moved that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, it is my privilege to open debate today on Bill , the Northwest Territories devolution act.
It is my privilege to open debate today on Bill , the Northwest Territories Devolution Act.
The introduction of the Northwest Territories Devolution Act marks the culmination of decades of hard work towards the devolution of decision-making powers over lands and resources to the people of the Northwest Territories.
This is a critical juncture not only in the political and economic evolution of the Northwest Territories, but also in the constitutional development of our great country.
We know that the north has always held a distinctive place in the life of our great country. A frontier, a homeland, rich with vibrant people, potential and culture, the north defines Canada and what it means to be Canadian.
The Conservative government, under the leadership of the , has consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to the north. Indeed, I am proud to say that no previous federal government in Canadian history has done more for the north than this Conservative government.
One of the first things we did after coming to power in 2006 was to put in place a comprehensive northern strategy, which was built on four pillars. The first is exercising Canada's sovereignty. The second is promoting social and economic development. The third is protecting our environmental heritage. The fourth and final pillar is improving and devolving northern governance.
While the introduction of the Northwest Territories devolution act is another important step in the implementation of this northern strategy, I would say it is a milestone. We recognize that a key feature of Canadian history has been the evolution of our nation's vast northern region into self-governing territories with resource development as the mainstay of their economies.
Our records stand in marked contrast to those of my friends, the Liberals, who for decades treated the north as an afterthought and northern resources as a federal treasure chest.
Soon after my appointment as , I was privileged to be in Yellowknife with the and the Premier of the Northwest Territories, along with five of our aboriginal partners in the Northwest Territories: the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, the Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated, the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Tlicho Government. We marked the conclusion of negotiations on the Northwest Territories lands and resources devolution agreement in March of this year.
The said it best at the AIP signing in March, when he said:
Our Government recognizes that Northerners are best placed to make the important decisions about how to run their economies and how to maximize use of their resources.... Once finalized, this historic agreement will provide the Northwest Territories...with greater decision-making powers over a range of new responsibilities which will lead to jobs, growth and long-term prosperity across the Territory.
Our government believes that the opportunities and challenges in the Northwest Territories are better handled by the people who understand them best, and that is the people of the Northwest Territories.
This act will do exactly that. It will allow the people of the Northwest Territories to seize control of the lands and resources and benefit from those tremendous resources in their own backyard.
For those who may be skeptical about what this bill can achieve, look no further than the Yukon to see the benefits that devolution and a modern regulatory system can have on an economy. It is not merely coincidence that this year is the 10th anniversary of devolution in the Yukon and the territory is in its 10th straight year of positive GDP growth.
Investment is up, unemployment is down and the Yukon has not looked back. To complete the decades-long devolution of decision-making responsibilities, this bill is required to bring the Northwest Territories Lands and Resources Devolution Agreement into effect.
Bill would amend the Northwest Territories Act and bring this agreement into effect. It would modernize this legislation by updating its language, by clarifying key provisions and removing archaic ones, and by updating territorial authorities that draw their power from the act. Finally, amendments to the Northwest Territories Act would enshrine current practices in the territory that support responsible government.
The Government of the Northwest Territories has seen significant political evolution since 1967—the year Yellowknife was established as the capital of the Northwest Territories and the seat of government was moved from Ottawa. Since that time, the federal government has transferred to the territorial government power over health care, housing, forestry, education and social services.
Devolution of province-like functions has been a long-standing and shared priority of the federal and territorial governments. Over the last four decades, most of the province-like functions have been devolved to the territorial governments. The devolution of province-like powers over their lands, waters and resources is the last of the major province-like functions in the Northwest Territories which remain with the federal government.
To put it simply, this bill achieves devolution for the Northwest Territories. It gives the territory the tools to chart its own destiny, a destiny we know will end in success.
To reach this goal, we have worked tirelessly with all our partners in the north. In the Northwest Territories, we worked with the territorial government under the impressive leadership of Premier McLeod. If it were not for the rules, I would signal the presence of the premier, but I know I cannot. We also worked closely with various aboriginal stakeholders and governments including the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the Gwich’in Tribal Council, the Sahtu Secretariat, the Tlicho Government and the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, all in order to reach a comprehensive devolution agreement for the territory.
I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the work of my predecessors. I had the privilege today of introducing this bill and opening the debate on it, but I want to acknowledge the work of the current chief government whip, the member of Parliament for , as well as the Hon. Jim Prentice and the Hon. Chuck Strahl, who have all worked hard to make this day happen. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the steady hand of the .
This past June, I was in the Northwest Territories again, this time in Inuvik, to sign the final devolution agreement on behalf of the Government of Canada, along with the Government of the Northwest Territories and five aboriginal groups. We continue to work toward a target effective date of April 1, 2014, as requested by the premier of the Government of the Northwest Territories and agreed to by the and all parties to the devolution agreement. It is also our shared objective with the Government of the Northwest Territories to devolve a modern, efficient and effective land and water regulatory system with the Government of the Northwest Territories in accordance with our 2010 action plan to improve northern regulatory regimes.
