Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
We want to express our thanks to the committee for extending an invitation to the Assembly of First Nations to speak to this committee on a very important matter.
Before I proceed with my formal presentation I would like to extend a very warm welcome to the newest member of this committee, Mr. Clarke. It's good to see you.
On behalf of the Assembly of First Nations, I thank the chair and members of this committee for the invitation to appear before you.
As you know, the Assembly of First Nations is the national first nations organization, representing over 633 first nation communities in Canada. First nations leadership as well as the Assembly of First Nations leadership are democratically elected. Our organization derives its mandate and its instructions from the chiefs who meet in regular assembly gatherings. We represent all first nations people, whether they live on reserve or off, regardless of gender.
Throughout the novel process that led to the formation of Bill , we were consistent and clear with the federal government on one important point: that while we would respect their political process and all that it entailed, the government must reciprocate and respect ours. It was in this spirit that I requested to appear at the end of your hearings. I wanted to ensure that all first nation representatives who wished to submit testimony before you could do so freely and unencumbered by the position taken by the Assembly of First Nations, particularly since we were directly involved in the development of Bill .
If individual first nations have expressed a desire for amendments to the legislation, that is their prerogative. This should not be construed as dissent, but rather as democracy at work. The Assembly of First Nations fully respects the voices and opinions of chiefs and first nations peoples in every part of the country.
As I prepared for this presentation, I reflected on the long history of active engagement that we've had on this issue with successive governments. Throughout your deliberations I urge you to be mindful that the ultimate objective of Bill is to improve the specific claims resolution system in Canada. The current process is fraught with conflict of interest, inordinate delays. It lacks critical independence and is underfunded. All of this has resulted in an enormous backlog of over 1,000 unresolved claims. An effective system must be fair, independent, efficient, expeditious, and well resourced. While no system will ever be perfect, I suggest to you that Bill , together with the political agreement, satisfies the elements of an effective system and will bring about much-needed change that we have worked many years to achieve.
Prior to the establishment of the Indian Specific Claims Commission in the early 1990s, the Assembly of First Nations had been active in trying to improve the federal system that deals with the resolution of specific claims. In 1996 Canada initiated a joint task force process. This process was effective in bringing together regional representatives to make recommendations with respect to the existing system, culminating in a proposal for the adoption of a model bill that would create an improved system based on key recommendations that included:
(1) The elimination of Canada's conflict of interest through an independent legislative mechanism;
(2) The establishment of a commission to facilitate negotiations;
(3) The establishment of a tribunal to resolve disputes in cases of failed negotiations with the authority to make binding decisions;
(4) Independent funding for first nations research and negotiations; and
(5) A joint review after five years, to include consideration of outstanding matters such as lawful obligations arising from aboriginal rights.
Unfortunately, the report that was issued in 1998 was never implemented. In the intervening period, we've seen other attempts to address problems with the current system, most notably the Specific Claims Resolution Act, , and subsequent attempts to improve that legislation.
In December 2006 the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples released its report on specific claims, entitled Negotiation or Confrontation: It's Canada's Choice. This groundbreaking Senate report represented an important element in enabling the then Minister of Indian Affairs, , to advance significant reforms related to specific claims.
It must be stressed that the Assembly of First Nations was not involved in establishing the parameters of the plan to develop this legislation. We were, however, subsequently invited to participate in the announcement last June and to collaborate with Canada to jointly develop legislation based on the parameters set out in Justice at Last, Canada's proposal to reform the specific claims system.
While the process that ensued should be seen as a success in the context of this initiative, this success has not defined a new approach or relationship when it comes to law and policy development in other areas that are important to first nation communities and our citizens.
I want to talk a bit about the engagement with the Assembly of First Nations.
represents a tremendous collaborative effort between first nations and the federal government at achieving agreement on the design, composition, and mandate of an independent specific claims tribunal. The successful elements of this mutual development were, first, that the legislative drafting process incorporated interests that had already been identified as critical to its success, mainly through work that had been conducted over many years, including the work of the 1998 joint task force report. From this standpoint, the main thrust of this initiative embodied a shared objective.
The second element was that a shared objective, the approach that was used to advance this initiative, involved constructive collaboration and cooperation. It included AFN representation at all levels and was guided by both a senior political forum and a senior technical committee.
