Inaugural Speech in the House of Commons - Opposition Motion on Aboriginal Canadians

Speech to Opposition Motion on Aboriginal Canadians, moved by New Democrat Critic for Aboriginal Affairs Jean Crowder (Nanaimo—Cowichan).

That the House, recognizing the broad-based demand for action, call on the government to make the improvement of economic outcomes of First Nations, Inuit and Métis a central focus of Budget 2013, and to commit to action on treaty implementation and full and meaningful consultation on legislation that affects the rights of Aboriginal Canadians, as required by domestic and international law.

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Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Churchill.

I rise today to deliver my first speech as the member of Parliament for Victoria. I am anxious to contribute to this historic debate on the plight of aboriginal peoples, but before doing so please permit me to begin by sincerely thanking the people of Victoria for giving me the opportunity to serve in this role.

As everyone in this place knows, there is no greater honour or privilege than to serve our fellow citizens. Being part of the Canadian democratic process up close and personal as a candidate recently was without doubt one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I did so with the support not only of my family but also with the help of virtually hundreds of dedicated and selfless volunteers. I want to pay tribute to them for their tireless work because I will never forget that without them I would not be here today.

I must also acknowledge the constant support of the former member of Parliament for Victoria, Denise Savoie, who was so well respected on both sides of the House. Not only was she a very successful Deputy Speaker, but her behaviour in this place was also a true example of the kind of civility and respect I desire to follow. On the basis of conversations with countless members, I can say for sure that she will be greatly missed in this place.

I wish to place my remarks today in context and tell members a bit about why I am so honoured personally to speak about the continuing quest of aboriginal people for justice.

I had the opportunity to work for governments, industry and first nations in consultation efforts before becoming an MP. I was a treaty negotiator for over a decade on Vancouver Island, representing the Province of British Columbia, and I have visited virtually every first nation community on Vancouver Island. I also worked with first nations and Inuit in Nunavut, as well as first nations in northeastern British Columbia in negotiating economic development agreements. I think this work has given me some familiarity with the sense of desperation that marks the lives of so many of our fellow citizens, not only those who live on remote reserves but also those who live in poverty in our major cities.

There is probably little value in repeating the litany of shocking statistics that we all know so well: the suicide rates, the dropout rates, the infant mortality rates, and the deplorable conditions of those living in communities like Attawapiskat or closer to my home in Victoria, the Pacheedaht First Nation.

In trying to come up with solutions, I also believe there is little utility in bringing up the failures and disappointments of the past. It does not help to bemoan the fact that the Kelowna accord was never implemented or that so little seems to have been done with the sweeping and excellent recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

Instead, Canadians of good faith must work together urgently to seek fresh solutions, solutions that are grounded in the work of the past and the blueprint of the Dussault-Erasmus report, but only as a point of departure, because the time for action is certainly long overdue. Fresh ideas are desperately needed, grounded in the recognition of the constitutional rights of first nations to meaningful consultation and recognition of a nation-to-nation relationship between the Crown and first nation peoples.

It is about the word “respect”. All first nations I have been privileged to work with constantly remind us of the need for respect. For example, the language of the Nuu-chah-nulth people uses the word eesok to connote that concept of respect. First nations have demanded that we establish a new relationship grounded on this bedrock principle of respect.

There are two things I would like to speak to today in this context that are essential to meaningful, ongoing economic development that will work for the Inuit, the Métis and first nation peoples in Canada. They are consultation, and the recognition of self-government. The Conservative government simply must do a better job on consultation.

We all know the constitutional duty to consult and, where appropriate, to accommodate aboriginal and treaty rights. However, it is not through endless lawsuits that the concept of consultation will be determined. It is not through these rote exercises of counting how many meetings one attended or seeing who was there, tallying it up and seeing if a court will later say it was satisfactory. That is not what it is about. It is about respect. It is about communication and it is about establishing long-term relationships. These are the three things that will ultimately make the difference.

Courts are not going to accept going through the motions and lots of words. They have not in the past. They will insist on meaningful consultation and, as they have reminded us recently, this is grounded in the honour of the Crown. This will always be the touchstone of our relationship with first nations going forward.

As the recent Idle No More movement and aboriginal leadership has so passionately argued, the current government has weakened the environmental protection laws on which first nation communities depend.

The regrettable omnibus budget bills have failed to take into account treaty rights, the basis of the historic relationship between the Crown and first nation people.

In some parts of the country, notably British Columbia and the north, there were no historic treaties, and so it is section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, that is the basis of aboriginal rights and aboriginal title, as enshrined.

Aboriginal communities simply have a right to participate in the management and disposition of lands and resources over which they have asserted claims, even if those claims have not yet been recognized by the courts or finally resolved.

In more modern times in British Columbia, the duty to consult and accommodate has simply not been observed by the government. For example, the application by Enbridge to build its bitumen pipeline from the oil sands to Kitimat has attracted vociferous opposition from first nations across the province. They are joined by the majority of non-aboriginal British Columbians in saying they oppose this deeply flawed proposal.

The vast majority of first nation communities have said no to this kind of dangerous pipeline and tanker project, as have the people of British Columbia by majority. The risks we are being asked to assume are simply unacceptable. As a recent candidate in a coastal community like Victoria, there is enormous opposition to this project by aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike. I think it is time for the government as well to say no to the kind of shortsighted development that Enbridge represents. It simply has to do a better job with consultation.

Turning to self-government, what does that mean? It means, according to Stephen Cornell of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, three things: that jurisdiction counts, self-government matters, that effective governing institutions are essential and that these governing institutions must be appropriate for the cultures in which they are situated. In short, good government matters.

That is why I would like to salute the excellent work being done by Miles Richardson, former president of the Haida nation, who is now working as a senior associate with the Institute on Governance. The objective is to improve governance arrangements for first nations so they can be more effective partners in economic development.

As I mentioned, the government institutions have to be culturally appropriate and have the support of the people. As Professor Cornell states:

Institutions that match contemporary indigenous cultures are more successful than those that don’t.

In conclusion, I know that the Conservatives will simply say that budget 2013 is all about job creation and economic development and that first nations will benefit as other Canadians do. That is the mantra.

However, without the real application of the constitutional requirements of meaningful consultation and a recognition of self-government and government-to-government relationships, this economic development will not occur and will not be meaningful on the ground of first nations.