Unlike my friend, the member for across the aisle who believes that resource development has not reduced poverty, our government knows that resource development creates jobs and economic opportunity for northerners and all Canadians. We also know the Northwest Territories is full of opportunity, in particular, with its mineral-rich land and vast oil and gas reserves. However, much of this opportunity has gone untapped and the territories have undergone a contraction in its economy over recent years. These are the facts. Bringing forward a modern regulatory regime is an important tool to attract investment and promote growth in the territories.
That is why this bill would also put in place an improved regulatory framework in the Northwest Territories that would ensure that resource development would continue in a manner that would respect the environment, while ensuring the long-term prosperity of the Northwest Territories for generations to come.
To this end, the Northwest Territories devolution act includes amendments to the Territorial Lands Act, the Northwest Territories Waters Act and the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act, which would increase predictability and timeliness in the environmental assessment process, reduce regulatory burden, improve environmental protection and ensure meaningful aboriginal consultation. More important, however, this would give the people of the Northwest Territories greater control over decisions setting the nature and pace of development and the regulatory processes and environmental assessments of resource development projects on their lands and waters.
Specifically, Bill would amend the Territorial Lands Act so it would no longer apply to lands under the administration and control of the commissioner of the Northwest Territories. The act would only apply to federal lands and federally-managed sites in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. For its part, the legislative assembly of Northwest Territories would pass its own legislation to manage land under the administration and control of the commissioner of the territories.
The bill would also repeal the Territorial Waters Act, as the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories would also enact a new territorial law to manage waters in the territory.
The Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board would continue to issue licences on territorial and private lands in the Mackenzie Valley, but the new territorial water legislation and its regulations would set out the requirements for issuing licences of these lands.
For water in the Inuvialuit settlement region, licences for water use and waste disposal would be the responsibility of the Inuvialuit Water Board, which would be established under the new territorial act.
Finally, the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act would remain a federal statute similar to federal environmental assessment legislation in every other jurisdiction in Canada, should the bill be passed.
As a result, Bill would cause substantial portions of the Northwest Territories Waters Act to be incorporated into the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act in order for Canada to continue to regulate on federal lands, of which most public land will have been transferred to the territory as of April 1, 2014.
These changes to the regulatory processes for land and water would continue to generate many benefits for the people of the Northwest Territories. The bill would also promote greater environmental stewardship of all lands and waters in the territories.
The action plan was launched to make improvements to the existing regulatory regimes across the north and to ensure that they are strong, effective, efficient and predictable by making reviews of projects more predictable and timely; reducing duplication for project reviews; strengthening environmental protection; and respecting consultation obligations with aboriginal groups.
Clearly the development of this legislation that hon. members see before them today is the result of years of important, collaborative work. Adoption of the Northwest Territories devolution act by Parliament would mark the legislative conclusion of the vital work in the Northwest Territories we set out in the action plan to improve northern regulatory regimes. Passage of Bill will allow us to work with northerners under a regulatory regime that works for all and that will contribute to improved economic outcomes.
I am convinced that all of us in the House would agree that the source of our country's power and legitimacy in the north is derived from the people who live, work and raise families there and from vibrant, self-sufficient northern communities. These are the people and communities that this act seeks to support.
Canadians of the north must be empowered with the legal authority to create northern ways to meet northern needs. The Northwest Territories devolution act would give the Northwest Territories the tools and political freedom to do this.
I urge my colleagues to do their part in building the true north. I urge my colleagues to pass Bill swiftly into law.
Mr. Speaker, as a lifelong northerner, I am pleased to have the opportunity to address Bill , the devolution implementation bill.
I would first like to congratulate the Premier of the Northwest Territories, Bob McLeod, his cabinet ministers and the staff for the hard work they have put in on this file. That extends back through the time of the Northwest Territories to many other people who have dedicated their service in building a territory with political rights that are equivalent to those in other parts of Canada.
Bill has two very significant and different parts. One makes changes to the Northwest Territories Act, an act that is virtually the constitution of the Northwest Territories. All actions there fall under the Northwest Territories Act. Other laws are being changed to implement the devolution agreement between Canada and the Northwest Territories.
The second part brings in changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act, primarily doing away with the regional land and water boards created through land claims agreements with the first nations, replacing them with a single super board.
There are other changes in the act, and I will speak to those as I go along. They are very significant changes that, apart from what the minister has said, will leave even stronger powers for the minister over resource development in the Northwest Territories. It is quite clearly the case.
