moved that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, since 2006, our government has been pursuing the most ambitious northern agenda in the history of this country.
This government has promoted prosperity and development through Bill , the Northern Jobs and Growth Act. It transferred powers to the Government of the Northwest Territories through Bill , the Northwest Territories Devolution Act. Then it had the vision of the Canadian high Arctic research station, which it implemented.
I repeat: no other government in Canadian history has done more than ours to increase health, prosperity, and economic development in the north.
The initiative before the House today, the , or Bill S-6, represents yet another key deliverable of our government’s northern strategy and is the final legislative step in our government’s action plan to improve northern regulatory regimes.
In total, our government has created or amended eight different pieces of legislation in order to ensure that northern regulatory regimes—across the north—are nimble and responsive to the increased economic activity taking place across the north. This is no small feat.
These legislative changes will allow Canada’s north to compete for investment in an increasingly global marketplace, which in turn will lead to jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for northerners.
Let me first speak to the proposed changes to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, or, as we refer to it, YESAA for short.
This legislation first came into effect in 2003 and sets out the environmental and socio-economic assessment process for all projects, including everything from small-scale community infrastructure projects to large-scale mining projects in the territory in question.
The need for improvements to the existing legislation first arose during the five-year review of YESAA, which was required under the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement. The review began in April 2008 and included the participation of all parties to the agreement: Canada, the Yukon government, and the Council of Yukon First Nations.
Speaking of the Council of Yukon First Nations, I had the pleasure earlier this morning of meeting with the chiefs or councillors of a number of Yukon first nations about Bill . I want to acknowledge their important contributions to the development of the bill and look forward to their continued engagement as the bill moves through the parliamentary process.
The review I referred to earlier was extensive and examined all aspects of the Yukon development assessment process from YESAA and its regulations to the implementation, assessment, and decision-making process, as well as process documents such as rules, guides, and forms, et cetera, and was completed in March 2012.
At the end of the review, the parties jointly agreed to 72 out of 76 recommendations, many of which could be addressed through administrative changes. A few, however, required legislative amendments, including board term extensions; the non-application of CEAA, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act; the requirement to take into account cumulative effects when conducting an environmental assessment; the need to take into consideration activities that are “reasonably foreseeable”; the ability to include the activities of third party resource users in the scope of a project when the government is a proponent of forest resource management planning and allocation initiatives.
In December 2012, after the completion of the five-year review and the passage of amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and following our government's announcement of the action plan to improve northern regulatory regimes in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the Yukon government wrote to my predecessor to request additional amendments to YESAA to ensure consistency across regimes. That was to include beginning-to-end timelines, ability to give policy directions to the board, cost-recovery regulations, and the delegation of authority.
While these amendments were not discussed as part of the five-year review, my department did consult with Yukon first nations on them throughout 2013 and 2014.
The first draft of these legislative amendments was shared with all parties to the umbrella framework agreement, the Yukon first nations and the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board for review and comment in May 2013.
Formal consultation sessions followed, which provided the opportunity for the parties to learn more about the proposed amendments, voice their concerns and make recommendations on how to improve the proposals. The feedback we received informed a subsequent draft of the legislation, which was shared with the parties in February 2014.
At each stage, proposals or drafts of the bill were circulated to first nations, the Government of Yukon and the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board for review. The department carefully considered all comments and, where appropriate, incorporated them into the next draft. This process resulted in further improvements to the bill before it was introduced in Parliament last June.
As members can see, consultation on this bill has been extensive, and while we know that everyone did not agree 100% with each amendment, this does not mean that consultation was inadequate. It is our view that we met our duty to consult and we accommodated where appropriate. Even the Hon. Grant Mitchell, a Liberal senator and the opposition critic of the bill in the Senate, acknowledged this challenge but noted that comprehensive consultation had taken place when he spoke to the bill at third reading in the Senate. The hon. senator said:
There has been, I think, quite adequate consultation. It's complicated up there in these territories. You have federal, territorial and Aboriginal interests.
So it is very complex, and the fundamental core of this bill gets to that and is an effort to make all of that better and to make processes in the North better.
Let me remind my fellow colleagues in this House that this does not mean that the opportunity for providing input has ended. Indeed, as is the case for all other bills introduced in Parliament, the parliamentary review process provides opportunities to engage with parliamentarians on their views on legislation. The Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources has just completed a thorough review of the legislation wherein the committee heard from numerous witnesses from Yukon and Nunavut, including representatives of the first nations and Inuit peoples. At the end of its review, the committee members endorsed the bill unanimously.
Engagement on this bill has continued right up until today. As I have already mentioned, I met this morning with members of the Council of Yukon First Nations to further discuss their views on the bill and I encouraged them to participate in the parliamentary review process so that they could not only make their views known, but, if possible, correct the bill if it violates, as alleged, the Umbrella Final Agreement.
I also wish to acknowledge the member of Parliament for and the senator for Yukon, who have been very active on the ground. They have met with numerous stakeholders on this bill and will continue to advocate for the best interests of all Yukoners in their respective chambers.
Further, and contrary to some of the myths that have been put forward, I want to be very clear that all of the legislative proposals contained in Bill are consistent with the Yukon umbrella agreement and continue to uphold aboriginal and treaty rights.
In fact, some of the proposed amendments would actually strengthen first nation roles in YESAA . For example, under clause 29, which sets out proposed section 88.1 of the proposed amendments, when a project reaches the permit or licensing stage, first nations would be able to add to that permit or license “terms and conditions that are in addition to, or more stringent than” the terms and conditions set out in the project's environmental assessment.
