Alistair speaks on the Protection of Aboriginal Cultural Property


Alistair Macgregor (Cowichan-Malahat-Langford):

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise and join in the debate on Bill C-391, brought in by the hon. member for Cumberland—Colchester. I appreciate the initiative and the thought behind the bill. It is an issue that needs to be talked about and brought into force with some measure of the law.

I am very honoured to come from a region of the country that has a very deep and rich first nations heritage, which is still ongoing, as do many parts of Canada. It is a vast land. When we are talking about first nations, Métis and Inuit, their cultures are as diverse as any we would find around the world. We cannot speak about them just as one set of peoples. They have a lot of diversity and a lot of different cultural practices. When I look at the Cowichan Valley and the Cowichan people, who are the largest first nation band in British Columbia, I am very honoured to have some long-standing relationships with many members, including the chief.

I look at some of the well-known archaeological sites. They abound in the Cowichan Valley and in many of the islands that form the southern Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the Mainland.

One in particular is the Ye'yumnuts village near Duncan, which is about to become a living indigenous history lesson. It is a 2.4 hectare meadow, which, in collaboration with Cowichan tribes, will be used as an open air classroom. They have found a lot of different tools. The site is more than 2,000 years old and it is estimated that the Cowichan people lived there for about 600 years and then used the area as a burial ground for another 600 years. They have found tools that originate from the Fraser Valley and even jade tools that come from the Fraser Canyon and sharp cutting rocks that originate from as far away as Oregon, which speaks to the flourishing trade routes that existed among all the different nations in the Pacific Northwest.

We can go out near Salt Spring Island to Grace Islet. We had some controversy there about three to four years ago when someone was trying to build a house on the island, even though there was knowledge that there were at least 15 different individual burial sites marked by cairns there. It was only through intervention by the Government of B.C. that the construction on that island was stopped. It is now under the protection of the Nature Conservancy, which is working with local first nations to preserve the area and to bring it back to its natural state.

I look at Galiano Island, specifically the campground at Montague Harbour, that is sitting on an old midden heap, where for thousands of years all of the clamshells were deposited. We are talking about hundreds of years of clamshells being deposited in one area and all of the various tools that were used to harvest them.

I have a friend who is an archaeologist by profession. I remember one year, when we were camping at Montague Harbour, being able to walk down the beach. Pretty much every couple of minutes, she was pointing out different stone tools. Once we got an eye for them, we could see them everywhere. They were pieces of rock that had been hit upon with different instruments to make them into different cutting surfaces, and they are everywhere.

We derive a lot of education from museums around the world. We would not know about some of the long lost civilizations such as the Sumerians, ancient Babylonia and the ancient pharaohs in Egypt if it were not for museums. They serve a purpose. The main difference, when we are talking about first nations cultural pieces and tools, is that they are not gone. They are still with us. In fact, I attended the elders gathering, which the Cowichan hosted in British Columbia this year, and the main theme was “We are still here”.

We know that most indigenous ethnology collections found in Canadian and foreign museums in universities today were taken by missionaries, government agents, amateur and professional collectors and anthropologists and that that was done without the informed or prior consent of the people. It was theft, and in many cases the stealing of these tools and ceremonial devices was a way to crush their culture, to try to take away their traditions and try to subsume those nations into the white person's culture, as we have tried to do so many times in this country. That is the main difference.

I am really happy that the member has brought forward this bill. If I could offer some constructive criticism, I would point out that when we look at the language in the bill, we still see words like “encourage”, “support” and “provide”. We could have used more forceful language to bring this bill into harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

That said, it is good to see that the minister will have to report to Parliament because of clause 4. It remains to be seen how well the government provide funding as a result of legislation, but I certainly hope, if this bill does make it to royal assent and becomes one of the statutes of Canada, the government would see fit to take this issue with the seriousness it deserves.

I mentioned the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is important to highlight that because the member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou has spent a large part of his life working on this particular issue. Everyone in the House can take great pride in Bill C-262, which seeks to bring the laws of Canada into harmony with the United Nations declaration. The fact that government members and a majority of members in the House voted for the bill and sent it off to the other place represents a very historic moment. If Parliament, both the House of Commons and the Senate, and later the Crown represented by the Governor General, assent to this particular piece of legislation, a key article of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, article 12, reads as follows:

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.

2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.

Bill C-262 was certainly the very important first step. If we agree to that bill as a whole, then we would be agreeing to article 12 as well. Bill C-391 would establish the framework for exactly how this is to be done.

There is always room for improvement in legislation, but I will commend the member for Cumberland—Colchester for his private member's bill reaching third reading stage. That is a rare feat. I appreciate the thought behind the bill and I will be voting to send it to the other place. I hope the hon. senators will give it their due consideration.