We in the New Democratic Party support devolution. We see this as a step forward for the Northwest Territories in some respects, and we will look to the bill going to committee. We will look to the opportunity to put forward amendments that may better serve the people of the Northwest Territories.
The devolution part of the bill partially realizes the dream northerners have had for over 50 years: taking more authority over their lives from bureaucrats in Ottawa. I have lived that life and I know what that life is.
The Carruthers Commission in 1966 moved the capital of the Northwest Territories to Yellowknife and brought a number of bureaucrats there, but that was what we could call “second-stage colonialism”. We brought the federal government into the Northwest Territories and to the greatest extent it ruled the north from the north, rather than from Ottawa.
The federally appointed Commissioner of the Northwest Territories was the speaker, premier and lieutenant governor, all rolled into one, up until 1975. In 1975, we had our first elected territorial council of 15 members. This includes the territory known as Nunavut now, under one roof.
Before that a mixture of people elected and appointed by the federal government provided governance. Executive powers still lay with the commissioner, assisted by a deputy and an assistant commissioner.
With the appointment of John Parker in 1979, the move began away from an executive commissioner toward a more ceremonial role as lieutenant governor. I will get back to that point, because it is a point I want to bring up in this speech.
In the late eighties, health services, administration of justice and the management of forestry were devolved to the Government of the Northwest Territories, which has handled all of those as well as can be and deserves great praise for providing services to people across a vast territory with limited resources.
We have taken on education, social services, highways, airport administration and a number of the roles that would be classified as provincial. That was never satisfactory to the north, as after the nineties when we had constitutional development conferences in the north, where we talked about our future and what direction we would take, I think we all felt that we wanted to be a unique place in Canada.
We wanted full respect for aboriginal governments. We wanted partnerships between aboriginal governments and public governments so that we would have a territory that would truly represent the people, the history and the real claim that first nations have to the land and resources of the north. That is a dream that is still held by most northerners.
There were devolution efforts in the early part of 2000, with the Liberals. The deal was virtually the same as this. Perhaps they were offering a little better money, at the time, and I think a little more control over development. That deal was actually rejected by the parties, in the end, because there was not a common agreement.
I think one of the great accomplishments of Premier McLeod, with the devolution file, has been to bring many of the first nations on board. Premier McLeod himself is of aboriginal descent and has a great deal of respect among first nation peoples—among all of us in the north—for his strength and his fairness. I think that is something that has helped the devolution file tremendously.
The MVRMA part of the bill, however, would implement the Conservative desire to move forward with more rapid resource development in the Northwest Territories. That is what we see here. That is the purpose of this. This is the great trade-off that has been made with this bill—the trade-off that we all have been put under.
When I got a comprehensive audit of people's attitudes toward changes in the MVRMA done by outside consultants a year and a half ago, it was pretty clear that most people in the Northwest Territories were not thinking that the regulatory system needed more than some very straightforward tweaking.
One thing we all did agree with was that the land use plans, which are part of the MVRMA, needed to be completed, including McCrank. Everybody agreed with that. The current government has not moved very fast to make that happen, which was one of the biggest problems we had in the regulatory system.
For more than 20 years, the aboriginal people in the Northwest Territories have hung their hat on having some say and control over the resource development process on lands and waters. They have tied this to the MVRMA with their duly developed land claims agreements with the Gwich'in, the Sahtu and the Tlicho governments.
These people have agreed to regional boards. They have supported regional boards. Yes, there are provisions that perhaps one single board could be made, but what we have found in the Northwest Territories is that regional boards actually provide a useful and necessary function within the Northwest Territories to, clearly, provide that vision that we talked about earlier, the vision of a territory that had balance between aboriginal and non-aboriginal governments.
What we would see with this bill is that particular structure would changed to a single board. It might be possible to change it back later. That is very much a question that is up in the air now.
However, certainly, an NDP government would go back to take a look at this. We would go back to see whether this was appropriate for the development of the Northwest Territories according to how the people see their development taking place.
The MVRMA remains a federal legislation, but it is an essential part of how the balance of the Northwest Territories is developing.
Let us talk about the changes to the NWT Act for devolution. The question here is whether we are moving to more province-like powers. Yes, in the administration of environment and the administration of land, we are. In the enforcement of those provisions, yes, we are. Those are things that are valuable. I thank all of those involved in pushing those forward for the people of the Northwest Territories.
However, there are other things that trouble us in the bill, where we look for amendments, perhaps.
When it comes to directions to the commissioner, I mentioned the commissioner was moving more to the state of a lieutenant-governor ceremonial position. This bill would draw him back into the fold of the federal government. Bill , clause 4, states:
The Commissioner must act in accordance with any written instructions given to him or her by the Governor in Council or the Minister.
This is stronger language than in the current NWT Act. The Yukon Act contains no comparable sections, and in Nunavut these instructions are made public through tabling in the Legislative Assembly.
