That Bill C-79, an act to permit certain modifications in the application of the Indian Act to bands that desire them, be referred forthwith to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
Mr. Speaker, let me first thank my hon. colleagues for considering the motion to move this important piece of legislation to committee for study before second reading.
From the outset this government has sought to form a new relationship with First Nations, a relationship founded on the cornerstone of self-government. We have made significant progress toward that goal and look forward to the day when the inherent right of aboriginal peoples to self-government is fully implemented throughout this country.
While we are working to reach that goal we must also remove existing impediments to the social, economic and political development of First Nations. Some of the provisions of the Indian Act are such impediments.
As self-government negotiations are completed and ratified, and we are currently involved in about 80 different self-government negotiations across the country, the Indian Act will have less and less application to First Nations and no application to First Nations which have concluded their self-government agreements. But self-government will not come overnight and until these negotiations are completed and all First Nations are again self-governing, the Indian Act will continue to be the governing legislation.
For many years the Indian Act has occupied a unique place in the minds and lives of First Nations. It has been seen as both unwanted and necessary, as both offensive and protective, as both a prison and a shield.
In its chapter on the Indian Act, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples quotes Harold Cardinal, a Cree leader who eloquently sums up the ambivalent feelings that many First Nations have toward this act. Cardinal says: "No society with even pretensions to being just can long tolerate such a piece of legislation, but we would rather continue to live in bondage under the inequitable Indian Act than surrender our sacred rights".
This has been a dilemma. Until now, to move away from the oppression of the act could also have meant moving out from under its protection and from its recognition that First Nations have a unique legal position in Canada which includes a special relationship with the federal government. Not surprisingly, there has been great reluctance to change the status quo, yet the status quo cannot and should not be sustained.
This situation had to change. The approach had to be different. That is why we have introduced the Indian Act optional modification act. The bill takes a step away from the Indian Act but it does not distance First Nations from their rights under the act, nor does it distance the federal government from its responsibility to First Nations. But just so there will still be no room for confusion or misunderstanding, we have included a non-derogation clause in the bill to emphasize that the bill should not be interpreted to reduce protection of aboriginal and treaty rights given by section 35 of the Constitution, including the inherent right of self-government.
We also recognize that not all First Nations will want to adopt the provisions of this new act. First Nations will want to study this legislation and understand its implications. That is why the entire bill is optional. Those who choose to opt in will be able to apply the provisions of this legislation to local governance and their day to day business. The current Indian Act will continue to apply to First Nations who choose not to opt in. It will also apply to all First Nations in areas where the proposed act is silent.
Why are we providing this alternative to the Indian Act? Why are we proposing the first major initiative with respect to the Indian Act in 45 years? The answer is simple: fairness requires it; justice requires it; circumstances require it. We have no other choice.
The Indian Act reflects an earlier time, a time when First Nations were treated as wards of the state. It was a time when non-aboriginal governments did not trust First Nations to manage their own affairs and to run their own lives. It was a time when big brother in Ottawa was given the authority to intrude and regulate the most minute aspects of the lives of First Nations. It comes from a time when aboriginal religious and cultural beliefs were suppressed and aboriginal demands for justice and land claim settlements were opposed.
But today is a very different time. Does it make any sense in this day and age that I as minister should have the authority to operate farms on First Nation lands, purchase and distribute seeds and decide how to spend the profits? The Indian Act says that I can without the consent of First Nations and without any notice. The Indian Act also gives me the power to dispose of wild rice and dead or fallen timber on First Nations land without their permission. On the prairies, First Nations farmers cannot even legally sell their wheat or other agricultural produce without my consent.
This is absolutely ridiculous and should not be tolerated. This is not the way to engender self-sufficiency. This is not the way to foster a spirit of economic independence. This is not the way to conduct relations with First Nations in this country.
The simple fact is that an option is necessary. It is necessary to get the government out of the areas that should be within the exclusive domain of First Nations. It is necessary to remove barriers so First Nations can create their own opportunities and build their own futures. It is long overdue.
No government should make these sorts of changes to a specific group in society without consulting them and without offering them every opportunity for input. That is why we have consulted widely and why we propose to consult even more broadly through the committee study. That is why we are making this legislation optional.
There is nothing radical in what we propose. The optional modifications are minor but taken collectively they would increase the power of First Nations while reducing the powers of both the minister and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
The approach is incremental, to act where there is a base of support and consult where there is not. That is the best way to proceed and that is the way we are going. First Nations and governments agree that discussion and dialogue must continue for that very reason.
It is appropriate that this bill should be referred to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development before second reading. This referral to committee is important because it allows us to remain open to further changes to Bill C-79. If we were to go the normal parliamentary route and refer the bill to committee after second reading, there would be a perception of greater limits on the extent of amendments that could be made at committee. It is important not to leave that impression.
We believe there is a need for open public discussion. We want the committee to have the freedom to conduct the broadest possible consultation and to have maximum flexibility in its handling of these proposals. By sending this bill to committee now, there will be an opportunity to hold in depth hearings and to consider further additions to and deletions from the bill.
It is time for this House to consider the establishment of a more formal mechanism, an annual review of the Indian Act by the standing committee through which First Nations may bring forward their concerns about particular aspects of the act. In the meantime the government will continue to focus its energies on implementing the inherent right of aboriginal self-government, settling land claims and improving socioeconomic conditions.
The Indian Act optional modification act will give more power to First Nations which will make it easier to get things done. It represents not a destination but a means to take us there.
I have had this job for three years. I thought that the trail of tears aboriginal people have travelled down for hundreds of years was just that, a trail. It is not a trail. On the way back they thought it was a trail but it is a wall. I see aboriginal leaders across this country
almost taking spikes in their hands and driving into that wall to get over it. We have to destroy that wall. I do not care if the UN has said for three years in a row that Canada is the best country to live in. Until we have destroyed that wall, until we can bring aboriginal people back to where they were at the time of the first encounter, we do not deserve that title. This is one way to a better and more equitable future that we can all be proud of as Canadians.