Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my speaking time with my hon. colleague from .
By introducing amendments to the National Capital Act, the government is presenting an action plan for the National Capital Commission. The National Capital Commission and its predecessors, the Ottawa Improvement Commission and the Federal District Commission, are part of a planning and building legacy of over 100 years.
Over time, the mandate and tools that Parliament gave to the NCC have evolved to reflect current issues. For instance, in 1969, the mandate of the NCC was expanded to encompass implementation of a new policy for increased presence on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. In 1988, the NCC was given the additional responsibility of organizing, sponsoring or promoting public activities and events in the national capital region.
The NCC is the largest federal landowner in the national capital region. It owns 470 square kilometres of land, including Gatineau Park, the greenbelt, 2,100 hectares in the urban area, 40 kilometres of parkways, 170 kilometres of recreational pathways and some 1,300 buildings, 63 of them being heritage properties. The NCC also owns and operates six official residences in this region.
Given the important mandate of the NCC to plan the development of the capital region and maintain the assets under its custody, Parliament decided many years ago that the NCC should be subject to more government oversight with respect to its real estate transactions. We have to realize that this was at a time where government was smaller and ways of conducting business in general were different.
However, times have changed and the current thresholds set out in the National Capital Act are such that virtually every real estate transaction that the NCC seeks to enter into requires Governor in Council approval. This is not efficient for a crown corporation that is expected to operate at arm's length from government and as much as possible like private entities.
Not only does the requirement for GIC approval affect the NCC's ability to quickly seize business opportunities, it also prevents private companies from making good use of NCC's properties in a timely fashion so they can also contribute to making the capital a vibrant place.
That is why this government proposes in Bill to remove the obligation for the NCC to obtain GIC approval of each real estate transaction.
Appropriate oversight of the NCC's operations, including its real estate transactions, presently exists through Governor in Council approval of its annual corporate plan. The NCC may decide to designate any property as part of the national interest land mass if the property is considered to be essential to the long-term character of the national capital region.
The NCC is not required to seek the approval of third parties or other levels of government in order to designate properties as part of the national interest land mass.
The independent panel that reviewed the mandate and functions of the NCC reported that the nature of the national interest land mass and the process that underpinned its delineation have been shrouded in secrecy and raised several questions, including criteria used to designate properties. Similar concerns were raised in the Auditor General's 2007 special examination report of the NCC.
That is why Bill provides a process for greater transparency and predictability in the national interest land mass process. The bill introduces a definition of “national interest land mass” and requires regulations governing the relevant criteria and process. This would enhance the oversight of the NCC by having regulation-making powers in the act regarding these criteria and a process subject to public consultations in accordance with the usual regulatory process. Obviously the NCC could not effect the management, development, conservation or use of those properties if it did not own or otherwise control them.
In previous speeches made in this House regarding Bill , some comments were made regarding the regional representation on the NCC's board of directors. The National Capital Act already requires certain representation from Quebec and Ontario as well as from other regions of the country. More specifically, other than the chairperson and the chief executive officer, two members of the NCC board must be residents of local municipalities in Quebec, including one from Gatineau, and three members must be from local municipalities in Ontario. The act allows for an additional eight members from elsewhere in Canada, including places in Quebec and Ontario outside the national capital region to be appointed to the NCC board. Bill C-37 maintains the representation of local municipalities in Quebec and Ontario to ensure adequate representation of other regions across the country.
The government takes the matter of effective governance of crown corporations seriously. Through the GIC appointment process, the government ensures that individuals appointed as chairs meet the selection criteria and that the directors appointed meet the needs of crown corporations, based on advice received from the board of directors. The NCC is no exception.
The proposal that municipal councillors be on the NCC's board has not been adopted, since their participation could lead to potential conflicts of interest and the need to recuse themselves. This would render such appointments ineffective.
While the views of local residents are taken into account, given that the NCC's decisions often have an impact on people living in the national capital region, the main focus of the NCC has to remain the building of a great capital for our country.
An important component of the government's action plan for the NCC is the efficient protection of Gatineau Park. Among other measures, Bill proposes to oblige the NCC to give due regard to maintaining the ecological integrity of Gatineau Park. Although not defined in Bill , the term “ecological integrity” is defined in the Canada National Parks Act as “a condition that is determined to be characteristic of its natural region and likely to persist, including abiotic components and the composition and abundance of native species and biological communities, rates of change and supporting processes”.
