Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I will begin by offering my greetings to the committee. Thank you for inviting me to appear.
Briefly, by way of introduction, I am a retired professor of law, which I taught for a few decades, mostly in Canada and Australia. I've focused on law and policy relating to indigenous peoples.
Because of some of the comments that were made, I should also add that I was one of the commissioners appointed by Prime Minister Mulroney to Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996, among other appointments.
I'm here today to make my own professional observations about Bill C-428, not as a representative of anyone. My approach is to make some recommendations based on what I view as good law and good policy based on principles of democracy and constitutional values in Canada.
I offer the following.
The preamble of Bill C-428 characterizes the act as an outdated colonial statute. Is amendment the best way to deal with that? The royal commission's final report in 1996 made some alternative suggestions with regard to amending the Indian Act, but no government since then has undertaken those alternative means, which would by and large involve a negotiation of treaties.
Let me say by way of opening comment that some take the view that amendments to the act involve an attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow's ears, as it were. Given the politically contentious nature of any amendments to the Indian Act, one might add to the image by suggesting the knitting of a silk purse is to take place while tiptoeing through a minefield.
The Indian Act is, indeed, an archaic law that has been imposed upon Indians since 1876, for the purpose of having Ottawa bureaucrats and politicians run the affairs of Indians on reserves. It must be done away with, one way or another. But in Canada you cannot change the state of affairs under which people have been administered for many generations in accordance with the idea that motivated the Indian Act in the first place; that is, that those Ottawa people know better than Indians how to run their own affairs at home. The Indian Act also involves treaty rights because of section 88, which deals with the application of provincial laws and its treaty exemptions.
Clause 2 of the bill, of course, requires that a minister report annually to this committee. My first recommendation is a policy that no amendment to the act is to be proposed or introduced in Parliament without first conducting proper consultations with first nations representatives, and that all bills be drafted in consultation with them.
This approach would tend to promote the democratic principle that laws ought not to be passed without the agreement of those who are to bear the burdens or reap the benefits of the legislation. This approach would at least partly remedy the lack of equitable representation and participation of first nations in Canada's Parliament and government.
My second point is this. Amendments increase the complexity of the law applicable to Indians and lands reserved for the Indians. An annotated publication of the act runs well over 400 pages. Amendments are being made all the time, under various bills, some with obscure titles such as budget implementation acts, and other omnibus bills. These types of bills, which by the way do nothing to promote democratic consideration of proposed legislation, increase the complexity.
There are costs of all kinds worked against first nation interests in such a situation. I note in this regard, that Bill C-45, the recent omnibus bill, also provided for an amendment to the act. That amendment called for the involvement of the minister in the administration of Indian Affairs on a reserve. The interested reader of Bill C-428 will not see that particular amendment.
I will refer to the title of the act. I mentioned that it is a good feature of this piece of legislation that it appropriately identifies the contents of the bill. That's unlike legislation that has recently been passed whose titles obscure the contents of the legislation rather than reveal it. The most egregious example I can think of was known as Bill C-3, which was entitled the gender equity in Indian registration act. That became law in January of 2001. The content of that bill was to deal with the right of individuals to equality before and under the law without discrimination on the basis of sex, as provided in section 15 of the charter. There's no such thing as gender equity in the Constitution.
I will turn now to consider the objectives of the act. What is the mischief to be remedied by the proposed amendments in Bill C-428? The first or preambular statement asserts implicitly that Canada's first nations ought not to be “subjected to differential treatment”. This offends the constitutional recognition and affirmation of the distinct collective rights of Indians as aboriginal peoples who are entitled to differential treatment. Differential treatment is demanded by the law of the Constitution. The easily misunderstood concept of equality of citizenship rights, to which all first nations or Indian persons are entitled, is easily confused, in the public mind and in this preambular statement, with the constitutionally mandated treaty and aboriginal rights, which are collective in nature and demand differential treatment.
My recommendation is that a new, substantive, and not a preambular provision be inserted in the bill that clearly identifies the purposes or objectives of the act. This would go a long way toward assisting in judicial or other interpretation of the legislation. I note that section 3 of the Indian Act—and this is an important provision of the Act—reads that “This Act shall be administered by the Minister, who shall be the superintendent general of Indian Affairs”. Without removing or altering that provision, there might be some difficulties interpreting any sort of an amendment that proposes to do things pursuant to the objectives identified in the preamble.
