Mr. Speaker, while it is always an honour to rise in this place and speak on behalf of the people of Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, this week as we return to Parliament, especially as a member from northern Saskatchewan, I come with a heavy heart. As I begin today, I want to acknowledge the recent tragic events in northern Saskatchewan in the communities of James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon. As the healing journey begins for so many, it is important that in the days and weeks ahead we do not allow our focus to be lost from what is going to be a long and difficult journey for many. Often as the media attention diminishes, so can the help and support. The heavy burden these communities will carry will require a resolve, a resolve to continue to be there for family, friends and neighbours. We must not allow them to walk this journey alone.
It is with these thoughts in mind that I rise to speak on Bill C-29, an act to provide for the establishment of a national council for reconciliation. The work of truth and reconciliation needs to be viewed as a journey rather than a destination. Relationships are not easy, especially ones that have a long history of distrust. That distrust is the reason why a bill like Bill C-29 deserves to be looked at through a lens that focuses on a consensus-building approach. This will create better legislation. It is what is needed and, quite frankly, deserved.
Bill C-29 attempts to honour calls to action 53 to 56 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by creating an accountability mechanism on the progress of reconciliation across the country. Our party supports accountability. In fact, as the party that established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we welcome it. We will support this bill to go to committee and work there to make improvements.
With the purpose of building better legislation and in the advancement of reconciliation, there are a few matters that I feel should be addressed, some concerns, some questions and some suggestions we will make. I would like to take the next few minutes to speak to some of those concerns.
The first concern I will address is around the appointment process of the board of directors of the national council for reconciliation, its transparency and its independence. To help explain this, I want to speak to some of the steps and timelines that led up to Bill C-29 being tabled in the House.
In December of 2017, the Prime Minister announced that he would start the process of establishing a national council for reconciliation by establishing an interim board of directors. By June 2018, only six months later, the interim board of directors presented its final report, with 20 very specific recommendations. It is worth noting, and it was confirmed by the technical briefing last night, that those 20 recommendations were the basis for the draft legal framework. One of those recommendations also included setting up a transitional committee to continue the work that was started.
I want to read a quote from that final report. It states:
As indicated in our interim report, the interim board believes it is important that a transitional committee be set up to continue the work proposed in the interim and final reports. During our tenure, we have heard from various organizations and community members that we need to move forward with speed and maintain the momentum to establish the NCR.
However, inexplicably, it took three and a half years, until December 2021, for the minister to finally get around to appointing the members of the transitional committee. Again, let us be clear. The development of the basis for the legal framework of Bill C-29 was already finished in June 2018. Why the delay?
The current government, time and again on indigenous issues, makes big announcements, holds press conferences, takes photographs and then proceeds to ignore the real and difficult work. Now we fast-forward to June of 2022, when the minister finally tabled Bill C-29, with just two days left in the spring session I might add. That is four years after the recommendations.
It is not just the unacceptable time frames, but the lack of independence and transparency of the selection process that is concerning. From the interim board of directors to the transitional committee to the board of directors of the council, the process of selecting members has been at the sole discretion of the minister. In June, while Bill C-29 was being introduced, there were indigenous organizations that were very public with their own concerns about this process. These concerns are valid, because according to the TRC’s call to action 53, the national council for reconciliation is supposed to be an independent body. I have a simple question. How is it independent if, per clause 8 of this bill, the first board of directors is “selected by the Minister”?
Does the government really expect us to believe, based on its history, that it deserves the benefit of the doubt, and that it would never put forward any undue pressure to get what it wants? Finally, there are the minister’s own words when explaining how this oversight body is needed. He said, “It isn’t up to Canada to be grading itself.”
I think the concerns around the selection process require the minister to be very clear in the House and, more importantly, to indigenous peoples on why he is comfortable in having so much direct control and influence on a body that will be tasked with holding his own government to account on advancing reconciliation.
My next concern is that there is nothing in Bill C-29 that has anything concrete as far as measuring outcomes. Quantifying reconciliation is difficult, I admit, but a close look at call to action number 55 will show that it includes several items that are, in fact, measurable. I will give a few examples: the comparative number of indigenous children to non-indigenous children in care and the reasons for that; the comparative funding for education of on- and off-reserve first nations children; the comparative education and income attainments of indigenous to non-indigenous people; progress on closing the gap on health outcomes; progress on eliminating overrepresentation of indigenous children in youth custody; progress on reducing the rate of criminal victimization in homicide, family violence and other crimes; and, finally, progress on reducing overrepresentation in the justice and correctional systems.
The concern is that, if we want to measure accountability, we must set targets that determine success from failure. Like the axiom, what gets measured gets done.
The PBO recently released a report in response to a Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs request that was very critical of the departments of ISC and CIRNAC for spending increases without improvements in outcomes. I am going to quote from the report: “The analysis conducted indicates that the increased spending did not result in a commensurate improvement in the ability of these organizations to achieve the goals that they had set for themselves.” That paragraph ends with, “Based on the qualitative review the ability to achieve the targets specified has declined.”
Maybe this is what the government is afraid of. Not only is there a lack of measurable outcomes in Bill C-29, but the wording seems to be purposely vague, just vague enough to avoid accountability. Chief Wilton Littlechild, who sat on both the interim board of directors and the transitional committee, when referring to the bill, told CBC News that the wording needs to be strengthened.
For example, the purpose section of the bill uses the text “to advance efforts for reconciliation”, but Littlechild said the word “efforts” needs deletion. He says the bill should instead say, “advance reconciliation” because it is building on work that has already laid a foundation. The preamble of the bill states that the government should provide “relevant” information, which Littlechild says leaves the government to determine what is important or not. “We could've taken out those kind of words,” he said.
When added all together, it seems that there is a pattern of reducing the risk of accountability in the wording of the bill and in the lack of measurable outcomes that would require the government to follow through on its words and actions.
My final concern is around who responds to the annual report issued by the national council. Subclause 17(3) of the bill states that the minister must respond to the matters addressed by the NCR’s annual report by “publishing an annual report on the state of Indigenous peoples that outlines the Government of Canada’s plans for advancing reconciliation.” This does not honour the TRC’s call to action number 56, which clearly and unequivocally calls on the Prime Minister of Canada to formally respond.
The Prime Minister has consistently said that, “No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.” Actions speak louder than words and the Prime Minister should be the one responding directly, not delegating that responsibility to the minister.
In closing, as I stated earlier, our party will support Bill C-29 and, in the spirit of collaboration and in response to the minister's own words of being willing to be open to “perfecting” the bill, will work with the members of the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs and will offer some amendments that we believe will make this bill better.
It is now our duty to ensure that Bill C-29 is a piece of legislation that truly advances reconciliation.