I also want to take a moment to address some of the specific amendments that have been subject to significant debate in Yukon and that the Council of Yukon First Nations discussed this morning when we met.
The introduction of beginning-to-end limits for environmental assessments would align the Yukon regime with the time limits in similar acts within the north as well as south of 60 and would provide predictably and consistency to first nations, municipalities, and industry alike.
Some have argued that the time limits would affect the thoroughness of the assessment process. However, when we look at the facts, we see that the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board's own statistics show that the proposed time limits are either consistent with or more favourable than the board's current practice. In addition, the amendments include provisions that would allow for extensions, recognizing that there may be situations in which more time would be warranted to carry out a function or power.
The proposed amendment to section 49.1 would ensure that going forward, reassessments would only be required in the event that the project has been significantly changed. In the past, projects that had already been approved and permitted could be subject to a new environmental assessment simply because a renewal or a minor change in the project had occurred. This amendment would help streamline this process and reduce unnecessary red tape where it was not warranted. The amendment also makes it clear that if there is more than one decision body—which can be a federal, territorial, or first nations government or agency—that regulates and permits the proposed activity, they must consult with one another before determining whether a new assessment is required.
Further, the legislation specifies that in the event of a disagreement, even if only one decision body determines that a significant change has occurred, it must be subject to a reassessment. That is an important point because of what we hear and read in the media. This is also consistent with the Umbrella Final Agreement. The Umbrella Final Agreement states, at section 22.214.171.124, at page 107, if I recall, that projects and significant changes to existing projects are subject to the development assessment process. Therefore, the idea of significant changes is embodied in the Umbrella Final Agreement.
Another proposed change is the ability of the to provide policy direction to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. The ability to provide policy direction is not a heavy-handed attempt by the government to interfere in the assessment process, nor does it undermine the neutrality of the board. To the contrary, it is intended to ensure a common understanding between the government and the board, helping to reduce uncertainty in environmental assessment decision-making and helping to ensure the proper implementation of the board's powers in fulfilling its role in the assessment process. This is not new. There are also precedents for this power in other jurisdictions. For example, it has existed in the Northwest Territories since 1999, and with the passing of Bill , it was expanded to include all the boards in the Northwest Territories.
As we say back home, the proof is in the pudding. This power has only been used four times in the Northwest Territories. In each case, it was used to clearly communicate expectations on how to address first nations' rights or agreements. For example, it was used to ensure that notification was provided to both the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Deline regarding licences and permits in a given region.
I want to assure the House that this power in no way detracts from the board's independence. YESAB will remain an impartial and independent arm's-length entity responsible for making recommendations to decision-making bodies.
The legislative amendment also makes it clear that policy direction cannot be used to influence a specific project or to change the environmental assessment process itself. Another contentious amendment, which is contentious because it is opposed by some first nations in Yukon, is my ability to delegate certain powers in the act to a territorial minister. To the contrary, that again is not at all inconsistent with the Umbrella Final Agreement.
I want to also address the Nunavut changes. The objective is to make the regulatory system in Nunavut consistent with what is taking place south of 60 and in full compliance with the land claim agreement that governs our relationship with northerners in Nunavut.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to the bill in front of us, which has found its way here through the Senate, a completely inappropriate way to bring forward legislation. It should have come here first and should be a government bill, but the government chose that pathway. That way it can move things through the House in a fashion and build a case using its witnesses in the Senate, which it controls, and take away the real responsibility for debate in this place.
This bill deals with northerners' rights and first nations' rights. First nations' rights are constitutionally protected, and northerners' rights have constitutional issues attached to them as well, which I will go into as I go forward. Bill would amend the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Act, known as YESAA, and the Nunavut Waters and Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal Act. I will deal mostly with the changes to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Act. The changes to the Nunavut Waters and Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal Act are much less profound and not as controversial.
There is a high level of opposition to these changes. In September, I was in Whitehorse and conducted a public hearing on these bills, with the assistance of the Yukon NDP. There was standing room only in that meeting room. People wanted to understand the bills and were concerned about their impact. Yukoners are sophisticated in their knowledge and understanding of legislative changes. They have been through it to a greater extent than perhaps the other territories. It is a territory that has achieved the highest level of devolution prior to this bill. People are on track in understanding what their rights are and what they see as their future.
However, of course, the Conservative MP, the Conservative senator, and the right-wing Yukon Party government are not listening to the people, not conducting public hearings, and not allowing the people of Yukon to have a say on this bill. They are doing their stakeholder consultation and fulfilling their obligations to first nations for consultations, but where are the public hearings? Where is the engagement of the public at large? They will not do that because they know very well that if they did, the real opposition to this bill would coalesce with the first nations and say no to the bill and the changes.
Why would people in Yukon who are concerned about their livelihoods and futures be concerned about these changes that the minister has presented as simply ways of increasing economic activity in Yukon and making things work a little better? There are four changes that really upset Yukoners. One of them is providing the the authority to provide binding policy direction to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. This is something that was established in the NWT and there were real concerns with it there. The Yukon, which has been dealing with a different system for the past 10 years, is looking at anything like this as an abrogation of its rights and hard-fought authority over the lands and resources.
The second change is the introduction of legislative time limits for assessments. That is another issue that I will bring up a bit later.
