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Thank you for that kind introduction. I'd like to begin by acknowledging that I am here on the traditional territory of the Algonquin First Nation.
I'm pleased to address you today and believe that this conference will make an important contribution toward strengthening the relationship between Canada and Aboriginal peoples.
Over the next two days, you will hear from some of Canada's leading experts in Aboriginal law, finance and policy. You'll have opportunities to exchange viewpoints with other delegates—including representatives of some First Nations—on fundamental principles such as the honour of the Crown and treaty rights.
As a result, you'll gain a deeper understanding of many current and relevant issues, and you'll be better able to contribute to the collaborative effort that is needed to meet the challenges that many Aboriginal people face in this country.
John F. Kennedy once said: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” And this government has determined to look to the future to bring about that change which is so necessary to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in this country.
As a lawyer and a former Indian Claims Commissioner, I am convinced that legislative reform will be key to resolving the challenges that face so many Aboriginal communities.
We must create a modern legislative framework—one that empowers First Nations peoples, assigns well-defined roles and responsibilities, establishes norms and standards, and specifies consequences for non-compliance.
A properly constituted framework can enable more efficient delivery of the programs and services that can help residents of First Nation communities improve their quality of life. Clearly, modernized legislative frameworks will form a solid foundation towards economic and social development.
Accordingly, this government has launched several initiatives. Today, I will describe a few of these initiatives and relate them to this government's strategy on Aboriginal issues.
The first focuses on drinking water. Upon taking office this government launched an action plan, in cooperation with the Assembly of First Nations, which would ensure that First Nation communities had access to safe drinking water.
This summer, an expert panel on water conducted public hearings with key stakeholders in regions across the country. The focus of these hearings was regulatory options to promote safe drinking water in First Nation communities. The panel heard from water operators, community residents, chiefs of First Nations, scientists and provincial and territorial officials.
Just a few days ago I was proud to announce a similar initiative to address the issue of on-reserve matrimonial real property, or MRP. As many of you know, at present there is an inequality and imbalance of MRP rights for the vast majority of First Nation peoples and communities.
In my view, this can be seen as a fundamental violation of human rights.
To address this, a series of consultation and dialogue sessions are now being undertaken to attempt to identify a legislative solution for the imbalance of MRP rights on-reserve. These sessions are being held across the country and include representatives from First Nations, Aboriginal groups, and the provincial and territorial governments.
I am also very pleased to note that I have appointed one of the most extraordinary Aboriginal women in this country, Wendy Grant-John, as my representative to move the process along and help build consensus.
Ms. Grant-John is a former Regional Vice-Chief of the AFN. What's more, she was Musqueam Chief at the time of her community's involvement in the Supreme Court landmark Sparrow case that solidified Aboriginal rights in the Constitution. I am grateful that this remarkable woman has agreed to lead this initiative.
The consultation and dialogue sessions are organized and coordinated by the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women's Association of Canada and officials from my department. The consultations are both comprehensive and focused.
And while achieving consensus on a solution may prove difficult, I am confident that the parties will succeed. We can expect a legislative solution sometime in the new year.
Although addressing problems through legislation offers numerous advantages—sustainability, clarity and consistency, for instance—there is one significant disadvantage: the length of time it takes to draft, enact and implement.
At the same time as building slowly towards legislative reform, we are taking immediate action to address quality-of-life issues – such as housing; education; and supports for women, children and families – to improve the living conditions of a large number of First Nations peoples and communities.
I'm proud of the investments for these areas that are included in this government's first budget—more than $3 billion over two years earmarked for Aboriginal issues. And these investments reflect the priorities that have been identified in discussions with several Aboriginal groups.
To make progress on Aboriginal issues will absolutely require earnest collaboration, fairness and transparency, and patient negotiation.
This government is also determined to make progress on another longstanding issue: the completion of comprehensive and specific claims, treaty land entitlements and additions to reserves.
The huge and steadily growing backlog of claims is completely unacceptable and indicates that the current system is not up to the task. Creating a new system is among my top priorities as Minister. I believe that the value of negotiated settlements cannot be overstated.
Settlements are about justice, respect and reconciliation. More than coming to terms with the past though, settlements are also about building a better future.
Each settlement clears a path to strengthened governance, to new economic and social opportunities. Settlements can also mean that valuable resources are spent on communities rather than courtrooms and negotiating tables.
The final topic I'd like to broach today involves section 67 of the Human Rights Act. As you know, section 67 essentially exempts any action or decision that is directly made pursuant to the Indian Act from the application of the Human Rights Act.
Incomplete information and misconceptions about section 67 have led to widespread belief that all actions carried out by First Nations and INAC are exempt from human rights scrutiny. In effect, the application of section 67 can lead to different results in similar circumstances, depending on whether the discriminatory act flowed from the Indian Act or not. Consequently, this creates arbitrary and inconsistent application of section 67. We must find a solution to this dilemma.
The theme of this conference, after all, is reconciliation.
I was intrigued by the choice of quote that conference organizers selected to set the context for this year's event. Penned by Justice Binnie in last year's Mikisew Cree decision, the quote reads:
The fundamental objective of the modern law of Aboriginal and treaty rights is the reconciliation of Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples and their respective claims, interests and ambitions.
I agree wholeheartedly with this objective and devote my energy to finding ways to achieve true reconciliation. And there's no doubt that reconciliation must have a firm basis in law. I'm convinced, though, that negotiation and collaboration are essential components of the solution.
Allow me to quote another Supreme Court Justice, from the Delmaguukw decision:
Ultimately, it is through negotiated settlements, with good faith and give and take on all sides, that we will achieve a basic purpose of section 35 ‘the reconciliation of the pre-existence of Aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown.'
While the Supreme Court's landmark decision on Delmaguukw continues to inspire study and debate, its recognition of the value of negotiations has been broadly accepted—and with good reason.
Negotiations free the parties to adopt an approach best suited to a particular set of circumstances.
Through negotiations, one group must confront and consider the viewpoints of another group, while reflecting on the importance and value of their own principles.
As a result of this process, negotiations often lead to the development of innovative tools and unique mechanisms that address the specific needs of the parties.
This government's approach to Aboriginal issues centres on negotiation and collaboration. A scan of the conference agenda reveals that many of the scheduled sessions examine the growing role that these methods play in Aboriginal law.
I see this conference as a valuable opportunity for exceptionally knowledgeable men and women to discuss the crucial legal questions that underlie Aboriginal issues.
I urge you to conceive of innovative solutions, devise fresh theories and consider new models. I look forward to hearing your ideas.