There is enough already enshrined in legislation to say that what is proposed in Bill sends a pretty clear signal to the NCC of Parliament's expectations on how Gatineau Park is managed.
Gatineau Park is not the only fabulous green asset we have in the national capital region, and this is why Bill also proposes to clearly add the obligation for the NCC to manage its properties in accordance with the principle of responsible environmental stewardship.
All in all, Bill proposes amendments that address issues that have been voiced in the last few years and updates the NCC's enabling legislation to ensure it can continue to build and maintain a great capital that fully reflects the beauty of our country as well as its cultural and natural diversity.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the action plan for the National Capital Commission this afternoon.
I am very proud of the for taking action on this issue. He helped us all recognize the strategic importance of the National Capital Commission. Our capital, which belongs to all Canadians, is world-class.
I think that this bill is a good one because it will modernize the institution. Its many strong elements include recognition of the boundaries of Gatineau Park and a strong stance on the need for responsible environmental management. It also contains a comprehensive governance regime for the board of directors and provides for governor in council approval of the master plan. These measures are all the result of consultations. We consulted stakeholders and now we are moving forward. For 13 years, the previous government failed to act on this issue. Now, those members have a chance to work with our government to modernize the National Capital Commission, to make it fully operational and to ensure that it meets present-day needs.
This afternoon, I listened to opposition party members. I suppose it is easy to criticize for the sake of criticizing, to nitpick and stall. We all understand the spirit of this bill. There can be no doubt that this bill will modernize the National Capital Commission. We believe that it should be passed and referred to committee. If it needs improvement, we will improve it. This is our chance to get things done. That is what we were elected for: to make things happen. That is why we are taking action.
By introducing amendments to the National Capital Act, our government is presenting its vision for the future of the National Capital Commission, a vision that will enable Canadians to benefit from the commission's lands and properties now and for years to come. We are acting to support the commission's viability and transparency, to protect Gatineau Park and to prepare this important institution for the challenges and opportunities to come.
The National Capital Commission is an important institution in overseeing our nation's capital. However, it is not unique. Other countries also have similar institutions. For instance, in the United States, the National Capital Planning Commission is designated as the central planning agency. Quebec also has its own Commission de la capitale nationale and Australia has the National Capital Authority, which is responsible for planning and development in the nation's capital, Canberra. It is also responsible for the upkeep of public spaces that Australians can visit. Thus, these are all institutions that enhance the national character of the capital and ensure that people from all over the country are proud when they come here to visit Ottawa.
Certain individuals have played a key role in making Ottawa a truly modern capital, in every sense of the word. My hon. colleague from mentioned the architect Jacques Gréber, who developed the plan for Canada's national capital region in 1950. His report proposed a series of measures to improve Canada's capital. Mr. Gréber proposed the creation of a scenic parkway and a greenbelt, the restoration of shorelines and the expansion of Gatineau Park. The interesting thing about this is that it affected two provinces, the two founding nations of our country.
A large portion of the lands in Gatineau Park belonged to the Government of Quebec, but in 1973, the province agreed to transfer the administration of those lands to the federal government to create Gatineau Park. Our actions will protect the park's boundaries and encourage environmental stewardship. The National Capital Commission is also responsible for other important areas in the region. Every year the National Capital Commission fulfills its duties. As chair of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, I can assure this House that the NCC is doing an excellent job in that area. Its contribution to the linguistic duality of the capital serves as a model for others.
Let us turn our attention to the greenbelt. What is the greenbelt? The greenbelt brings together several pieces of land along the Ottawa River on the Ontario side. It covers nearly 20,000 hectares of green space, including farms, forests and wetlands.
These lands allow people to discover their rural roots and natural heritage and are a place where sustainable agriculture and forestry can be practised.
What is interesting about the bill being debated this afternoon is that we will be strengthening the regulatory powers and the enforcement regime of the National Capital Act. The bill contains the basis for improved protection of the greenbelt through an environmental regulatory framework.
Think of the properties managed by the commission. We have the Rideau Canal, which stretches over 200 kilometres and was built in the 19th century to link Ottawa to Kingston. In June 2007, the Rideau Canal was designated a world heritage site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Members will recall that Quebec has a representative at UNESCO. This is another fine achievement by our government and a prime example of our open federalism.