What do we see here, in this particular section of the devolution act? We actually see more control being applied through the commissioner's office. Strengthening the federal control of the NWT, when combined with the provision of section 29 that adds the power of the minister to order the commissioner to withhold assent to bills that are passed in the Legislative Assembly, the commissioner, under the instruction of the minister, can withhold assent to those bills, and has up to a year to do it.
What we see there is fairly strong control over any changes that could be made in the Northwest Territories in the years to come with different governments there that may have agendas different those of the present government or any other government.
Regarding borrowing, this bill would continue the process whereby Ottawa sets the amount of debt the NWT can acquire. NWT debt is not a burden on Canada. This is an outdated and colonial practice that inhibits our development by not allowing us to invest in things like hydroelectric generation capacity. We have to go to the federal government, cap in hand, and ask it to please give us a little more borrowing power and to possibly let us do something that we know is good for our people.
I put a bill forward in the last Parliament. This issue has been very well discussed and is very well understood. The opposition at the time voted unanimously, and we passed that bill through second reading. Only the Conservatives wanted to limit the borrowing capacity of our government.
What is it in like in the provinces? The federal government may not give direction to a provincial lieutenant governor. All natural resources are completely under the control of the provinces, with no Ottawa interference. There is no control over borrowing. The lieutenant governors cannot be directed to not assent to bills.
These are things that are in the devolution agreement. We see that the devolution agreement would give us more in certain areas but would put reins on us in other areas. That would limit our capacity, unlike other Canadians. These things can be changed by amendments, and I encourage the government to support some amendments that would give us more flexibility under this act.
Let us move on to the changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act. This measure would eliminate regional boards created through the land use process. It would replace them with one superboard with only 11 members. This bill also would also give the minister the right, in any part of this bill and for any of the boards that will exist in the Northwest Territories, to provide binding policy decisions to those boards. In other words, the minister could tell the board the way it will judge actions.
There is no consultation with the Government of the Northwest Territories included in that provision. That would make sense. It would make sense that the people who are taking care of the environment and the land would have some influence over the policy decisions that are going forward to the boards that make decisions about development. What would be wrong with providing that consultation to the Government of the Northwest Territories? Again, with a simple amendment we could put that in place. If the Conservatives want to listen, that is fine.
There have been environmental audits done in the Northwest Territories. The main problem with our regulatory system, according to these independent environmental audits that were done in 2010, was that foot-dragging by Ottawa on appointments and on approvals of developments was the biggest impediment to resource development in the Northwest Territories. Now we would have a system whereby one government would control some things and the other government can have a say over everything when it comes to resource development. This is a difficult situation. This is going to lead to conflicts.
We need one government in charge of making decisions, and that should be the Government of the Northwest Territories in consultation with and working together with the first nations, who have a right to land and resources in the Northwest Territories and who we want to have as complete partners in the development of the Northwest Territories.
This is a goal that we all have. It is a goal that northerners have in the Northwest Territories. We are not interested in matching up to Alberta. We do not want Alberta in the Northwest Territories. That is not what we are here for. We want our own government, under our own rules, with our own relationships, with the groups that make up the north and have lived there for hundreds and thousands of years and have done very well with that.
There is strong opposition among the first nations to the changes to the MVRMA. The Gwich'in Tribal Council made a unanimous decision to reject the changes at a meeting held in Inuvik by community leadership representing all the Gwich'in communities.
These are the words of Gwich'in Tribal Council president Robert Alexie. He said: “My people have spoken, and what Canada is proposing is clearly unacceptable”.
The Tlicho Government is opposed. Grand Chief Eddie Erasmus has said:
There's no need to change the Wek'èezhli Land and Water Board. There's nothing wrong with it. Absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's working very well. Why fix something that is not broken?
With regard to appointments, why is the minister holding on tightly to all the appointments to all these boards? Why is he saying that a nomination from the Government of the Northwest Territories to any of these boards must meet his approval? Why do aboriginal governments that make nominations to these boards need the minister's approval? How is that devolution? How is that taking charge of our own affairs, when nominations can be rejected outright? When it comes to the chairs of the new superboard, the minister only has to consult on appointing a chair. The minister's man will be in Yellowknife as head of the superboard. He will be getting instructions, binding policy direction, from the minister about how things develop in the Northwest Territories. How does that represent true devolution?
I do not know if anyone across the way understands, but if they go talk to their provincial counterparts, they may understand what provincial-like powers actually are. The minister said the Yukon is doing extremely well with environmental assessments. Yukon actually makes decisions for itself. The Yukon first nations make appointments to their boards. The Yukon is doing it by itself. Bill does not permit us to do the same things that the Yukon is doing.
