Melody is the director of government and industry relations. Welcome. We also have Phil Thomas, who is a scientist with them.
We have Gabriel Miller, from the Canadian Cancer Society. Welcome. He is the vice-president of public issues, policy, and cancer information. We have Sara Trotta—I hope I said that right—the senior coordinator of public issues. Welcome all of you.
We'll start with the Mikisew Cree First Nation, if you wouldn't mind. You're first up. We're going to have 10 minutes of deputation. We'll have each of the groups do their deputations. Then we'll have rounds of questioning after that.
If I hold up a yellow card, it means that you have one minute left, just to give you a bit of a warning. Once the red card goes up, you're over the time. It doesn't mean to just stop what you're saying, but wrap it up in an expeditious way, if you could, please. We'll be doing that through the questioning as well.
Thank you very much. The floor is yours.
Thank you. I believe copies of my presentation have been provided to everyone. I just want to confirm. Thank you.
First of all, thank you for inviting me to speak as part of your review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. My name is Melody Lepine, and I am a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.
I will begin with slide number 2. You should see a map.
The Mikisew Cree nation is a signatory to Treaty 8 in northeastern Alberta. We are the largest first nation within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which is primarily the area called the Athabasca oil sands region of Canada. The community that I am from is just downstream. A large majority of our members occupy today a small community called Fort Chipewyan. It's actually the oldest settlement in Alberta.
There are about 800 or 900 members who reside in Fort Chipewyan. A large portion of our members still occupy their traditional territories, which today are referred to as the Wood Buffalo National Park and the Peace-Athabasca Delta, as well as along the Athabasca River, where there is extensive oil sands mining and development occurring today.
With me is Phil Thomas. Phil is one of the scientists who work for Environment and Climate Change Canada. He has done some studies that he is going to refer to at the end of the presentation, and he is going to assist me with some of the technical questions that we may have about the things I'm going to discuss here today.
Some of you may already be aware that this area, specifically within Wood Buffalo National Park, which is also a UNESCO world heritage site, has been a concern for many of the indigenous people within the region. I represent one of five first nations within the region. The Mikisew Cree, being the largest, filed a petition about two years ago with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, asking for the site to be listed as “in danger”.
One of the reasons we filed a petition to the World Heritage Committee requesting the “in danger” listing is one of the subject matters I am discussing today, which is the increasing levels of contamination within the region.
Wood Buffalo National Park was listed as a world heritage site because of its having one of the world's largest freshwater deltas, the Peace-Athabasca Delta. The Peace River feeds the delta from B.C., where there are extensive hydroelectric projects, and the Athabasca flows from the Athabasca glaciers in the mountains within Jasper National Park.
There is extensive oil sands development along the Athabasca River, and the contaminants that Phil and I will be discussing today would be mostly PAHs and a bit of mercury.
I will turn to slide number 3.
Like many other indigenous communities throughout Canada, the Mikisew Cree occupies traditional territories. We strive to protect the area. We continue to hunt, fish, and trap, and to exercise our treaty rights within the area. The health of our environment is really critical to the health of the community—the physical health, the spiritual health, and the mental health.
One concern that has been growing within my community of Fort Chipewyan is the increasing occurrence of rare cancers. You may have heard, from the headlines in the past several years, that Dr. O'Connor, a physician within our community, was accused of raising undue alarm because of witnessing the increasing levels of cancers.
The community feels that the increase in the levels of cancers and a lot of these rare autoimmune diseases has a direct link to the oil sands development and the increasing levels of pollution flowing downstream to our community.
We have little choice but to have confidence that our traditional foods and our environment are healthy. We rely on pieces of legislation like the act that you are reviewing to protect and safeguard our environment, to allow for it to be healthy so that we can continue to sustain ourselves, eat our traditional foods, practice our treaty rights, and pass on our culture to future generations.
On slide 4, you'll see a table. There's not a lot of monitoring within the region, and there have been very few studies.
We did undertake a traditional food biomonitoring study. It was done out of the University of Manitoba with Dr. Stéphane McLachlan. One of the things we did was survey a number of community members about their perception. How did they feel about the foods they were consuming? Were they worried about the state of the environment and the health of the ecosystems and the water?
Many members do not drink water from the rivers anymore. They're witnessing a changing environment. The table really represents the fear among the community members, as well as their concern for the state of the environment, the health of their wildlife, and the foods that they're consuming, such as the berries. The table is from the study, and we can supply you with the biomonitoring study if you'd like to examine some of those results a little further. That study actually was funded in part by Health Canada through the northern contaminants program.
