Thank you, Mr. Chair.
It's a pleasure to be back before this committee for the first time in the new Parliament, especially with so many new faces on this truly important committee for Canada. I, too, want to begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin people.
I am pleased to be here with my honourable colleague the Minister of Indigenous Services, Mr. Marc Miller, and our deputy ministers.
We understand that we've been asked to talk about the recent blockades and protests across the country, but I think I'm here mainly to talk about the complex underlying issues at their core. Our government understands that the recent rail blockades have had real impacts on Canadians, businesses and people across the country who rely on a working rail service to get to work, transport goods and keep their businesses running successfully, and also on indigenous peoples.
I think, as you know, that across all government departments, we're working around the clock to resolve this in a peaceful and lasting way. We welcomed the news last week that the remaining rail blockades had been removed and that regular rail service is resuming.
I think we understand that Canadians have been frustrated as they saw the impacts of the recent rail blockades continue, and some opposition politicians, we worry, were unfortunately focused on, as I think I said in the House of Commons, exploiting divisions within a community, which is not going to get us to lasting solutions and the kind of healing needed.
As the Prime Minister said so eloquently, Canadians expect us to work together to get through this together.
Marc and I are here to answer questions you may have because we believe it's really important that all of us truly understand the complexity and sensitivity of the situation and the danger of some of the inflammatory rhetoric we have heard in recent weeks.
As a physician, I am reminded that it's also the obligation of all parliamentarians to firstly do no harm. We need a lasting solution so that nations can take decisions together to achieve the certainty required for first nations, Métis and Inuit to ensure that their communities are healthy and vibrant.
The issues at the heart of this situation extend beyond a particular project, and deal with complex matters of indigenous governance, rights and title.
Over the past several weeks, my B.C. counterpart and I have been in ongoing communication with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs to try to de-escalate the situation and find a path forward to deal with these issues in a substantive way. While policing decisions are made independently and free from political influence, we were pleased that the RCMP in B.C. worked with the Wet'suwet'en to make operational changes to de-escalate the situation and make room for the in-person talks between the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and the federal and provincial governments.
We were also encouraged that Coastal GasLink independently agreed to pause work on the project during in-person discussions to help make that possible, and we were very grateful for Nathan Cullen's work in the de-escalating of the situation among all parties.
The weekend before last, when I met in Smithers with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and the B.C. government, we had very frank and substantive discussions, guided by respect, on issues around Wet'suwet'en rights and title. We were also pleased that the members of the Wet'suwet'en Matrilineal Coalition participated in the first night of the meeting, and we were able to hear their very important perspective directly. These talks focused on two separate issues: the recognition of Wet'suwet'en indigenous rights and title throughout their territory and the issues arising out of the Coastal GasLink project. These topics were discussed separately, and with respect to rights and title, the parties focused intensely on the commitments to an expedited process to implement Wet'suwet'en rights and title.
The result of these discussions was a draft arrangement that will be reviewed by the Wet'suwet'en clan members in their clans and in their houses through the Wet'suwet'en governance protocols for ratification. I believe that over these two weeks...that they need that space to have those conversations independently of outside voices. I believe that the removal of the remaining rail blockades last week and the resumption of rail service provides the Wet'suwet'en nation with that space to have this important conversation of rights and title within their territory.
Out of respect for the process, Canada has agreed that the Wet'suwet'en Nation would have the time to consider the details of this arrangement before it was made public. If ratified, Minister Fraser and I have agreed to return to the Wet'suwet'en territory to sign it, and the parties have agreed to implement title on an expedited basis and to coordinate how we will work together. We are inspired by the courageous Wet'suwet'en people who took the recognition of their rights to the Supreme Court of Canada in the historic Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa case in 1997. We need to be clear that the court did not, at that time, grant title to their lands; it affirmed the rights of the Wet'suwet'en, but said that the question of title was to be determined at a later time and then implemented.
I believe that this arrangement with the Wet'suwet'en people will now be able to breathe life into the Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa decision so that future generations do not have to face conflicts like the one that they face today. As the late chief Wah tah Kwets said in the Delgamuukw case, “It is up to us to create a new memory in the minds of our children.”
While work remains, these talks have been an important step on reconciling complex matters of rights and title.
From education to fisheries, to child and family services, to policing, to court systems, we have made important strides forward in the hard work of what Lee Crowchild describes as “deconstructing the effects of colonization”.
Over the past five years, we have been moving away from the parameters of the Comprehensive Land Claims and Inherent Right policies.
Our government's approach to negotiating rights-related agreements is being developed through lessons learned from the over 150 recognition of indigenous rights and self-determination discussion tables across Canada. These negotiations involve almost one million indigenous people from 480 first nations, 44 Inuit communities and seven Métis organizations. Since 2015, we have been advancing interest-based discussions and ensuring that co-development is the core of any negotiations with indigenous groups.
In 2019, the governments of Canada and British Columbia and the First Nations Summit co-developed the recognition of reconciliation rights policy for treaty negotiations in British Columbia. This new policy eliminates the concepts that were the barriers to future treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements, including extinguishment and cede and surrender. It demonstrates Canada's commitment to working collaboratively with indigenous and provincial partners, based on the affirmation and implementation of indigenous rights and in accordance with the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Together we are committed to resolving the issues we face and to implementing Wet'suwet'en rights and title. We understand that we are in a critical time together, and we are committed to building a new path together with indigenous peoples across Canada.