I have been through two phases of colonialism in my life. The first was when the federal government in Ottawa simply sent representatives up to govern us. I was a student in school, and different kids would come from Ottawa because their parents would be sent up there for a couple years to do northern duty. I was great friends with people from Ottawa and with their children, but they were not northerners. That was phase one.
Phase two was when the government came to the north. We have made remarkable progress in that time. We have done a lot with our territory. It is a great territory, one that I am absolutely proud to represent here in the House of Commons every day. I love the place. I want it to grow. I want to be a Canadian just like everyone else, but what we have here is only the third stage in colonialism. It is the stage when we take care of most things on the ground, but the decisions are in Ottawa. That is where we are at.
We will work with the government as much as we can, but in the end, we know that our job as New Democrats will be to give the people of the north a real say, a say that is equivalent to that of other Canadians in how they manage their affairs.
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to rise today and speak to this important bill, Bill , an act to replace the Northwest Territories Act to implement certain provisions of the Northwest Territories Lands and Resources Devolution Agreement and to repeal or make amendments to the Territorial Lands Act, the Northwest Territories Waters Act, the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act, other Acts and certain orders and regulations. I am proud to rise as a northerner of Inuit descent and as my party's critic for northern development, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and the Arctic Council to address the bill on this occasion of importance to the people of the Northwest Territories.
The devolution of responsibilities in the Northwest Territories is a cause for celebration, not just for the people of NWT but for all of us as Canadians. Any time that we can give greater control and a greater say in the future of the people who live in certain lands and manage certain resources, we can ensure that we will have good and solid management.
The work that is happening with regard to the devolution agreement is obviously work that was started decades ago to give the people of the Northwest Territories the governance that they deserve. We can all think back to the work of Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and his government, which established the Advisory Commission on the Development of Government in the Northwest Territories, otherwise known as the Carrothers commission.
The commission at that time consulted with people across the north and concluded in its report that they of course deserved to have the seat of their government established not in Ottawa, as it had been until then, but in the north, where people could play a much more vital role in their government and its ability to represent the people of the Northwest Territories. This established Yellowknife as the capital and moved the territorial seat of government there.
Decades later, Yellowknife has continued to blossom as the seat of government in the Northwest Territories. It is thanks in part to this important step that we can be proud today that business in the Northwest Territories is booming as well.
On the important subject of devolution, I want to point out and acknowledge before Parliament that it was the governments of Prime Ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin that worked tirelessly for the devolution of the Yukon and Nunavut, and started the process of devolution for the Northwest Territories. It is a legacy that we are proud of. I am eager to continue working hard to ensure that people across northern Canada have the type of government that they want and deserve, in order to make important decisions that will affect their future.
There is a new generation of young Canadians who live in the north and who are ready to be the leaders of today. We must do everything that we can to ensure that our territories have the tools and governance that they need to empower our young Canadians and our citizens to continue to be a part of the economic driver of this country, which the north has become.
In my role as the critic for northern development, and of course as the MP for Labrador, sometimes I have to say that when I speak to the bill, I am almost a little bit envious. In my previous role as a provincial member and minister in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, I had the opportunity to travel to the northern regions of our country and visit people across the territories. I know that they are great people, who work hard in a very challenging climate. I can tell the House that despite all these odds and challenges, they are thriving.
The culture and entrepreneurship are such an inspiration to see first-hand. I want to encourage my hon. colleagues in the House to visit the north and see for themselves how this is such an awe-inspiring part of our country. The devolution agreement and the continued transfer of responsibility will allow the people of the Northwest Territories to take the driver's seat on the huge amounts of economic development that we are seeing.
In my own district of Labrador, we have seen the rich cultural heritage and contributions of our aboriginal people, like the Innu, NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut. It is vital that all aboriginal peoples in Canada have a strong voice to represent them. I hope that those in the north will play a larger role in determining the future of their people as part of the bill and of the work of both the federal and territorial governments.
We all want to see aboriginal communities in the north succeed economically, socially and culturally. This agreement would hopefully empower these communities to come closer to achieving greater success in all of these areas.
As someone who was born and raised in the north, and who represents a northern district, I can certainly understand the need for autonomy in the north and the right to establish strong local government that can engage in government to government to government dialogue that would produce meaningful results. I know the frustration and reality of trying to govern without having real power and the ability to make full decisions and have full accountability. We need decision-makers to understand these realities of living in the north and that they are best served by granting the responsibilities necessary to the Government of the Northwest Territories.
We want to make it easier to conduct business in our northern regions to encourage business investment, create jobs and generate greater revenues. I want devolution to give more of these things to the Government of the Northwest Territories as well as the participating aboriginal governments. With this, they could work together to improve their social programs and social safety net. They could make decisions to invest in their local culture to attract tourism or trade and to draw new people into the area.
I am very optimistic about the future of the Northwest Territories and its devolution agreement. I am optimistic about all northern regions of Canada.