The third change is allowing the to delegate any or all responsibilities to the Yukon government. That is an issue of huge concern to first nations, and Yukoners as well. Yukon has worked out an arrangement between first nations and public government that is critical to the future of the Yukon territory. I do not think anyone would deny that. That relationship is one that the provinces are having more and more trouble with every day. The failure to deal on a nation-to-nation basis at the provincial level is causing all kinds of grief in all kinds of projects right across this country. Therefore, there is concern about how the delegation takes place.
Then there is the question of creating broad exemptions from YESAA for renewals and amendments of permits and authorizations. People look at that and ask what is going on and wonder how they we make sure it is correct.
Additionally, these amendments favour the Yukon government over Yukon first nations, the other partner in the YESAA process. The Council of Yukon First Nations has threatened legal action should the bill become law.
YESAA was established in 2003 in fulfilment of an obligation in the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement, which has settled many first nations land claims in that territory. In October, 2007, the five-year review of YESAA was initiated and then completed in 2012. The findings of the review were never made public.
Unlike the provinces, the legislative powers of the territories are determined through federal statute rather than through the Constitution. What we have in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut is what Parliament gives us. While section 3 of the charter of rights, which is part of the Constitution, guarantees that every citizen in Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein, the remainder of the Constitution describes the territories as lesser partners in Canada than the provinces.
We in the three territories have a problem in that we would remain without the authority of this body, the House of Commons, giving us our full due under Confederation. We would not have those powers under the Constitution.
Because of this reliance on the federal government to devolve the legislative powers and authorities that the provinces take for granted, it is really unfortunate and duplicitous that the Conservatives are taking away powers through these amendments to the act 11 years after they were granted.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Dennis Bevington: Some might find it amusing that there are noises in the House, Mr. Speaker, but that is something we all have to live with. The rumbling of discontent in the country toward the Conservative government far exceeds any noise I have heard here in the House.
Yukoners are also angry about the lack of public involvement as Bill was developed. As I said, I held a public meeting in September. It was a full house. There was another public meeting held later on in the fall in the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, where there was standing room only. A few hundred people showed up.
Why would people come out to a very dry discussion of environmental assessment? It is because they care. They understand and care about how their laws are being developed. If we went into the province of Alberta and said that we were going to change its laws about environment assessment, that this is the way things are going to go from now on, would the people of Alberta not come out and protest? If we did that in Quebec what would happen?
Why are we treated in this cavalier fashion where the federal government can come into a territory, hold hearings with stakeholders only, take the opinion of the people it considers important and not have any public meetings with the people of the territory about what is going on in their own territory?
When the original YESAA was developed, the department released drafts of the legislation in 1998 and 2001 for public review. It also undertook two separate tours of Yukon to meet with Yukon first nations and other residents to review and discuss these drafts. A little different pattern emerges here. Back then, one of the discussion tours lasted for 90 days and went to every community throughout Yukon. Every first nations community not only had an opportunity to send in written submissions on the first draft, but each community also had an opportunity to have an open public hearing. The way that Bill has been developed is so different. Listening to the Conservatives one would think this has been a multi-year program with incredible input. The reality is much different.
The parties discussed the YESAA process for many hours between 2008 and 2011 as part of the YESAA five-year review. That review is required under the Umbrella Final Agreement, and not a discussion of a new draft bill.
The amendments to YESAA under Bill that are of concern were never discussed and never raised by the Conservatives during the five-year review. These new amendments were introduced with little opportunity to ensure there was adequate consultation and accommodation.
On February 26, 2014, as I said earlier to the minister, Canada arrived at a meeting with Yukon first nations and provided paper copies to those in attendance and would not even give electronic copies to those participating by telephone, despite the changes to first nations' relationship with the crown and the Yukon territorial government. We had meeting where they could not even be there in person and they could not even have copies of the amendments.
What is going on there? They had less than two months to respond to these changes. This was hardly adequate.
Consultation means providing the necessary information to the parties, which the Conservatives did not do. They failed to meet the test of the treaty and common-law duty to consult and accommodate, so there was inadequate consultation with first nations, despite it being required by law. Democracy also requires the participation of the public. On that score, the Conservatives and their elected representatives did very little, and perhaps even nothing.
When I conducted a public hearing there, knowing that as critic I would be responsible for speaking on behalf of Yukoners here in the House, I met with many of the public afterward and the chiefs of the grand council. What did I hear? They questioned the constitutionality of the unilateral changes proposed in Bill , which were not discussed during the five-year review or during the McCrank report.
The government has had plenty of opportunities to discuss changes like these, but did not take those opportunities.
They say that the 16-month timeline is out of touch with the reality on the ground, particularly further north where, depending upon the timing of the review, the project may have only one summer to conduct any necessary environmental work.
When it comes to the timelines, Yukoners, who live there and understand the place, say there are problems with the 16-month timeline, that it may not give them adequate time to provide the information to the board so that the project can be assessed properly.
Also, Yukoners fear that the first nations do not have the financial and person resources to adequately assess proposals and that a timeline like this would artificially strain the few resources they have. This is a common problem across the north, when it comes to environmental assessment.
Companies have adequate resources generally. They do not go into the process unless they do have those resources. Many times large multinational corporations can bring more to bear on the subject than a first nation community that might be the most affected by it.
Yukoners see these amendments as an attack on Yukoners' democratic rights and the constitutional rights of first nations. By ignoring first nations' rights, the bill would create uncertainty in the mining sector, as first nations would now resort to the courts to protect their interests.