Slide 5 shows some examples of what some of the community members are seeing. Mikisew has also started a community-based monitoring program within its community. We started community-based monitoring within our territory in and around Fort Chipewyan, specifically within the delta, because there is no monitoring occurring there. A lot of the monitoring is done upstream; it is focused on where a lot of the development happens. However, we are seeing a changing environment downstream. Fort Chipewyan is just about 200 kilometres from Fort McMurray. We have elders and traditional land users observing, and what they see is very unusual, so we started a monitoring program, and we are now collecting data and sharing the results with both the federal and provincial governments. We are trying to understand why these changes are happening.
For example, we are seeing numerous fish kills. In the spring, the elders go out to Lake Claire in the delta, and they're seeing hundreds of fish floating around. There have also been occurrences of a lot of seagulls dying off. We're seeing things like rabbits with extra genitals. There's a photo that you'll see later on of deformed fish. We really don't understand why these things are happening; we just know that they are happening.
Some of the results that we are collecting from our monitoring indicate increasing levels of contaminants. They link people and health in terms of increasing cancers and some of these rare diseases that our communities have never experienced before. You see the changes that they're seeing in their traditional foods: fish, moose meat, rabbits, ducks, muskrat, and everything that we rely on—subsistence living. It's not just our constitutional right to exercise hunting, fishing, and trapping; it's also a part of our culture.
Things like mercury, lead, silver, cadmium, arsenic, selenium, zinc, and chromium are all very dangerous substances to be consuming. We're actually seeing their levels exceed the CCME guidelines.
Phil, maybe you can speak about the next slide.
Good afternoon, Madam Chair and committee members, distinguished witnesses, and guests.
My name is Lynne Groulx. I am the executive director of the Native Women's Association of Canada. I am here today with Verna McGregor, NWAC's environmental and climate change project officer.
First I would like to acknowledge the Algonquin nation, whose territory we are on today.
Thank you for the opportunity to present. I am a Métis woman of mixed Algonquin and French descent. I bring with me the voices of my ancestors, the concerns of aboriginal women from across Canada, and the hopes of our future leaders, our youth.
NWAC is the only national aboriginal organization in Canada that represents the interests and concerns of aboriginal women specifically. NWAC is made up of provincial and territorial member associations from across our country. Our network of first nations and Métis women spans the north, south, east, and west, in urban and rural and on- and off-reserve communities.
We have three key messages that we would like to deliver today.
First, indigenous women have an important role in environmental issues. From a traditional understanding, the health of indigenous women cannot be separated from the health of our environment, the practice of our spirituality, and the expression of our inherent right to self-determination, upon which the mental, physical, and social health of our communities is based.
Historically, indigenous women had traditional roles in passing on the knowledge and traditions around being stewards of the land. Today, despite the impacts of colonization and increased urbanization, indigenous women have retained their close relationship to the land and the responsibility for caring for and nurturing the land. It is no coincidence that it was women who started the Idle No More movement in 2013 to protect the water in our country. Each year, our grandmothers walk around the Great Lakes to honour and protect the water.
As indigenous women, we have witnessed the impacts of environmental degradation and resource development without proper consideration for people or the environment, as well as rapid changes in weather and climate. Indigenous women are often the first ones to observe and experience the impacts of climate change and are more likely to become climate refugees.
The list of vulnerable populations provided by Health Canada places indigenous women and children within all or most of the categories of vulnerable segments of the Canadian population to be negatively impacted by climate change. Indigenous women can be found in low-income groups, groups with pre-existing health problems, groups who live off the land or have a cultural reliance on the environment, and in the northern residents group.
We have seen the impact of climate change around the world: the degradation of already poor housing, increased susceptibility to diseases because of fresh water shortages and mould in houses, increased costs of energy sources, and air and water pollution, all of which are impacting our health.
There is also the issue of the change in the range, number, and health of animals, fish, and plant species, which impacts access to both the traditional food supply and the traditional medicine supply. The changes in hunting and harvesting practices also change traditional dietary foods and decrease access to traditional medicines.
The second key message is that there is a need for an indigenous and gender-specific perspective in revamping the Environmental Protection Act. Upon our internal review of the legislation, we found only two references pertaining to aboriginal peoples. There is one specific reference in the preamble, which states:
||Whereas the Government of Canada recognizes the importance of endeavouring, in cooperation with provinces, territories and aboriginal peoples, to achieve the highest level of environmental quality for all Canadians and ultimately contribute to sustainable development;
The second reference is found in the interpretation section of the act, which recognizes “existing aboriginal and treaty rights” and is basically an incorporation of subsection 35(1) of the Constitution Act of 1982. We find that these two references are wholly insufficient, in particular because indigenous women are not explicitly mentioned anywhere.