I believe that northern regions thrive when they have the guidance of good leadership. Today we have with us the Premier of the Northwest Territories, Mr. Bob McLeod, along with officials and other leaders within his government. I understand that we also have support and have been joined by some aboriginal governments from NWT.
We have to recognize that these individuals have spent years working to gain a very concrete devolution agreement to ensure that it meets the needs of the people they represent, the people they advocate and care for. I want to congratulate them on the work they have done.
I hope that despite the interference that one often sees from government that they will accomplish what they set out to do; that is, to give greater autonomy, greater powers of decision-making to the people of the Northwest Territories. I think that is what we all want to see accomplished through this particular agreement.
Mr. Speaker, I am clearly pleased to rise to speak to Bill today. This bill gives the Government of the Northwest Territories more powers and makes other changes, which I will speak to later.
I am also pleased to bring a different viewpoint to the debate, one that we rarely have in the House, and that is the viewpoint of an aboriginal person who has negotiated agreements with the federal and provincial governments on behalf of his people.
When I read the bill, I could not help but look at it in the context of the work I did for the Cree of Eeyou Istchee and the people of northern Quebec.
The people of the Northwest Territories have been working for years toward gaining more province-like powers to have greater control over their own communities, their own resources, and their own destinies. This is very similar to what we did in northern Quebec, going back to the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975 and the Paix de Braves, and to the new regional governance agreement we signed not too long ago, which has created a new regional government that will be fully operational next month.
In these agreements, we worked with our neighbours and various levels of government to find common ground to protect our rights and interests and to create a common path forward. This is very difficult work that is full of complexities, but when done right, it creates a stable, prosperous environment that benefits everyone.
In the NDP, we talk a lot about restoring the relationship of equality between the Government of Canada and our country's aboriginal people from coast to coast to coast. The approach we took in northern Quebec has proven to be a success story for all involved. Everyone feels respected in that kind of environment.
That is what I had in mind when I read the government's bill. However, I have to say that although it proposes some worthwhile measures and is a step in the right direction, we do not feel that it goes far enough, unfortunately. An NDP government would have done more and would have given more power to the Government of the Northwest Territories.
The bill, as proposed, would make some changes that are of concern to the people of the region. In drafting this bill, the Conservatives seem to have completely ignored the strong concerns first nations have about the changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act, which is also very disturbing. This will be the focus of my comments today.
This bill includes amendments to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act that would replace the current structure of regional land and water boards, created through the land claims final agreement with Northwest Territory aboriginal governments, with a single board. The Government of the Northwest Territories has also expressed concern about these changes.
In May 2011, Michael Miltenberger, NWT environment minister, said, “this process is driven by the federal government. They've, for the most part, treated the [Government of the Northwest Territories] as just another stakeholder”.
I would have thought that a territorial government, just like a provincial government or an aboriginal government, would be a partner, not just a stakeholder. We have seen before how the current Conservative government treats its partners in Confederation. When it starts from the point of not seeing or treating its partners as true partners, bad things flow, and a lasting agreement cannot be reached. Believe me, I speak from experience.
The Gwich'in Tribal Council and the Tlicho government, both signatories to the devolution agreement, have voiced opposition to these changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act. Other individual first nations have also expressed their opposition.
As someone who has spent most of his professional career negotiating on behalf of my people, it is very concerning for me to see the government unilaterally merge these regional land and water boards.
These boards were created through land claims final agreements with the Northwest Territories and aboriginal governments after years of negotiations done in good faith. These boards have served the regions and peoples well. It is deeply troubling for me to see the government unilaterally undo what years of partnership and goodwill has built to the detriment of the region. If the Government of Canada tried to unilaterally undo part of the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement, I would be strongly oppose and fight against it. Therefore, I will not expect other aboriginal nations to accept such an intrusion on their agreements and rights by the federal government.
Recently, Robert Alexie Jr., president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, commented on its opposition to these changes. He was quoted saying, “We have a land use plan. We have the land and water board. We have a claim. People know the process, and it works very well up here”.
In October 2011, Gabrielle Mackenzie-Scott of the Tlicho government was quoted saying, “Our key message to AANDC is that there is nothing wrong with the system, and it needs time to grow and improve”.
I am sure the minister has many reasons why he believes these two leaders are wrong. However, from where I sit, it feels like the government has again not properly consulted those directly affected by these changes and are thumbing its nose at agreements the Crown has signed in good faith.
If the government insists on continuing with its failed approach in this case, I feel safe in saying that it will just invite another lawsuit against itself and add to the hundreds of millions it has spent in courts defending its indefensible approach. This is a waste of money that could be avoided by simply working with all partners, territorial and aboriginal governments alike, and negotiating.