We had a system in place that was working. There were some changes required. Those changes were discussed. There were 70 amendments to the act proposed, many of which could have been done in House. People agreed to them, according to the reports that we have heard of, although those reports were not made fully public. Instead, the Conservatives brought in these other measures that would have the ability to upset the operation of Yukon in the years to come, just as in the Northwest Territories they changed the environmental assessment legislation with devolution. We have two first nations now taking them to court over that.
Where is the certainty in the process? Where is the certainty to mining companies? They want to go ahead and do this kind of work, but they are not sure that everyone has come onside and they do not know whether they will end up in a situation where what they propose is in front of the courts?
“Social licence” is a phrase that members of the government need to understand. It should be branded on all their documents. They need social licence to move ahead these days. They cannot simply be the way they have been; that is not working. We can look at all the pipelines and all the proposed energy projects across the country, and we see that social licence has caused grief in almost every case.
We had a system in Yukon that was working. It needed some minor tweaking. What we have ended up with is a series of changes that take it far beyond the pale.
However, I have heard other voices in Yukon speaking against this bill. The proposed amendments in front of the Senate today were not discussed in the five-year process with Canada and the Yukon government.
This is the testimony of Ruth Massie, Grand Chief, Council of Yukon First Nations, before the Senate Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. She said:
—it is our view that the YESAA has been operating effectively and efficiently since its enactment in 2003. The federal government now wants to unilaterally make additional amendments to the YESAA. We did not request these amendments, nor do support them. These amendments are not necessary.
This is the testimony of Mary Jane Jim, Councillor, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, in front of that same committee. She said:
Eleven years ago, devolution gave the Yukon government province-like powers for land and resource management. This was an important step in Yukon’s history and crucial in Yukon’s ability to determine our own future, a future grounded in respectful relationships among Yukon First Nation governments and the Yukon government.
Yukon NDP leader, Liz Hanson, in the Yukon legislature, on October 23, said, “With these proposed amendments to what is a made-in-Yukon environmental assessment process, YESAA, it’s no longer ours.”
A Yukon News editorial, “Environmental assessment reform should be done in the open”, on June 13, said:
A long list of people deserve raspberries for this needlessly shady behaviour. At the top of the naughty list are [the Yukon senator and the MP for the Yukon] who are supposed to ensure that the interests of Yukoners are represented in Ottawa. Instead, they’ve kept the public out of the loop, other than [MP] uttering vague generalities about the forthcoming changes without offering any meaningful specifics. Shame on them.
Here is the final one, and I know the Conservatives do not like to hear the real people talking. The Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon, in a November 21 letter to the MP., said:
We believe that these changes will have a negative impact on the tourism industry, and for Yukoners overall.
As YESAA is one of the cornerstones of the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement, we are concerned with the Council of Yukon First Nations’ grievance with the lack of consultation regarding these proposed changes. Moreover, there was no opportunity for the Yukon public and the majority of stakeholders to provide their views through a transparent consultation process.
The members of the House are here to represent the people of their constituencies. The people of Yukon do not want this bill. They do not see the need for it. They do not understand why the federal government is taking things away from them that were well established in Yukon, that do not need to be changed. Why is this paternalistic attitude being foisted upon the people of Yukon?
Democracy is about serving the will of the people. If the Conservatives really cared about what is important for Yukon, they would listen very carefully to Yukoners. They are in an embryonic stage, creating their own society, their own way of life, their own relationships with first nations. This is what they are doing. If the Conservative people want to participate there, then they should go to Yukon and join with them there as citizens of Yukon.
The citizens of Yukon and the first nations people in Yukon should have the absolute right to a final say about how their land is being managed. We have listened to the people of Yukon. We are ready to work to fight this bill.
Mr. Speaker, I am rising today because I feel it is important to speak to Bill . It is important not only to the Yukon and the people who live there, but also to Canadians.
Bill , the Yukon and Nunavut regulatory improvement act, is one of those bills that we have traditionally seen come to the House for amendments. It is one of those bills whereby there is partly a consultation with people in the region, and then there are sections that are always added by the government for good measure, which often create controversy. In this particular amendment process, through the consultations, there was agreement on substantial portions of change that would occur as part of the bill. However, there were some portions where it did not achieve or did not work to achieve consensus, and because of that, the first nations groups in the Yukon are not supportive of the bill.
As our party's critic for the north, I have had the opportunity to travel across the territories and other northern regions. I have met with many local stakeholders, community leaders, and individuals, and all too often I have unfortunately seen how the government opposite is failing northern Canadians. I have seen it for many years within my own constituency of Labrador, and it is quite evident in all regions across the north as well. The Conservative government has spent the last few years trying to paint a very rosy picture of life in the north. Much of the legislation that it has introduced and pushed through Parliament has been playing along those same lines. Sadly, for those of us who live in the north, we continue to fall behind the rest of Canada, and the federal government has simply turned its back.
Last week, the Auditor General of Canada released a scathing report on the Nutrition North program, which was picking and choosing which communities received subsidies based on historical levels of support. Many communities that should have qualified for subsidies received next to nothing or nothing at all. The government has also insisted that all is well with this program and that somehow the average cost of food for the north, based on the northern food basket, has decreased. However, we know that the costs for food in northern regions increased by 2.5% last year.
When I stop at a grocery store, whether it is in Labrador, as I did this weekend, or the territories, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, or Nunavut, shoppers are always telling me that there is increasing price gouging and that the food subsidies are not being fully passed on to the consumer. I am explaining this in the House today because it is another situation of where people in the north are giving the government one message, and the government is sending back a different message and not listening. That is the conclusion that the Auditor General reached in his report. I am using this as an example because he quantified the fact that checks and balances were not in place, and that the purpose of the program was not meeting the needs of the people in the north, regardless of the fact the government continues to say that it is.