UNESCO highlighted the historical importance of the Rideau Canal in the fight for control of the northern section of the North American continent.
In winter, a second section of the Rideau Canal measuring almost eight kilometres and equivalent to 90 Olympic-sized skating rinks is transformed into a skateway—the great Rideau Canal skateway. The Guinness Book of World Records has recognized it as the world's longest skateway. It is a place to celebrate the joys of winter in Canada.
The Mer Bleue Conservation Area is located east of Ottawa. A boardwalk protects the acidic water and the bog that shelters unusual species of trees and other plants. In 1995, the area was designated a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, a treaty for the conservation and wise use of wetlands.
Other properties found in the greenbelt are Commissioner's Park, where there is a display of over 100,000 tulips each spring, and Bate Island on the Ottawa River.
The National Capital Commission is responsible for a very large area—over 58,000 hectares, in fact—spanning a number of different sectors. These green spaces are home to a variety of ecosystems, habitats, plants and wildlife.
Canadians recognize the importance of protecting green spaces and other properties managed by the National Capital Commission. Environmental groups and parliamentarians have certainly shown interest in preserving National Capital Commission properties, in particular Gatineau Park. However, the current National Capital Act does not address the importance of maintaining the integrity of these ecologically sensitive areas.
This bill makes it clear that ecological integrity, in particular when it comes to Gatineau Park, is a major concern. This is what came out of consultations with stakeholders. Our government is proposing changes to the National Capital Act in order to better protect the commission's properties. A new provision would be added to require the commission to manage all of its properties in accordance with the principles of responsible environmental stewardship. That would apply to Gatineau Park as well as the greenbelt.
The commission will have a great deal of responsibility with respect to governance, and that will allow for better monitoring of management of its powers for possible approval by the Governor in Council.
I must stress that this bill would make it possible to preserve the ecological integrity of Gatineau Park. These changes would go a long way toward ensuring the sustainability of National Capital Commission properties, and environmental sustainability in particular.
This is our opportunity to modernize the National Capital Act. We are reaching out to the opposition parties because we want to work with them on this. Obviously, it is easy to criticize and complain. But this time, they have a chance to do something tangible to modernize the National Capital Commission. I urge them to support the bill and to send it to committee. Then, parliamentarians will be able to examine the details of the bill. We could make it better, to ensure that we have a National Capital Commission backed by contemporary legislation that meets the needs addressed in our consultations.
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to the bill which would seriously amend the enabling authority for the existence of the National Capital Commission and its mandate, and would deal with a number of pressing questions that have arisen more recently and have arisen over time.
However, before addressing the merits of some of the changes, I want to quickly review the history and the accomplishments of this crown corporation. It did celebrate 100 years, a century of achievement in 1999, from 1899 to 1999. It was established in 1959 and it had predecessors: the Federal District Commission of 1927 and the Ottawa Improvement Commission of 1899, so its roots go substantially back.
I think Canadians and parliamentarians know that the capital region was founded in the early 19th century as, effectively, lumbering and industrial centres. My own grandfather was a night watchman on LeBreton Flats, just a stone's throw from here, working the midnight shift, carrying his lunch-pail to work, carrying on his back a burlap bag of kindling back to the rooming house which my grandmother operated in downtown Ottawa at a time when Ottawa was very much divided between founding peoples at the time. Of course, it moved on and improved.
In 1899, Parliament created the Ottawa Improvement Commission. Its focus was to beautify Ottawa as the national capital. It created driveways along the Rideau Canal and Rockcliffe Park, and Minto bridges and several new urban parks.
From 1927 to 1959, governments established the First Federal District and transformed the organization into a more powerful Federal District Commission. It focused on working to the general advantage of Canada. It built the Champlain Bridge, the National War Memorial in Confederation Square, Gatineau Park, and the famous Gréber plan which sets out and maintains the existence of the green space in this region.
From 1959 to the present, the more recent generation, more recent time, the National Capital Act of 1958 doubled the size of the national capital region, bringing more of Quebec and Ontario together in the capital, as well as new expanses of natural land, rural land, and finally established the National Capital Commission in 1959, as I mentioned. Its focus was to create pride and unity through Canada's capital region.