To make matters worse, these amendments would also give the federal minister power over the approval of all land and water usage in the Northwest Territories, essentially circumventing the powers transferred to the Government of the Northwest Territories through the devolution process. Not only is the government ignoring land claims agreements and their provisions, the Conservatives are grabbing more power for themselves. The whole point of devolution is to give power to other levels of government, not take more back in return. Given its track record on protecting water rights and the interests of aboriginal peoples, I am very concerned to see those powers placed in the hands of a minister of the government.
My NDP colleagues and I are concerned about the lack of consultation during the drafting of this bill. That lack of consultation caused justifiable outrage with regard to some of the main parts of this bill. First nation and Métis governments were outraged, as were those who support the transfer of powers. Given that those of us on this side of the House are open to any and all suggestions that could deliver tangible results for the people, we will be supporting this bill so that it is referred to committee, where it can be improved. That is our intention on this side of the House.
When the bill is studied in committee, the NDP will do what the government has yet to do: we will listen to the first nation governments from the north and we will propose amendments based on their testimony and observations.
We are very grateful to the first nations governments of the Northwest Territories for taking a stand, and we will work as equals with our first nations partners to improve the bill. We hope that the Conservatives will do the same.
There is an important aspect of this whole discussion that relates to our notion of consultation in this country. When Canada's aboriginal peoples speak of consultation and accommodation with respect to their rights, they are not indulging in political whims. The Government of Canada and the Crown have a constitutional duty to consult with aboriginal peoples and seriously consider the concerns expressed during that consultation. That is our constitutional obligation towards Canada's aboriginal peoples.
I want to stress this because we too often come up against the failure of this country's governments to meet this obligation. We must take seriously the constitutional obligations of the various levels of government in Canada. I am including the provincial governments in this comment.
We certainly know that in some cases the Supreme Court has ruled on these notions of aboriginal and treaty rights of aboriginal peoples. I would mention, for example, Haida Nation v. British Columbia, in which the Supreme Court addressed this idea of consultation with aboriginal peoples. It stipulated that in some cases, and concerning very serious issues, this consultation may mean “consent”. This is important.
When we talk about the rule of law or the code of law in this country, it is important to remember what the Supreme Court had to say on that matter. The government must always act in accordance with the Constitution. That is the rule of law in Canada. This is what the Supreme Court said in Canada (Prime Minister) v. Khadr. The Supreme Court said that the government must act in compliance with the Constitution.
I am telling my colleagues nothing new by saying that section 35 of the Constitution addresses aboriginal and treaty rights of aboriginal peoples in Canada. It is important to be always mindful of our obligations towards aboriginal peoples.
I know people often say that aboriginal issues in this country are too complex or too complicated. However, these issues do not need to be complicated or complex. What we need—and what this government is all too often lacking—is the political will of governments to deal with these issues. With political will comes political imagination.
I will just give you an example. I do not know whether my colleagues have ever had the opportunity to read the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Canada's first modern treaty. It was signed in 1975 by the Canadian and Quebec governments and mainly the Cree and the Inuit.
Canada's first modern treaty, which is almost 500 pages long, is a very complex legal document. However, it was negotiated in just one year. This goes to show that when there is political will, when there is no choice but to resolve these issues, we are able to use political imagination.
Another important part of this debate is our relationship with aboriginal people.
I want to emphasize that too. As an aboriginal person and a lawyer, I have always insisted that the relationship between peoples and nations has to be top priority. Our relationship with aboriginal peoples here in Canada is broken. We must immediately address this matter, which is becoming increasingly urgent.
It shocks me that a government whose economic plan relies so heavily on the development of Canada's natural resources has not grasped the importance of treating aboriginal peoples as equal partners in this endeavour.
The issues of natural resources, the environment and climate change affect aboriginal people, no matter how we address them. Even in our international relations, the free trade agreements that we sign also affect aboriginal people, since such agreements often address natural resource development.
Our relations with aboriginal peoples are vital. They are the cornerstone of this country. However, the Conservatives are turning those relations into a stumbling block with their attitude, because they do not listen during consultations. It is important to point out that we need to improve our relations with aboriginal peoples because, right now, we are in a position where there is a very high risk of legal and political conflict.
It is troubling for a parliamentarian to consider that almost $300 million is spent every year to block the rights of this country's aboriginal peoples. That is troubling. It is urgent that we take into consideration the aboriginal peoples of this country. This issue is absolutely fundamental in all discussions on almost every subject concerning the development of this country, one of the richest countries on the planet. It is important that we remember this.
Mr. Speaker, you probably know the law as well as I do, and it will be no surprise to you that, according to section 4.1 of the Department of Justice Act, every law passed by Parliament must be consistent with the charter.
However, we have reached a point where the Government of Canada must also adopt provisions to ensure that every law passed by this Parliament respects the aboriginal and treaty rights of Canada's aboriginal peoples. It is important that we start thinking about that.
