry, he was going to speak.
I hope that this council will give all indigenous people a chance to speak and that this will enable the government to respond and take real action.