What did it do during that time, 1959 to today? It removed the railway lines from downtown, something that, from time to time, we lament today given the importance of public transit, particularly light rail systems in our urban centres. It has built much infrastructure, expanded the Gatineau Park, created a protected greenbelt in the Ontario part of the capital region, decentralized government offices to campuses throughout the capital region and developed urban parks, things like the tulip displays and beyond.
The NCC has had a profound impact on our national capital region on behalf of all Canadians. It is all Canadians' whose tithes contributes to the NCC's budget. It is they who are shareholders in this national capital region. Some of us have the privilege and the benefit of serving as elected officials in this area. My own riding of is touched by NCC properties, the greenbelt, an international airport and more.
The NCC is here and it is here to stay. It has an undeniably important role in strengthening Canada's national capital, a G8 economy and a G20 economy. We want set up our capital here and we want to improve our capital that is becoming of our city, our region and our country.
The mandate and the activities of the NCC have not been without controversy in the more recent history in this region. There have been debates swirling about funding levels. Is the NCC sufficiently funded or has it been acquiring and developing properties on behalf of Canadians in order to provide the necessary funding levels to achieve its other responsibilities in its mandate?
What about its governance structures? How many people sit on the board? Do they meet publicly? What is their decision-making process? Is it open? Is it transparent? Is it closed door?
What about transparency itself? What kind of information is being accessed, links to consultation? To what extent is the NCC intervening appropriately, not only with other federal government line departments and central agencies, but other levels of government, the Corporation of the City of Ottawa, the Corporation of the City of Gatineau, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec and municipalities across the region as well?
Its property disposition has been quite successful over the years. The changes proposed in the bill make significant changes to the powers and the quantum, the amount of money involved in these property deals. The bill speaks also to the question of expropriation of properties, for example, in the Gatineau Park.
There are, of course, other outstanding questions. What role should the National Capital Commission play in its 10 year plans? What role should it play with respect to transportation master plans and transportation infrastructure?
There is a new context that is important to situate as we debate this legislation. The new context is this: Ottawa-Gatineau is now the fourth largest census metropolitan area in the country and it is at least the second fastest growing, following, I think, just behind the great city of Calgary. It is growing quickly. In many respects our larger census metropolitan areas are re-emerging as city states. They are re-emerging as city states, not only competing one against the other, but they are competing against American city states, Chinese city states, European city states and beyond.
Why is this important? It is important because we know from the work of important academics, like Richard Florida, that the question of how we do metropolitan areas is critical to our economic success. We know that the higher the quality of life in a census metropolitan area, like the Vancouver district, the greater Toronto area, Halifax, Dartmouth and beyond, has a direct bearing on the ability of these regions to attract and retain capital.
This region used to host some 2,500 high tech firms. Last year, under the watch of the Conservative government, only one new start-up high tech corporation was created using venture capital.
We are in a venture capital crisis. Our ability to attract that venture capital to give rise to those start-ups, to innovate, to compete and win, is directly affected by the quality of life that an organization like the National Capital Commission impacts upon.
Our ability to retain and attract skilled and educated workers is fundamental, which is what the experts tell us we need if we are going to compete and win in the race for a clean economy and the clean jobs of today and tomorrow. Therefore, quality of life in cities is paramount if we are going to win that race to the top.
The bill would make some changes to the NCC that, ultimately, in the context I have just set, has a bearing on that quality of life. Let us examine, for example, what the bill says about the environment. It speaks about environmental stewardship in clause 10.
The environmental implications we are learning now as we go forward are extraordinarily important because we are now recognizing that the environment is more than simply a limitless carrying capacity system that can provide without any end for our needs to be able to assimilate our wastes, provide our natural resources, give us our crops and our foodstuffs, maintain ecological integrity and so on and so forth. We now know that fiction is over.
We know, particularly through the phenomenon of climate change, that we are now butting up against carrying capacity challenges. We are asking the atmosphere, for example, to carry 450 parts per million of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, at a time when the scientific community is quite certain that we are playing Russian roulette with our atmospheric carrying capacity, temperature and other climatic patterns on the planet. This is linked, believe it or not, to the NCC.
The NCC has a mandate. not only in an urban context but, as we have heard in debate here earlier, with respect to a major park called the Gatineau Park, which hundreds of thousands of Canadians enjoy each and every year, tour, visit and ski through. It is filled with lakes and it is developed to a certain extent.