In closing, we expect the government to be open to the amendments that my very skilled colleagues will propose. As I mentioned, this bill is a step in the right direction and that is a good thing.
However, there are some things missing in this bill, and we hope to fill in the blanks for the government. I hope that the people on the other side of this chamber will be open to the NDP's proposals.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak to Bill on behalf of my constituents from Surrey North.
Bill basically has two parts. There is the part on devolution, giving more powers to the Northwest Territories. The second part is the changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act. I want to speak to both parts, as well as to some of the concerns and the jubilant responses we have heard so far.
The NDP has been advocating for devolution for many years. It is very unfortunate that the Liberals, for many years when they were in government, failed to give more real power to local authorities so they could manage their own resources and their own affairs at the local level. The Liberals and the Conservatives have failed for many years to do that.
We can talk about treaties. The Conservatives, except for a few, have basically failed to negotiate any sort of treaty with the first nations. Businesses like to have certainty. We know that where there is disputed land, where aboriginal rights are not being looked after, the development of the land and making useful use of that land is hindered, as is economic development. The Conservative government has not taken any steps to resolve those treaty issues with the first nations.
Devolution is a good thing that we will support. This will allow local government to make good decisions at the provincial and territorial levels. I will talk about the second component in a second.
If we want to see a prosperous northern Canada, it is important for us to work with not only the Northwest Territories government and other governments, including the Yukon government, but we need to involve other stakeholders, to ensure that all of their concerns are taken into account.
Looking at the Conservative government's record, it is pretty clear that it usually fails to consult all of the relevant parties and stakeholders that would bring valuable information into the making of legislation and would have a positive impact for those stakeholders.
I spoke about this earlier, but the Conservative government, on the consultation part, should actually listen to people and act on some of those things that make sense. At the committee stage, which is where, after there are initial speeches in House, we go to hear some expert testimony. We hear from academics and stakeholders who will be directly impacted by the legislation being considered.
What happens at the committees? We hear from the experts, who offer very valuable information, so we can make some amendments. However, time after time, the opposition offers amendments, consults with stakeholders and the Conservatives, and I will use the words of the independent member for , act like trained seals. The Conservative members are told by the PMO what to do, who is going to vote and how they are going to be voting. Even grammatical changes that are pointed out by opposition members are not considered. That is the record of the Conservative government in regard to consultation.
I have a letter here that I would like to get entered into the record. This letter was written by the K'atl'odeeche First Nation, based in the Hay River Dene reserve in the Northwest Territories. It was written to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
The KFN continues to have three main concerns about the proposed changes to the MVRMA. Basically, the three concerns that they have are about the dismantling of the regional land and water boards, and about the establishment of fixed time limits for environmental assessment and regulatory approvals, and they also have some concerns about increased ministerial authority.
We have seen a trend here, whether it is with immigration, public safety or the . It is no different in this bill. What the government has tried to do over the years, including the two and a half years that I have been here, is constantly to provide ministerial powers, taking them away from boards and people who are out on the ground, who actually consult and who live at the local level. The Conservatives have a habit of bringing in legislation that brings more and power to Ottawa.
I have talked about this. I have talked about more and more power for Conservative ministers, individuals, to make choices. We need to make sure that power is with the people. People at the local level make the right decisions.
We also saw this with the bill on InSite. The government wants to bring that power to Ottawa so that ministers can make the decisions, when we should be making them in the community. Let the communities decide, where the experts and health care professionals reside. The police and the RCMP live there and deal with these things on a daily basis. However that is for another time.
I know that some of the members are not happy about this, but it is the truth. The Conservative government has been trying to centralize powers to individual ministers. We have seen the mistakes that could be made with those kinds of powers.
There are many other concerns and there are some good comments with regard to devolution. There are a number of stakeholders, people from the Northwest Territories, who have welcomed changes for more powers to the Northwest Territories. They have been waiting for 50 years.
I know that my friends in the corner over there talk about one thing when they are not in government: they will talk about the things we talk about. However, when it comes to being in government, they totally ignore those things. That is the Liberal record.
We know how the Conservatives have dragged their feet on a number of aboriginal issues, whether it is education, housing for first nations or getting treaties with first nations so we can bring certainty to, live in harmony with and provide education for young people living on reserves. Unfortunately, the Conservative record is very poor. Actually it is not poor; I do not even have a word for it. I think if I did, it would not be parliamentary, so I would not say it. The Conservatives have a very poor record and they have failed to deliver for our first nations.
Canadians expect us to work together with first nations so that they can have education and clean water. Unfortunately, the record of the Conservative government is not there.
I know I do not have much time here. The devolution of powers to the Northwest Territories is a good thing. I hope that the Conservatives will listen to some of the concerns coming in from the Northwest Territories and that we can make some amendments at the committee stage.