In addition to the bill we have before us today, this past year the government pushed through a number of other bills in the House on behalf of first nations people that were very contentious. When it brought forward a bill on devolution in the Northwest Territories, we know that process was started by previous Liberal governments. The Liberal Party has had a long history of working with aboriginal people and the territories to give them greater autonomy over their lands and territories.
When we dealt with the NWT devolutions, the bill included very sweeping changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act, which served to muzzle the voices of aboriginal governments in the Northwest Territories. What it did, in essence, was to give the federal minister greater authority to make decisions in the territory, which does nothing to empower northern Canadians, aboriginal governments, and residents there. Instead, we heard that territorial governments were acting on the will of their constituents, and therefore they should be the ones making their own decisions on issues that will affect the future of their territory, based on their own treaty agreements that they have achieved.
As I will outline shortly, Bill is taking the same approach that we saw in the bill on devolution for the Northwest Territories. It is a top-down, Ottawa-centred approach to dealing with northerners, especially those in the territories. I have been troubled when I have listened to Canadians in Nunavut and the Yukon speak about how these bills would impact negatively on the work they do and on their region.
With regard to the proposed changes to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, known as YESAA, some background information is important to understand. I want to point out that the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act was established under the Umbrella Final Agreement between the Government of Canada, the Yukon government, and the Yukon first nations. The act set out an assessment process for all lands in the Yukon.
Responsibility for the management of that land and the resources was devolved from the federal government to the Yukon government in 2003. That is when it was given this authority under what was then a federal Liberal government. I want to point that out because the goodwill that has been built with first nations by previous Liberal governments is being eroded by the current government, in passing legislation in the House that does not respect the rights of first nations, aboriginal governments, and the people in the territories.
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act was passed, as I said, in 2003. It was done under the terms of the UFA, as I have already pointed out, the Umbrella Final Agreement. It was a comprehensive review of the act by the parties to the agreement. It was required at that time by the parties, including the Yukon first nations, the Yukon itself, and the Government of Canada, that there would be a review of this within five years of the act becoming law.
That review was completed in March 2012, and at the time the Council of Yukon First Nations, and other groups, voiced many concerns over the government disregarding their input into the review, and subsequently into the finalized documentation. The federal government ignored those concerns, which has left us with the bill before us today in the House of Commons.
My party has always supported accessing resource wealth in the north when it is done right. History has demonstrated that developments can find a way to be environmentally conscience and successful, while also finding trilateral support among aboriginal, territorial, and federal governments, as well as local communities. There is no reason why this cannot continue. Indeed, the only way to move forward with resource development is to work together, not against each other.
This is not just a moral obligation, but I feel it is a legal obligation as well, particularly in regions like the Yukon, which are subject to comprehensive land claim agreements. It is important to remember that the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, which this bill would significantly amend, is strictly linked with the 11 Yukon first nation claims and final agreements. We cannot ignore that fact. Unfortunately, despite spending years of working with Yukon first nations on a comprehensive review of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, the federal government blindsided them earlier this year with a number of key changes that are contained in this bill and were not discussed throughout the process.
The minister says there have been extensive consultations, and maybe there were on some aspects of this legislation. However, we know that through Bill , the government is now proposing new measures without having properly consulted, and that has been the opinion of Yukon first nations groups and Yukoners as well. These areas include giving sweeping powers for the federal minister to issue binding policy direction to the assessment board, unilaterally handing over powers to a territorial minister without the consent of first nations, allowing government to approve the renewal or amendment of permits and licences for projects without assessment by YESAA, and newly establishing unrealistic timelines for assessments.
Northerners are tired of the federal government trying to retain the final say on important matters that affect their own region. Just as territorial administrations cannot and should not be based out of Ottawa, the time has passed for this level of interference and the hands-on approach by the minister. The assessment board ultimately loses its decision-making authority, and that leaves the door open for the minister to repeatedly interfere with binding policy decisions. This is what first nations are objecting to.
This bill includes the ability for the federal minister to delegate binding policy direction to a territorial minister, which gives the impression of local engagement. It still means that local communities and aboriginal governments may not be included in the decision-making process. Again, this is wrong.
It is not sound policy for the government to allow permits and licences to be approved or renewed without any secondary assessments. These renewals could seriously impact the environment, regional economies, and local communities. It fails to recognize that, over time, changes may occur to climate, wildlife populations, technology advancement, and so on.
It is important that we maintain the timely reviews that had been a part of the current process. Local stakeholders have been vocal on this point, and I fully agree with their rationale. I have had many emails and letters from people in the area who are opposed to these recommendations that have been added to the bill at this late date. They feel it has been done with no consultation.
The imposition of new timelines has left many people in the Yukon confused over the approach being taken by government. They feel that the current process for lower level assessments has already been quick and efficient, and, for larger projects, it is only reasonable for those assessments to take a little longer. Rushing assessments in this process will only lead the board to make rash decisions in its goal of meeting these new arbitrary deadlines.
Yukoners believe in working together toward a successful territory, which includes all aboriginal governments, territorial governments, businesses, and developers. Unfortunately, the major changes proposed in this bill will serve to further unravel an already damaged relationship between many of these key stakeholders and the federal government.
Yukoners have publicly stated their pride in the effectiveness of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. It was a very proud moment in their history when they were able to achieve that. They are left wondering why the federal government has decided to take unilateral steps to try to fix a system that is not broken. While doing this, it has ignored local communities and aboriginal governments, thinking that this is the best way to continue developing the north. However, we know that is not the case.
