Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Members, it's a delight to be here. I'm obviously very pleased to be here to speak to a bill that's been on the minds of many Canadians and I think especially first nations leadership for decades, and that's Bill .
As you ail know, Bill C-30 is the key element in implementing the broader specific claims action plan announced last summer by Prime Minister Harper along with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine.
While federal governments have entered into treaties with first nations since this country began, we acknowledge there have been instances when the crown has not lived up to its obligations stemming from these treaties and other agreements. will help right those wrongs. In doing so, this bill carefully balances the interests of first nations with the interests of all Canadians.
First nations leaders have been calling for this kind of legislation for 60 years. It has taken willing partners to finally have it become a reality. We have listened, we have worked closely with the AFN, the Assembly of First Nations, to finally get it done, and in the words of National Chief Phil Fontaine, concerning , “it's pretty darned good”.
This bill is the embodiment of a spirit of genuine productive collaboration between the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations. We are showing the rest of the country the benefits of working in partnership towards a common goal, a new and forward-looking way of addressing historic grievances.
By establishing a specific claims tribunal with the authority to issue binding decisions, this government has shown that it is serious about resolving these long-standing claims. And in just two years of office our government has made significant strides forward on land claims, many of which have languished during previous administrations, sometimes for generations.
Last July a joint task force was established between our government and the AFN, consisting of representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, former minister office, and departmental officials, as well as the national chief's office and regional chiefs from British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
This task force oversaw the development of the legislation and was fully supported by a group of technical experts from both the AFN and the federal government who discussed the elements of the bill in great detail.
It's important to look at several key features of this historic piece of legislation. I want to also explain how we have built upon both past recommendations and past criticisms arising from a number of sources--the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples report entitled Negotiation or Confrontation: It's Canada's Choice; the Canada-Assembly of First Nations joint task force report of 1998; and lessons learned from the Specific Claims Resolution Act.
As announced by the Prime Minister on June 12, 2007, claims valued over $150 million will no longer be dealt with through the specific claims process. The tribunal proposed in would have a jurisdictional limit of $150 million, which means the tribunal cannot award compensation in excess of that amount.
I'd like to stress a few points related to this issue.
First, a jurisdictional limit of $150 million per individual claim is a huge increase from the $10 million limit included in the Specific Claims Resolution Act, which was highly criticized by first nations.
Secondly, the vast majority of specific claims can be resolved within this limit through negotiated agreements or through tribunal decisions.
Thirdly, there must be greater flexibility for the very large claims, which can only be achieved by securing separate cabinet mandates on a case-by-case basis. Removing these large-value claims from the application of the specific claims policy and the tribunal process means that the $250 million per year of dedicated funding available on an annual basis will be available for the resolution of more specific claims.
Finally, the Political Agreement National Chief Fontaine and I signed just over two months ago commits the federal government to further discussions on approaches to claims that are outside the specific claims policy and the scope of the proposed legislation.
In summary, this bill and the accompanying political agreement were the result of a collaborative effort that included compromises on both sides. Striking the right balance can be challenging. This initiative is a good example, though, of how when two parties work together the end result will be balanced and fair for everyone. In light of this collaborative process, I would suggest, and I hope, that we can move forward quickly with this bill without amendments.
I have heard some concerns expressed that $250 million per year will not be sufficient to pay for both negotiated settlement agreements and compensation awards issued by the tribunal. As I mentioned, because large-value claims will not be paid out of this dedicated funding and because the federal government retains the ability to have funds paid with interest in installments over a five-year period, I am confident that the funding set aside for the resolution of specific claims will be sufficient.
Lastly, there will be a five-year review of the legislation, which will provide an opportunity to examine whether sufficient funds have been made available.
I would like to spend some time discussing the ineligibility of claims based on treaty rights related to activities of an ongoing and variable nature, such as harvesting rights, to be filed with the tribunal. Let me be clear: these kinds of claims are not being accepted for negotiations under the specific claims policy. The fact that the bill precludes the filing of these grievances as specific claims is not a narrowing of the application of the policy; rather, it's a necessary clarification.
The specific claims policy was designed to deal with historic grievances, with a view to settling outstanding debts and obligations in a final manner. The specific claims process is simply not the appropriate forum to deal with the broader issues of ongoing treaty rights, which are part and parcel of our ongoing relationship with first nations. I'm happy to talk about some of the other initiatives that we have going in British Columbia and elsewhere if members would like to do so.
We do recognize the importance of this issue. For that reason, the political agreement contains a commitment to work together on a joint approach to address other treaty issues not dealt with in the bill or the specific claims policy. This joint engagement will begin with a national historic treaty conference taking place this coming March.
Although the tribunal will hear all varieties of specific claims, including those related to lands, it will only award monetary compensation. First nations may choose to use the money they receive to purchase land on a willing buyer and willing seller basis. As set out in the political agreement, any lands purchased with such funds would have a priority status for addition to reserve.
The first nation interest in the land that was the subject of this specific claim will be released at the time of the tribunal decision. Because so much of the land that is the subject of specific claims is now in the hands of third parties, the release provision is necessary in order to clear title to the land. I would point out that this is consistent with the approach taken in negotiated settlements. Provincial and territorial governments have a role here too. They participate in some negotiation tables, and we look forward to their increased participation in settlement negotiations on specific claims.
Our Conservative government continues to believe that negotiations are the best way to resolve specific claims.
will not bind provincial or territorial governments, unless they have been added as a party to the proceedings and certified in writing that they have taken the necessary steps to be bound by the tribunal's decision.