We have always maintained that meaningful upfront engagement with first nations is more efficient and effective than unilateral top-down imposed processes. and the political agreement are examples of this. In fact, despite the various proposals for amendments, the majority of witnesses who have appeared before you have admitted that this bill will improve the claims resolution system.
The Assembly of First Nations has extensive experience in facilitating first nation and crown discussions on law and policy change, which I note is distinct from federal legal obligations to consult with first nations on matters affecting our rights and interests.
It is clear through case law and through our clearly stated position that the Assembly of First Nations cannot serve as the crown's agent to conduct consultations, nor as a replacement for direct consultations with first nations. However, our proven track record in advocacy, communications, and analysis supports both the crown and first nations efforts to consult effectively.
This said, the AFN has never committed to undertake the government's responsibility to consult with first nations about . That remains a federal legal responsibility. Rather, we undertook to ensure that the perspective of first nations was central to the legislative drafting process and to help inform first nations, to engage our citizens in dialogue on the contents of the bill and the political agreement.
We have made every effort to live up to our obligations while respecting the federal government's repeated insistence on the confidentiality of the discussions. While respecting the concern with confidentiality, we did everything in our power to get information to our people. We provided updates to first nations people as often as we could during the process, again fully respecting the government's need for confidentiality.
Once the legislation was publicly available, we conducted an intensive national campaign to inform our people about this. We visited virtually every region in Canada in what was less than a two-week window of opportunity, and we mailed out a comprehensive summary of our accomplishments on the very day that the legislation became public.
First nations were calling for more information and engagement throughout our collaboration with the government, but we respected the conditions that had been placed on this process. We have honoured our commitment to confidentiality, no less than we expect the members of this committee to honour the right of first nations to appear before this committee and to propose amendments. This does not mean that things have gone wrong. Quite simply, it is an indication that things have gone right.
No legislation or public policy will ever address all the concerns or issues of the people it affects. However, by involving our people in this development and allowing the diverse first nations interests to be heard, the government will have utilized the ingredients for a more positive outcome.
It has been our experience--and this is borne out in the process resulting in the Specific Claims Tribunal Act--that joint policy and legislative development processes are the best means for reaching sustainable, accountable, and innovative development on issues that directly affect our people. We encourage the government, and indeed all parties in the House, to learn from the success of this process and to apply it to other policy areas in which our rights and interests are affected--for example, safe drinking water, the apology to first nation survivors of the Indian residential school experience, and the OAS draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, to cite just three examples.
However, to date we have been unable to replicate the very successful collaborative process of Bill in other policy areas, such as matrimonial real property, the repeal of section 67 in the Canadian Human Rights Act, and the Fisheries Act renewal.
It is unfortunate and regrettable that as of yet we have not been able to forge an open, ongoing, reliable, stable relationship with the current government that meaningfully reflects and respects the government-to-government relationship between first nations and the government. We see this as a missed opportunity.
Admittedly, Bill has not addressed all the inadequacies of the specific claims policy or process. However, these inadequacies were to some degree non-negotiable, because they fell outside the legislative framework that was provided to us as set out in the Justice at Last mandate.
I am getting close to the end, Mr. Chair. Sorry.
The shortcomings of the federal mandate led to the creation of the political agreement. It is very important that this signed agreement and the commitments therein be implemented in the spirit in which they were entered into. The political agreement, along with subclause 41(1), which provides for a five-year legislative review and report process, are mechanisms by which the range of proposed amendments may be addressed.
It is very important to keep in mind that the ultimate objective of this initiative is to resolve and settle claims faster and more fairly than the current system will allow. We must end 60 years of unsuccessful attempts and look to create a system that will effectively reduce these debts that are bogging down both Canadian and first nations economies.
The bottom line is that a new, independent tribunal with powers that bind the parties to a maximum value of $150 million, in tandem with further commitments embodied in the companion political agreement, will indeed make a significant difference in improving the process and in expediting claims resolution. Therefore, it is very important to seize this historic opportunity to pass this legislation and to ensure that the federal government fully implements the undertakings and joint process outlined in the political agreement.
While first nations have proposed some thoughtful and potentially beneficial amendments, the Assembly of First Nations is prepared to accept Bill and the companion political agreement based on the significant improvements they embody. The corresponding commitment of this government is to live up to each and every undertaking it has made therein.