We have seen ongoing lawsuits around the lack of adequate consultation in certain regions, which have blocked some developments from proceeding, and resource revenues have been slowed dramatically. If the government persists in ramming these changes through, it will be creating more legal uncertainty and jeopardizing development in the territory.
Time and again, the courts have sided with aboriginal people regarding constitutionally required consultation, yet the Conservative government has continued to wilfully ignore aboriginal rights and pursued a pattern of litigation rather than consultation.
The Council of Yukon First Nations has made it public that the passing of the legislation before us would lead it to consider legal action. On the other side, business and developers have also found the current unilateral moves by the government to be negative for their advancement. They understand the requirement to ensure that the aboriginal governments and communities have a prominent seat at the table. The government should not have to be told this by developers.
We have seen many major projects move forward in the north and in the territories because of good relationships between aboriginal and first nations and the business community. However, the government would now play interference and be blocking a system of negotiation and decision-making that is already working.
The approach that the government is now taking will lead to unnecessary delays, increased costs, and the further erosion of trust, and because of Bill S-6, the mistrust of the people of the north with the federal government will become even more entrenched.
We must return to the original respectful and collaborative partnership with our aboriginal communities, including the recognition of their inherent and treaty rights.
In Nunavut, we see the government proposing changes to the Nunavut Waters and Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal Act, which would not benefit the territory. The allowing of “life-of-project” water licences in the Nunavut Waters and Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal Act would not allow for reassessments should the need arise, which is very important.
We are in an ever-changing society. The northern regions, despite what the claims, are dealing with traumatic factors relating to climate change. There should always be opportunity for reassessment by the people in these areas when it comes to these particular licenses that are being issued today, especially if significant changes to a project should occur or there are other defining factors that could affect the project or the previous decision made by the people of Nunavut.
The introduction of timelines for a water licence review is very troubling to the people of Nunavut and to many others who would be affected. As it is with the Yukon portion of the bill, the timelines would rush assessors and projects into finishing reviews that in all likelihood would require additional time. The measure would essentially invoke closure on an important review process.
We have seen the current Conservative government invoke closure on many bills in the House when it has not wanted to continue debate. Again, the Conservatives would bring forward measures that could invoke closure on very important reviews that should be ongoing by the first nation communities that are affected.
We need to ask and understand why these reviews take the time they currently do. What would we lose by dramatically cutting the length of time available for a review? I am not satisfied that the government has made the case for this or justified it appropriately.
The government is proposing sweeping changes in Bill , which local aboriginal governments and communities do not want enacted and who have been vocal about the negative impact these changes would have on the future of Nunavut and Yukon Territory. However, instead of listening to these concerned groups, as is legally mandated, the government has repeatedly refused to make any changes or include any stakeholders in the review process. This is disrespectful of the territories and its people.
I would strongly encourage the government to make sweeping changes to the bill if it is seeking support from the House. There is an opportunity here for the government to make the appropriate changes and to do so in respect of the aboriginal people and the people of Yukon Territory who would be impacted by the bill. I encourage the Conservatives to build good relations with our first nations people and work co-operatively with them.
Mr. Speaker, as the member of Parliament for Yukon, it gives me a great deal of pride to stand here today and speak in support of Bill .
No doubt we will touch on this through some of the questions that are asked, but the member from the Western Arctic rose in the House to talk about public hearings and by implication was making the suggestion that I as a member of Parliament for Yukon have not had public consultation, simply by defining it as a public hearing. I can certainly say that since being elected in 2011, I have met with stakeholders, be those first nations or chiefs individually or as a collective group; with industry as stakeholders, or individuals from it; with government folks; and with citizens.
I heard my colleague from Labrador talking earlier in her address about talking to people in grocery stores. In small northern communities, a lot of time that is how discussions and consultations bear fruit. It is by informal discussions where we take the opportunity to meet with people. We give them the time, hear their concerns, provide them with information on the bills and things that are moving forward in Parliament, and we note their concerns and bring them forward. I have always had the opportunity to bring those concerns forward to any minister on any of the topics.
Before I begin to talk about the specifics of the bill, I want to acknowledge and thank the Yukon first nations leadership, who have come all the way to Ottawa. They have travelled very far to be here to participate and hear members of Parliament from all sides of the House speak about this important bill and the topics that we are here to debate.
I am also pleased that they recognize the importance of this legislation to first nation communities. It was great to have met with many of them this morning alongside the minister and to hear their concerns directly.
Many of those concerns I have heard through the evolution of the bill. For months now, we have had the opportunity to talk about some of the direct concerns they have and talk about some of the changes in Bill that actually are beneficial and that we have found consensus on and want to move forward with.
I believe the meeting was productive this morning. It is always great to hear concerns, of course, in true northern tradition and in Canadian tradition.
As the minister pointed out in the House, we may not always agree, but we always respect each other's views, and it is clear that we share the same desire for a prosperous, healthy, and sustainable territory that will benefit all Yukoners, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike.
Bill would amend the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, commonly referred to as YESAA, which would impact all Yukoners. For the benefit of any colleagues who may not be familiar with the legislation, YESAA governs the environmental and socio-economic assessment process in our territory. The intent of the legislation is to protect and promote the well-being of Yukon first nations persons and their communities and Yukon residents generally, as well as the interests of other Canadians.
Just as importantly, the legislation also seeks to protect the environmental and social integrity of the Yukon while fostering responsible development in the territory that reflects the values of Yukoners and respects the contributions of first nations.