Numerous national and international studies and research have shown that including indigenous women in decision-making with regard to environmental protection and sustainable development leads to greater protection of genetic resources, such as forests, species at risk, and bodies of water.
This is explicitly noted in the United Nations Development Programme of 2011.
Within Canada, it is crucial that indigenous women be part of the discussions on environment and climate change with the different levels of government and other stakeholders. Engagement and consultations must be more than cursory; they must be meaningful. This issue of consultation has already been thoroughly canvassed by the courts in recent years. Indigenous women also need to be recognized for the leaders that they already are on the issue of climate change in Canada.
NWAC believes there is a need to support more research and development of risk-reduction strategies for indigenous women and children and to support the development and delivery of emergency preparedness techniques and strategies for indigenous women and families.
At the international level, the inclusion of indigenous women's traditional knowledge in the creation of international agreements, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Paris agreement, will most certainly help to ensure that the sustainable development goals are achieved.
The third and final key message is that the revamping of the legislation needs to be done in compliance with and respect of the principles that are set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Most specifically, we refer to paragraph 2 of article 32 of the UNDRIP, which says that “free, prior and informed consent should be the precondition for state approval of 'any project' affecting Indigenous peoples' lands, territories and resources.”
This also means free and prior consent of indigenous women, not just indigenous men.
In addition, specifically articles 21 and 22 of UNDRIP refer to the particular needs of indigenous women and say that states should take effective measures to ensure the continuing improvement of their social and economic conditions.
In conclusion, there are three points we want to make to you.
First, women have an important role. Second, we believe that a gender and an indigenous perspective needs to be included. Third, we believe that consideration needs to be given to the principles of UNDRIP in this review.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
It's a great honour to be here with you folks.
Before I begin, I just want to say that we prepared to come to speak to you today in particular about asbestos, but we know that the task before you goes well beyond that material.
The Canadian Cancer Society is interested in the work that you're doing in all areas to protect the health of Canadians. We're working closely with researchers, for instance, at the Occupational Cancer Research Centre to look at a broad range of potential risks to Canadians. We look forward to continuing the conversation after today and taking any questions that come up in this discussion that we can answer back to the society so that we can return on another occasion and keep talking with you.
I want to begin with a few words about the Cancer Society.
It is Canada's largest national health charity. We have 132,000 volunteers across the country, more than a million donors, and it's a privilege to be here speaking on their behalf.
We commend the committee for undertaking a comprehensive review of the Environmental Protection Act. It is critical tool for protecting our citizens. Sara and I are not experts on the act, but we believe that its treatment of at least one substance must be strengthened. That substance is asbestos, and likely there are others.
It's time Canada adopted a comprehensive approach to this dangerous and unnecessary material. It's time to ban any new use of asbestos across our economy and to take action to reduce the risks of being exposed to wherever asbestos already exists in our communities. Again, what's required is a comprehensive approach, and in the next couple of moments we'll describe what that means to us, including key changes that we feel should be made to the Environmental Protection Act.
First I'd like to share a few words about the danger that asbestos continues to pose to the country.
Some people are surprised to hear that asbestos regulations in this country are still inadequate. They may have assumed that we had finally put this issue to rest after so many years and after so many fatalities. Surely Canadians must think that we closed this long and painful chapter when the last asbestos mine was closed four years ago, but it isn't over—not yet. We haven't solved our asbestos problem, despite the progress we've made. As a country, we have unfinished business, and this committee can help us complete it.
Here are a few facts.
Asbestos is the number one cause of work-related death in Canada. This year alone, more than 2,300 Canadians will be told they have cancer, in part because they were exposed to asbestos. In fact, the number of Canadians diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers continues to rise today due to exposure over the past 20, 30, and 40 years. However, what might be most shocking is that 150,000 Canadian workers are still exposed to asbestos every year in Canada. Those are people at risk today in 2016.
As I said at the start, a comprehensive approach is required. It would consist of at least three elements, and these may well not be exhaustive.
First, the Environmental Protection Act should ban all asbestos-containing products, including commercial piping and automotive brake pads. Their use, manufacture, import, and export must end. This will reduce exposure among today's workers, protect future workers, and send a clear message about the dangers of this material.
