Speech on First Nations Elections Act (C-9)

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-9, an act respecting the election and term of office of chiefs and councillors of certain first nations and the composition of council of those first nations, also known as the first nations elections act, is what I will be speaking to today.

The bill was first introduced as a senate bill earlier this year and now comes to us at third reading in this House as Bill C-9.

The bill came out of a series of regional round tables centred in Atlantic Canada and Manitoba. The round tables focused on making elections work better for first nation communities.

There is no doubt that there are many problems with how elections currently function in many first nation communities. Indeed, there are problems with how elections function at the federal level in Canada too, including expense claims scandals forcing resignations of sitting MPs and the robocall scandal whereby voters were systematically misled in the hopes of tricking them out of their right to participate in our democratic process. There is room for improvement on all sides.

A troubling feature of first nations elections on reserves is the low voter turnout. As with other Canadian and provincial elections, low turnout is problematic, and it is a sign of more complex underlying issues that need to be addressed.

In terms of first nations elections, New Democrats agree that there is room for improvement, but we also believe there are some significant issues with the bill. I would like to go into a few of those issues.

Bill C-9's key provisions include an election cycle longer than two years.

We agree this is necessary. We support four-year election terms. With a two-year election cycle, disputes can take most of the two-year mandate to solve through the current appeals process, which lacks rigour, transparency, and procedural fairness.

Another provision in the bill is the ability to have a common election date. This is also a reasonable provision. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has called for a single election day so that a region can standardize time spent electioneering.

Another provision gives the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development the power to order a first nation with community designed elections to adhere to the new regime.

New Democrats believe Bill C-9 could allow for more effective self-government if it is limited to opt-in legislation, but the current provisions allowing the minister to determine a band's future without consultation contradict the spirit of self-government.

Another provision is for elections appeals through the courts, rather than through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and for penalties for breaking election rules. Let me speak to these. The hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan has spoken in this place about our concerns with these two provisions.

This act would not specifically allow for either an independent tribunal or an electoral commission, similar to what federal and provincial governments have in place. In this legislation, disputes would have to be resolved in the courts. This requirement could mean increased legal costs for first nations, which already tend to be cash-strapped. Why did the government not consider an independent body that would oversee disputes, as was recommended by the Senate, as well as by the joint ministerial advisory committee's report?

I would like to turn to consultations now.

As I said before, New Democrats want to see first nation elections improved, but this legislation would not amend the Indian Act where some of the most egregious powers of the minister reside.

What concerns me most about the bill is the government's approach to its relationship with first nations. The process seemed to start out relatively well, in terms of the AMC and the APC holding regional round tables on how to improve the elections process. Then, with the support of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, consultations were held on developing new opt-in legislation.

However, as the bill was developed, it seems the government's willingness to work together with others waned. The government had an opportunity to create this legislation in consultation with first nations, but instead it ignored recommendations it received and has refused to make amendments to the bill that were requested by first nations.

The concept of consultation has been disregarded time and time again by the government. Where is the government's commitment to working in consultation with first nations and ensuring consent before legislation is unilaterally imposed?

This strikes me as very similar to some of the issues I worked on in my capacity as deputy critic for Fisheries and Oceans. When the government's omnibus budget bills were introduced, there was much concern over the gutting of habitat protection legislation, as well as a unilateral change to the definition of the term “aboriginal fishery”.

We talked to the government, which insisted it had consulted with first nations on these massive changes, but when we talked to first nations, it was clear that the government's view of the term “consultations” is very different from how anyone else would define that term.

One would think “consultations” would mean a somewhat rigorous process whereby input is legitimately sought and incorporated, or at the very least valued, in the decision-making process. However, what I heard was that these consultations often just meant a brief meeting at which government officials informed stakeholder groups of their plans. It was very one-sided. There was no real effort made to gather input, let alone to reflect this input in the final outcome.

The result of this approach is troubling, and we see it with the bill before us today. Without proper consultation, there is a serious lack of buy-in on the final product, in this case Bill C-9. It means complexities and potential issues in proposed legislation are not fully fleshed out.

I, for one, was not surprised to hear the government's legal bills have soared to exorbitant levels over the past few years. The government has made massive changes to dozens of pieces of legislation, and its approach has tended to be unilateral in terms of lack of consultation and lack of proper debate and review in the House.

We have seen dozens upon dozens of time allocation motions. We see that government-controlled committees refuse to incorporate reasonable amendments to problematic legislation, and then they go in camera so that there is not even a public record of their shenanigans. I would prefer that bills be given thorough study and due process so that hopefully the government can avoid these exorbitant legal costs to fix their mistakes. In terms of the omnibus budget bills, the lack of meaningful consultation with first nations was a key driver in the Idle No More protests across the country.

In conclusion, the Conservative government has promised a new relationship with Canada's first nations, but it is all talk and no action. At every turn, the government prefers to impose legislation without truly consulting with first nations first. First nations have the right to be involved in and consulted on every decision that affects them. The government should work with first nations to solve the problems they are confronting instead of always resorting to knee-jerk paternalism.

I would like to thank the hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan as well as her hard-working staff, who put a lot of effort into understanding this bill and its various propositions and provisions. I would like to thank as well the official opposition critic for aboriginal affairs. She has done an amazing job over the years. My hat is off to her and to her critique of this bill.

While there are a number of good provisions and goals in this legislation before us today, I cannot, in good faith, vote in support of this bill at third reading.