The Assembly of First Nations is fully committed to cooperative, collaborative, and constructive engagement, and we trust that the Government of Canada is as well. That is our true path to progress on this and the many other issues that require our collective energy and efforts.
I want to make one final comment here before I turn it back to you, Mr. Chairman. By the way, I really appreciate your giving me a bit of extra time.
When we began this process, including when I stood before the country with the Right Honourable Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the then Minister of Indian Affairs Jim Prentice, we gave a commitment that we would undertake a collaborative process with the government. We committed ourselves to this process. We wanted to achieve success. We wanted something that would be a vast improvement over what we have now. We gave our word. We never intended to retreat from our word, and there should have been no question about our commitment from any quarter. Our commitment was real. Our word was true, and this is what we brought to the process--no more.
I certainly don't want to give mixed messages or leave you with the wrong impression.
The questions that were posed and that I responded to here have to do specifically with Bill C-30. And I described how we entered into the process, the fact that we had to bring some trust to the process, and that there was goodwill in the process on the part of both sides.
Trust and goodwill and the success that resulted from ensuring that we were an integral part of this collaborative process--because that's what it was--ensured that this would be successful, or as successful as we could make it. That's why I come here, certain that this will bring about the kinds of changes that first nations have been seeking for a long, long time. I said 60 years. It's beyond 60 years, but 60 years is when government started making an effort to resolve these land matters.
In terms of other issues, and the role of the Assembly of First Nations in these other issues, and whether I'm satisfied that the government has treated us fairly in terms of addressing those issues, that's a different proposition. That's an entirely different question. I mentioned matrimonial real property, the repeal of section 67, fisheries, water, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the current work related to the Organization of American States and the declaration of aboriginal peoples in that regard. I could list a whole number of issues where I have been really disappointed and bothered by the approach taken by the government.
First of all, the Assembly of First Nations is a legitimate political organization. It represents distinct peoples with rights that are unique to them. We are as legitimate as you are, representing the BQ; as you are, representing the NDP; as you are, representing the Liberal Party; and as you are, representing the government. We're not less than you. We shouldn't be treated less than you. We're important to Canada. Our issues are important to Canada. The fair and just resolution of our issues is important to Canada.
Because we represent distinct peoples with unique rights, with interests to the land that are different from any other Canadian, you can't expect us to come here and do your bidding for you, the government. You should trust that when we have something to say, our position and our statements have as much validity as your statements, your words, and your positions. We can't be treated any less than that.
We've demonstrated that when we're treated with respect, with integrity, with appropriate goodwill, we achieve success. But governments can't pick and choose on what issues they're going to treat us with respect. It doesn't work that way. That is why I was very concerned when there was a suggestion that the fact that we had asked to be last here was somehow demonstrating our lack of confidence in our work. How could that be? I couldn't come here and criticize our work, because it is ours. The outcome before you, the piece of legislation before you, is a direct result of our joint efforts.
I just wanted to make sure today that whatever I had to say didn't take away from the good work that went into this piece of legislation, because it is indeed good work and it will bring about some real improvements, positive improvements to our communities.
On other issues, as I said, I'm so disappointed. I've committed myself to working with this government, making every effort to establish a good, respectful relationship with the government, and through the process of an effective, respectful relationship convince them that our agenda should be theirs as well. We shouldn't be treated as an afterthought. Our views shouldn't be disregarded. We want to make a difference in the lives of the people I represent. We have some huge challenges, and I have some very serious concerns about some of the issues where the interests of first nations people have been completely disregarded.
For example, the suggestion that we're against the human rights of women is a complete fabrication. We are for human rights for all our people. The suggestion was that because we wanted a three-year delay in the legislation, Bill, this meant that we were not prepared to extend protection to the most vulnerable in our community. All we were trying to do there was make sure that our interests were treated the same as you treat your own interests. Governments that have greater capacity than we will ever have at this point were given three years to ready themselves for the charter, when the charter came into force. We were offered six months. So when we pushed for greater time, we were accused of undermining the human rights of women. That isn't so.
I appear here before you deeply committed, as are all the people I work with, to the human rights of all our people.
Think of this for a moment. There are approximately over 100 women chiefs in Canada. There are approximately 800 women councillors. Do you think those people are against the human rights of women? Of course not. Absolutely not.