While we respect the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories, I realize that there may be some uneasiness about tribunal decisions where Canada has been found not to be wholly responsible for the losses of the claimant first nation. I wish to make it clear that if the province or territory has not volunteered to become a party to the proceedings, the tribunal has no jurisdiction to rule on provincial or territorial liability. In the absence of the province or territory, the tribunal will determine federal liability only. However, first nations will continue to be able to pursue their claims against provinces and territories through the courts or negotiations with those parties.
This bill is designed to bring greater rigour to the specific claims process, something which, I believe everyone can agree, is long overdue. During the proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples just over a year ago, many witnesses stressed the need for the federal government to commit in legislation to strict timelines for addressing specific claims. We have done that in Bill C-30.
We've also included consequences if those timelines are not met. This legislation requires the federal government to assess specific claims within a three-year time period. The claims in the existing backlog would receive similar treatment as set out in special transition provisions. In order for the government to be in a position to meet this time period, all claim submissions must meet a reasonable minimum standard to be followed in relation to the kind of information required, as well as a reasonable form and manner for presenting the information.
If the government fails to respond to a first nation as to whether its claim has been accepted or rejected for negotiations within this three-year period, the claim will be deemed rejected, and the first nation will have the option of filing the claim with the tribunal. First nations will also have the option of filing their claims with the tribunal if three years of negotiations have not resulted in a settlement agreement, or if Canada agrees, prior to the end of the three-year timeframe.
It should be highlighted that although a first nation will be able to file its claim with the tribunal after three years of negotiations, it is not obligated to do so. The parties can continue negotiating, but once a claim is filed with the tribunal, unless it is subsequently withdrawn a final decision will be rendered.
With respect to concerns raised by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and others regarding resources for the specific claims process and the development of new guiding principles, I would like to reiterate that these matters were addressed in the government response to the Senate report in the following manner:
||The Government of Canada will be carefully reviewing what resources are necessary to achieve a timely resolution of specific claims and accepts that the principles of fairness, inclusion and dialogue are important to the Government of Canada's new approach to settling specific claims. Obviously, the application of resources will track the new structures.
We have certainly shown that we have worked closely and collaboratively with first nations on the development of and that we will continue to engage in dialogue on many other matters, as agreed in the political agreement I signed in November. We will also be working to ensure that the necessary resources are secured in order to make the new approach to settling specific claims a success.
In closing, I would like to quote from the Senate committee's report, “Negotiation or Confrontation: It's Canada's Choice”. In it, the national chief is quoted as saying:
||Many Canadians are afraid of land claims. People have this real fear that if a claim will be settled, they will be dispossessed of their lands and their property and rights that they enjoy will be taken away. There has never been any desire or any interest on the part of First Nations to dispossess or deny someone else rights that we should all enjoy.
Mr. Chair, the time has come to afford first nations the same courtesy by righting past wrongs and resolving these longstanding grievances. I would encourage all members, no matter the party, to support this important legislation so we can resolve specific claims once and for all, for all Canadians.
Thank you. Those are all good questions.
On the political accord, it was something that was agreed to by the Assembly of First Nations, and I finally agreed to it as well. It was part of the negotiations in Jim Prentice's day, but I signed off on it as we came to the end of the task force work.
The political accord sets out the expectations of the Assembly of First Nations, the national chief, and me on the frequency of meetings and the ministerial commitment to follow through on decisions. Negotiations were started under Jim Prentice, but this is something I readily agreed to. It gives a level of comfort, I hope, to the Assembly of First Nations, in that it operates at the ministerial level. It's not just a departmental office or a wing of something. We want to make sure that the minister himself or herself is engaged in resolving issues surrounding claims.
It's a political commitment, a political accord. Because it's a political commitment, I would think that any minister who holds this job will want to follow through on it. To break this would be very unwise. Much goodwill has been established, and the political accord is more evidence of it. So it's a political commitment. It's not a piece of legislation, but it is an important document that goes right to the highest level of both first nations and the Government of Canada.
The other question, the philosophical question, is what can be done to take us away from the confrontational role that this presupposes? I think this will do three things. One is that we are committing more resources. The current commission, for example, is going to be transformed into a mediation role. It's going to change from simply accepting the claims as they come in and tallying them up in the pile. They've done a lot of good work, but it's going to change. Because of the tribunal, the role will change into a mediative one. That's an important role, and I hope they'll be able to bring parties together and move it along before it gets confrontational.
Overall, the biggest effect is the tribunal itself. The tribunal sets time limits, finally. So first nations will no longer have to take up claims they inherited, which is a frustrating process. It can get pretty nasty, after it's been going on for a generation. If it gets to a stage where you can't see your way to negotiation, or if three years have gone by, it can be sent at first nation discretion to the tribunal, to judges. It's no longer confrontational; the judges will actually make a ruling.
I think the fact that it's there and happening will take a lot of the sting out of it. Instead of a lifetime drag-out fight—and I think we've seen plenty of those in the past—it will encourage everyone to work together. We will all know we have a three-year limit, so we won't waste time. I think that in itself is going to be a great mediating element, a leavening, in the whole system.
The last thing I jotted down here is claims in the system. There is a need to have more resources, and this was one of the things that was identified, both in the Senate report and by the task force. More resources are necessary to make sure that we don't just transfer one backlog to another. Otherwise, I don't know how we can do it. You mentioned the three-year claim. It's at the discretion of the first nations. The first nations will have a choice. They'll be able to refer it to the tribunal if they think it's gone on long enough. It's at their discretion; it's not something the government will do.
I believe the minister can also agree to do it earlier. If first nations come to me and say it's already dragged on so long that they want to move it right to the tribunal, the minister has the ability to do that inside the three-year limit.
I would think some of those claims that have been in the system a long time would be prime candidates to get right in there so we wouldn't have to wait three years for our first claim.