When YESAA was first put in place in 2003, as required under the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement, it was considered state of the art. In concert with devolution, it has certainly served our territory well. I attribute this success to several factors.
First, YESAA respects the co-management structure of the Umbrella Final Agreement among Yukon first nations and governments of Canada and Yukon. This means that the interests of all parties are taken into consideration during the decision-making process.
In addition, the federal government provides significant funds annually to Yukon first nations government to participate in the YESAA process. Last year alone, Yukon first nations received $1.7 million to participate in the process, and YESAA itself received $5.7 million to conduct its important work.
Perhaps most importantly, as a result of devolution Yukoners now have greater control over their own resources and decision-making, and the impact of this control can be profound.
Yukon's unemployment rate is well below the national average. Even more impressive, our territory has had nine consecutive years of real GDP growth. That is primarily due to private sector investments, especially in the mining sector.
As proud as a Yukoner must be with this progress, the current system does require improvement in order to ensure that Yukon remains an attractive and competitive place for investment. However, as a result of regulatory improvements in other Canadian jurisdictions, Yukon now runs the risk of lagging behind. The premier of our territory stated, we desire to ensure that the Yukon continues to be a progressive and responsible place to invest and to do business and an even better place to live.
Bill proposes reasoned and practical amendments to YESAA following nearly seven years of consultation. These amendments would not only ensure the territory remains competitive in comparison with other jurisdictions in Canada but would also strengthen environmental protection standards.
Under YESAA currently, every single project that requires permitting in Yukon must go through an assessment before a project receives the green light to proceed, including changes to existing projects. This includes everything from a septic tank to a winter road to subdivisions to larger projects like placer mining or projects in copper, gold, and ore mines.
The legislation would also establish the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, or YESAB, which is responsible for conducting these assessments and providing recommendations that would eliminate or mitigate significant adverse effects. Depending upon the proposed project's size, type, and complexity, an assessment can take place at three different levels.
The first is the designated office evaluation. The majority of assessments are conducted in the six community-based designated offices. which that are located in Dawson City, Haines Junction, Mayo, Teslin, Watson Lake, and Whitehorse.
The second process can be an executive committee screening. The executive committee of the board will assess larger projects that are submitted to it directly or are referred to it by a designated office.
Third is review by a panel of the board. A panel of the board may be established to assess projects that, for instance, have the potential to have significant adverse effects, are likely to cause significant public concern, or involve the use of controversial technology.
Thus far, a panel review has never taken place in Yukon.
In 2013 and 2014, a total of 165 projects were submitted for assessment; of those, 163 were reviewed by a designated office and two were subject to an executive committee screening. Many of these projects were related to community infrastructure projects, such as roads, residential development, water, and waste sites.
In 2013-14, the Whitehorse designated office, as an example, assessed 26 projects. Land development made up approximately half of the submissions, followed by utility, which made up a quarter of the submissions. Other submissions were related to solid and contaminated waste, geotechnical investigations, forestry, and scientific research. The remaining projects were related to industrial and commercial mining or energy projects.
Unfortunately, it seems as though some confusion has arisen with respect to some of these amendments. Let me deal with a couple of these head-on.
Amendments in Bill would not in any detract from the board's independence. YESAB would remain an impartial and independent arm's-length entity responsible for making recommendations to decision bodies. A decision body is set out in the legislation and can be a federal, territorial, or first nation or agency that regulates and permits the proposed activity. A decision body can accept, reject, or vary a YESAB recommendation. It would not change the fact that YESAB is a co-managed process wherein first nation participation is guaranteed through having one of three members on the executive committee and three of seven members of the YESA Board, nor does anything in Bill deviate from the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement or infringe upon aboriginal or treaty rights.
The addressed this concern this morning when he spoke to the committee. He said that there is absolutely no justification for this concern, because the Yukon umbrella agreement continues to remain the law of the land.
First nation rights are not diminished at all. In fact, the protection for these rights may be found in five legally constituted documents of Canada: the Constitution, under section 35; the Yukon umbrella agreement; the Yukon First Nations Land Claims Settlement Act; the Yukon devolution transfer agreement; and the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act itself.
This legislation is designed to make common sense amendments to the legislation that arose out of the five-year review of YESAA mandated under the Umbrella Final Agreement. One such amendment would be that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012 would no longer apply in the Yukon. This would ensure that YESAA, which has many of the same features as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012 but was designed especially for the Yukon, would be the only environmental assessment process to apply in our territory.
Another amendment stemming from the five-year review was also to allow a member whose term has expired and who is participating in an executive committee screening or review of a panel or board to continue to act as a member for the purpose of completing the screening or review until the documents are issued.
At the same time, it would strengthen environmental protection by ensuring that designated offices are obligated to consider the need for effects monitoring when conducting an evaluation. It would also allow decision bodies, including first nations, to impose more stringent terms and conditions than required by a YESAA recommendation. Previously, decision bodies could only accept or reject recommendations; now they would be able to modify them by making conditions more stringent.
It would also reduce duplication for project reviews by implementing the principle of a one project, one assessment timeline and would implement several amendments arising out of our government's action plan to improve northern regulatory regimes. It would introduce beginning-to-end time limits for environmental assessments consistent with time limits effective in the Northwest Territories and under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012.
