Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to respond to the motion by the hon. member for The Battlefords-Meadow Lake and to debate the claims policy and the establishment of a claims commission.
The government has been looking for ways to promote a commission that would be fair and would be seen to be fair to all aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians who are affected by the settlement of land claims.
The hon. member for The Battlefords-Meadow Lake has been a strong advocate in the House of policies aimed at resolving the outstanding issues relating to the claims process. We have listened to his advice and are looking forward to hearing what the Reform Party has to add.
As for the Liberal government, our approach to the claims process was spelled out in our 1993 election platform. In the red book we placed aboriginal issues at the centre of the public policy agenda. We devoted one of the eight chapters in Creating Opportunity exclusively to aboriginal issues and raised the awareness of the impact of other policies on aboriginal Canadians throughout the document.
We promised the role of our government would be to provide aboriginal people with the necessary tools to become self-sufficient and self-governing. We also said that our priority would be to help aboriginal communities in their efforts to address the obstacles to their development and help them marshal the human and physical resources necessary to build and sustain vibrant communities.
We promised our government would build new partnerships with aboriginal peoples based on trust and mutual respect. A fair and effective land claims process is essential for those objectives. The resolution of the claims must be a priority for all Canadians.
Both aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians require certainty with respect to land rights so that we can get on with the building of the economy, creating jobs and growth, and making our communities better places for our children.
In the red book we acknowledged that the current process for resolving land claims could be improved. We said a Liberal government would implement major changes to the current approach, and we have been working toward that goal.
We have been working alongside the Assembly of First Nations to find a better way to proceed with the resolution of claims. The Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has received several suggestions. Among them is a proposal for an independent Indian land claims commission, as recommended in the annual report of the Indian Claims Commission and as advocated by the hon. member for The Battlefords-Meadow Lake.
We on this side of the House have no objection to such an independent commission. In fact, in the red book we stated that "A Liberal government would be prepared to create, in co-operation with aboriginal peoples, an independent claims commission to speed up and facilitate the resolution of all claims". This shows that we do not oppose the principles outlined in the hon. member's motion.
However, I would like to point out to the House a key phrase of the commitment from the Liberal policy platform. It is that we would create the independent claims commission in co-operation with the aboriginal peoples. Building a consensus among the aboriginal peoples will require time, and we cannot act unilaterally. We cannot impose a solution that will be supported by some but not by others.
One of the major issues at stake is whether a new independent claims commission will be a court-like system with binding judgments or a mediation system with functions similar to those the Indian Claims Commission now performs.
Another issue is whether we can find a better way to bring matters to the attention of the commission. As hon. members are aware, under the current system a claim must be rejected by the Indian affairs department before the matter is brought before the commission. The minister has invited the Assembly of First Nations to provide substantive comments on concrete proposals for change. In co-operation with the First Nations, we are examining how the claim policies can be overhauled within the climate of financial restraint that affects us all.
The Assembly of First Nations has embarked on a project that will involve developing terms of reference for a joint Canada and First Nations review of the Indian Claims Commission. We will have to reach a consensus on these and other issues before we can reform the current system. We need directions from the First Nations on what kind of system they want.
In the meantime, the government has taken the steps required to make sure the system now in place works as efficiently as possible. When we look at what has been accomplished in the past few years, it becomes quite clear that the current system can be used more effectively than it had been before the red book commitments regarding claims process reforms were made.
Consider these figures: After 1990-91 the total cumulative settlements for specific claims numbered only 43. By 1994-95 we have more than tripled that figure to 142. Since taking office this government has settled 45 specific claims. In 1994-95 we settled 18 different specific claims, for a total of nearly $79 million. That is money that will go into aboriginal communities. It will create
jobs for aboriginal as well as non-aboriginal people. It will improve living conditions and it will make aboriginal people partners in the development of a strong and dynamic Canadian society.
Today we are involved in negotiations on another 90 specific claims or are in the process of reviewing another 240 claims submitted by the First Nations. We expect that by the end of the 1995-96 fiscal year we will have settled another 20 to 30 specific claims and we will also continue to receive further claims, which will have to work through the current system until a better system is devised in co-operation with First Nations.
I am certain the hon. member for The Battlefords-Meadow Lake appreciates these points. He wants what is fair for aboriginal people in Canada, as does this government.
[Editor's Note: Member spoke in Inuktitut.]