I'll go now to mention the repeal of sections 32 and 33, which have to do with the outlawing of free trade. If you're not familiar with the history of this provision, I would respectfully urge the members of the committee to look at that, which as I understand began in Manitoba. The Dakota farmers were outdoing the local farmers in the Brandon area and they didn't like that. They contacted their friends in Ottawa and had free trade of agricultural products from the reserve outlawed by these particular provisions.
I would cite the literature of Professor Sarah Carter, who has written a book and some articles that would provide you with an excellent historical background of the way in which this has come about. You will know, honourable members, that section 32 has not been enforced for quite a long time. An order in council from 2010 has exempted all bands on the prairies from this operation. This was a prairie provision.
My modest suggestion in regard to the repeal of these provisions is that you can't dispute that the operation of these provisions would have worked to the economic disadvantage to prairie Indian farmers. The act has contributed to a legacy of poverty and marginalization that forms part of a national mythology of racist assumptions about Indians.
Is it good enough to shut the door on this bad legacy? I suggest that when we shut that door we open another door. The repeal of these provisions is an invitation to you, to the federal government, to set up remedial programs to boost Indian agriculture to make amends. Experts in the field would be able to advise you on the details of such programs, but certainly, you will agree that the objective is one that's recommended by a genuine sense of doing the right thing today.
I refer now to the wills and estates provision, which is clause 7 of the bill and which proposes the repeal of sections 42 to 47 of the Indian Act.
By the way, I suggest that some cleaning-up of the drafting be done. The drafting, in respect to clauses 5 and 7, could be done a lot better rather than throwing headings and substantive provisions all in one basket and saying we're repealing all of that. It's better to clean it up and say, “We repeal the heading, we repeal section 32, we repeal section 33”, rather than saying “The heading and blah, blah, blah...”, which can be confusing. We don't need to add unnecessarily to the complexity, and so a little better drafting can help.
The core issue in respect to the proposed repeal of these sections, which have to do with Indian wills and estates, has been considered by the Supreme Court of Canada. Again, the case of Canard from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba in 1976 is a leading authority in this area. With the repeal of these provisions at first blush, it appears that the wills of Indians resident on reserves would now be governed by provincial laws of general application rather than federal laws under the Indian Act. This is the result of the constitutional division of powers as well as the operation of section 88 of the Indian Act.
It would seem at first blush that this type of wills and succession legislation necessarily involves family relations and, therefore, the traditional values of first nations, their customs and practices. If wills and succession legislation, which also by the way affects interests in reserve lands, is part of first nation law, say Cree family law, then there's an important implication of the repeal of sections 42 to 47.
The question is whether these provincial laws of general application to Indian reserve residents apply, and if so, if they are constitutionally valid, notwithstanding the potential infringement of the treaty or aboriginal rights of the Cree people. I note, by the way, that the current government has also introduced other legislation dealing with family homes, and matrimonial interests and rights on reserve, and the same question appears there. So one has to be very careful when scrutinizing the implications of this sort of legislation, otherwise you're inviting litigation, or challenging it for its constitutional validity.
I mention, for the benefit of the members of the committee, that Cree law, and Cree family law in particular, has long been recognized as good law in Canada, I cite the Connolly and Woolrich case of 1867, which is a reported decision.
In regard to the comments I'm making, I note also that the modern treaties being negotiated with first nations include provisions recognizing the authority of these first nations to make laws in respect to particular aspects of family law. For example, the Maa-nulth Treaty of 2007 includes the power to make laws respecting adoption, child custody, child care, social development, and solemnization of marriages of Maa-nulth citizens.
Clause 6 proposes an amendment to current section 36 regarding special reserves and reserve lands. This is a very difficult topic, both as a matter of statutory interpretation and constitutional analysis and as a political issue. It is not all that easy to discern the objective of this particular provision. Again, it would be helpful if you had, as I suggested, some provision to better identify the objective of the legislation.
As I understand the text of the proposed amendment, it would have a prospective effect of only retaining the status of reserved lands that are now in the category of special reserves. By necessary implication, all reserve lands created in the future would have to be lands to which a legal title were held by the federal or provincial government.
The implications of that have to be examined very carefully, I think, given the difficulties of ascertaining the law applicable to Indian reserve lands. I cite in particular a proposal that has been floated around for a few years. I don't believe this has been put in the form of a bill yet. It's been called under various names, including the first nations property ownership act. I've concluded in my work that what has been proposed, at least so far as I've gathered from reading a book by some people who are not lawyers, that the objective of creating fee simple on-reserve land is constitutionally impossible. In fact, that may be one of the reasons why the bill hasn't surfaced yet.