According to the board's annual report, among the designated offices' evaluations, the median number of days spent in the adequacy stage equalled 19 and the median number of days in the seeking views and information stage equalled 20. The total median number of days it took to complete an assessment in 2013-2014 from proposal submitted to recommendation sent, including proponent time, was 55 days. Clearly, in many instances the board is already doing great work in meeting all of these timelines. This is also something that we heard clearly through the consultations.
However, that is not always the case, and Bill is designed to ensure that all projects are subject to legislated beginning-to-end timelines to ensure consistency across jurisdictions and to provide greater certainty to proponents, aboriginal groups, and governments. This amendment received significant support from Clynton Nauman, president and CEO at Alexco. When he testified at a committee hearing of the Senate, he said:
We support time limits for both the adequacy and assessment stages of the YESAA process. I can give a simple example of Alexco's experience. Over the past five years, Alexco has undergone the environmental assessment process — the YESAA process — four times, specifically for mine development and mine operations purposes.
Another amendment would ensure that approved projects that have not been modified do not need to go through a new environmental assessment for a licence or a permit renewal unless they undergo a significant change. For example, mining projects already granted approval are currently subject to new environmental assessment simply because a water licence or a land authorization needs to be renewed, even where there has been no change at all to the project. This has created an uncertain investment climate and generates significant additional work for all parties involved.
There would be an ability for the to provide policy direction to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board in order to ensure a common understanding between the government and the board. I would like to emphasize that this legislation specifically states that this power could not be used to influence a decision on a project or restrict or expand the powers of the board. That point is worth reiterating: this part of the legislation would not be used to influence a decision on a project or to restrict or expand the powers of the board.
Finally, the ability of the to delegate certain powers under YESAA to the territorial government supports our northern strategy of improving the devolution of northern governance.
I want to also point out that the amendments we see in the Yukon and Nunavut regulatory improvement act have been enriched by Yukoners' input. The Council of Yukon First Nations and other aboriginal groups were deeply involved in the development of the original YESAA, which came into effect in 2003. They were active participants in the five-year review process that informed the current legislative proposals. The development of the terms of reference for the five-year review began in December 2006 and was completed in April 2008, at which time the review commenced. The cost of the review was just over $650,000, not including federal official time and resources over the five-year review process.
In December 2012, after the completion of the five-year review, the passage of the amendments to CEAA and the announcement of the action plan to improve northern regulatory regimes, the Yukon government requested additional amendments to YESAA to ensure consistency across all regimes, including policy direction and the authority to delegate powers to the territorial minister.
While these amendments were not discussed as part of the five-year review, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada consulted with Yukon first nations in 2013 and 2014. The first draft of Bill was shared with the Yukon first nations for review and comment in May and June 2013. Formal consultation sessions followed, which provided the opportunity for first nations to learn about the proposed amendments, voice their concerns, and make recommendations on how to improve the proposals.
Feedback that was received informed a subsequent draft of the legislation, which was shared with first nations in February 2014. More consultations and opportunities for written feedback followed. I can confirm that continued opportunities for consultation and written feedback are ongoing to the present day. While there are some significant areas of disagreement, it does not mean that consultation was not done or was inadequate. As the minister articulated, it is Canada's belief that it met its duty to consult and that it accommodated where appropriate.
Input received helped to shape the current version of the bill. For example, the legislation was amended at the request of Yukon first nations to explicitly require that the interests of first nations be taken into consideration when conducting an assessment of a project. Funding has been made available to aboriginal groups each step of the way to ensure that they could participate in the many consultations that were held. In addition to this extensive process, aboriginal groups and Yukoners are also participating in the parliamentary review which is currently under way.
At this point, I would strongly urge the New Democratic Party to support the call I have made to take the committee to the Yukon. I was happy to hear that the Liberal Party has confirmed its support for the committee to travel to the Yukon and get input from the people in the territory on exactly what they would like to do. I hope that the past year-long practice of the NDP obstructing committee travel ceases for the purpose of this important piece of legislation.
The bill has, of course, been subject to significant debate already in the Senate, and the Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources heard from numerous witnesses from the Yukon. At the end of the study in the Senate, both Conservative and Liberal senators endorsed the bill unanimously. The Senate committee has recognized the importance of the bill for development and investment in the Yukon. In fact, Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell, the opposition critic on the bill, spoke in favour of the bill, stating:
There has been, I think, quite adequate consultation. It's complicated up there in these territories. You have federal, territorial and Aboriginal interests. [...] So it is very complex, and the fundamental core of this bill gets to that and is an effort to make all of that better and to make processes in the North better.
I think that we will find, after the process of reviewing this bill in committee, coming out and summarizing it in third reading, that in fact this bill will have a very good chance of accomplishing what it has set out to accomplish.
The rhetoric from the NDP suggesting that this is supported by just the Conservatives is not factual.
Now that the bill has passed the Senate, it will be reviewed in the House of Commons, and Yukoners will have one more opportunity to provide input to this bill at the House committee. Again, I am urging the committee to travel to the Yukon to hear directly from Yukoners. I invite all Yukoners, as I always have, to provide written comments, to reach out to my office if they would like to learn more about the bill, to talk to me, and to express their concerns. Indeed, on a daily basis, I receive comments from the territory that are compiled, assessed, and reported directly back to the minister. That will be ongoing, in my role and responsibility as Yukon's member of Parliament.
I hope that we can collectively move together to review this piece of legislation with a balanced approach, considering all of the complexities and diversified interests that exist in the territory, with the main objective that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, for a better Yukon and a strong environmental process that respects all Yukoners' needs, including those of our first nations.
I would like to thank them once again for coming to Ottawa to participate in this very important debate.