What happens within that park, as the NCC is given new marching orders with respect to ecological integrity and environmental stewardship, in terms of decision making made by the NCC, is fundamental. In one of the earlier questions I posed, I made it perfectly clear that what we now know about the national park system, despite our best efforts in setting up isolated zones across the country to represent different ecozones and ecosystems, we now really know, as the biological evidence tell us, that our park system is failing. It is failing because our parks are not connected. They are not connected because the predatory species cannot move easily. That is why I am so proud of my colleagues from Alberta who have launched the Yellowstone to Yukon initiative, finally overcoming the fiction and stopping the denial that this question of integrating our land masses to be able to allow for connectivity is so important to maintaining our flora and fauna.
We also know that our parks not only need to be connected but they need to be buffered. If one mines up to the edge of a park, despite the short-term attractiveness of turning that natural capital into financial capital through profit, we also know that without being buffered our parks are being compromised which draws down, once again, on our natural capital.
I know these terms, this concept, this idea and this thinking are foreign to many in the Conservative government. In fairness, the only admitted that the science of climate change was in fact correct after the chief scientific advisor for former President Bush told him so. Up to that point, the was in wilful or non-wilful denial about the risks inherent with climate change, temperature increases, species disappearance and so on and so forth.
Canadians would be forgiven, I think, if at face value they see these changes with respect to the environment in this bill and be skeptical about the government's serious intentions and whether or not they can trust the government to do the right thing.
The bill, for example, does not speak at all to the question of watershed management. We have in the Ottawa River one of the mightiest rivers in the world. The daily flow of the Ottawa River is larger than every western European tributary combined. It is a massive and mighty river which much of this region was built on. Much of the lumber used to create this beautiful chamber was derived from the Ottawa valley and floated down the Ottawa River.
How is this question of watershed management, if we are going to move for example to a watershed management approach, as they have in British Columbia, how will this impact on the NCC's mandate?
As I mentioned earlier, if we do what happened in Boston, where the city of Boston grew up and around a park area, we see that within some 150 years every indigenous species of flora and fauna in that park has disappeared and something new has replaced it. That is hardly ecological integrity.
Ecological integrity and the movement toward it began under our previous government, when former environment minister Sheila Copps struck a national panel. Prime Minister Mulroney understood the importance of this. He mentioned it in speeches in 1992 at the Earth Summit. By the way, the is the first prime minister not to participate in international negotiations for climate change, biodiversity or otherwise in recent Canadian history, in over 35 years.
Therefore, the bill does not answer fundamental questions about responsible environmental stewardship and what it means. It does not answer questions about what ecological integrity looks like. It does not seriously, in my view sufficiently, guide the executive of the NCC in its difficult decision making on how it is going to move forward.
How will the NCC expropriate properties even if we lift the ceiling and allow it to expropriate property for millions of dollars? Will it do so using fair market value? If I owned a property in the Gatineau Park that was being expropriated, would I not go out and get the most expensive possible listings, bids that I could possibly muster, turn around and pass it on the federal taxpayer and say, “Please indemnify me”?
Another issue which I have not raised yet and I would like to close with is this. How will the NCC deal with the important question of public transit, light rail and moving our citizenry in this area? Just today, the city of Ottawa settled a $37.5 million lawsuit for breach of contract for a light rail project which had been approved by this city, and by the way had been approved by the former minister of transport and . After all this was done, after $45 million of acquisitions were pursued by the city, now a $37.5 million settlement and $2.5 million worth of legal fees, all of which came from the unprecedented and reckless behaviour of the present while he was Treasury Board president.
This is why I am calling, for example, on the city of Ottawa to release its legal opinions to the Canadian people, to the citizens of Ottawa, and to Canadian taxpayers who pay for the NCC, whether there are legal opinions as to whether or not the federal government should be indemnifying the city of Ottawa for the reckless behaviour of the member for
Will the NCC's participation in this kind of transportation planning prevent this kind of reckless behaviour in the future? We do not know, but that would be very important to address, given the NCC's important responsibilities and its mandate to the shareholders of Canada. The taxpayers of Canada provide the tax dollars every year to allow the NCC to pursue its mandate on behalf of all Canadians to have a beautiful, healthy, high quality of life in our national capital, so it can continue to thrive for all Canadians and that all Canadians can be proud of.