Second, the federal government must work with provinces and territories to mitigate the dangers posed by asbestos that is already present in our communities and our workplaces. This must include registries and other systems to track where asbestos exists in buildings, beginning with the buildings owned and operated by government itself. We would include in that all public buildings, including schools, hospitals, and others.
Third, both levels of government must work together to develop a comprehensive strategy to transition our country to a post-asbestos future. That means taking action internationally by signing the Rotterdam Convention, but more importantly, it means taking action inside our own borders by making sure that regulations not only exist but are enforced for the safe detection and removal of asbestos wherever it exists.
Canada has made progress on asbestos, but our work is not done. We are encouraged by the government's commitment to tackle the issue and we look forward to working with all parties in the House of Commons to put a comprehensive solution in place. We hope this committee will take this opportunity to support a ban on asbestos through the Environmental Protection Act. It's time that we joined the 50 countries around the world that have banned this material. It's the right thing to do, and Canadians will thank you for it.
We look forward to your questions. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses, the Canadian Cancer Society, Melody and Phil, and the ladies from the Native Women's Association.
My question is to Melody, my neighbour to the north. I've been watching with interest over the years what's taking place in your community. I've been there a number of times. It's a beautiful part of the world.
Unfortunately, I've lived up river from you on the Peace, and I now live on the McLeod, which dumps into the Athabaska, which flows to your community. In many communities, a lot of their sewage, after being treated, goes into the main river streams. It ends up in the Athabaska, ends up in the Peace, and you guys are at the end of the line.
Phil, I wonder whether research is being done on the water systems there. Environment Canada is the lead agency that allows the dumping into the river systems. We even see it on the Great Lakes here. There was a very recent case about two months ago.
Are there readings being done on the river that you know of, to look at the levels and how they're being affected further up, especially at the end of the system?
Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you to the witnesses here today.
I'm just following a bit along on the asbestos, because we've had conversations about it. Out there in the general public, there's a belief that there's none there, so that's your first challenge. Most people don't think it exists, right? Brake pads are something I used to put on myself, and we all have different ones, so that's part of your problem.
When people see asbestos removal, they see guys in hazmat suits and construction sites are closed in, and it is tight. Having been in the municipal world, that was our worst fear. If we were doing a renovation on a building and found asbestos somewhere, it meant a very expensive removal.
You referred to an inventory. In the world that I've known, you don't know it's there until you poke a hole in the wall. When you talked about doing an inventory, which is a really interesting topic, how would you do that? You've got all these people who may be exposed to it, but how are you going to do an inventory?
To begin, we believe in the precautionary principle, as an example, so when you don't know, why keep approving? But that's what we see. We're sacrificing a lot of our traditional territory for the benefit of all Canadians with the economic opportunities from the development of the tar sands...oil sands.
I think my colleague spoke about free, prior, informed consent. There have been failures within consultation. I participated in over eight regulatory hearings where we voiced our concerns, and approval after approval neglected to include our traditional knowledge or really incorporate our concerns.
I think there could easily be thresholds identified and protected areas established in terms of how much wildlife needs to be impacted and what the quality of the water is.
I'll give you the example of the Athabasca River when Alberta developed the framework on how much water could be extracted for extracting bitumen. It's very intensive raw water use, and all of that comes from the Athabasca River. They incorporated a threshold only looking at how much water fish and fish habitat need. The federal government was involved with that through the DFO. Nobody asked our community how much water the Mikisew need. They did not say, “You navigate the river and you drink the water. How much do you need?”
Thresholds like those that include our concerns and our indigenous knowledge.... We actually came up with a threshold. We called it our aboriginal base flow, and now we monitor, and we're seeing a decline in an aboriginal base flow that is impacting our navigation and our ability to exercise our treaty rights.
I don't think I can give you a specific answer.
The way you framed it is interesting. The big project being worked on right now on the economic burden of occupational cancers looks at the associated costs, but it deals only with the costs of cancers from past exposure, and then of course there's the challenge of dealing with the active exposure from continued use of the product now.
One of the things some groups have called for—and I think it's definitely worth considering—is that as part of any plan to, first, ban the use of asbestos, and second, start getting a handle on how much asbestos is out there, there needs to be some kind of advisory group put together to develop an approach to measuring just how big a problem this is. There are actions we can take right now, but there's also a lot of information that still has to be gathered.
I think we're going to find that even though there will be costs, it will be worth it, because the fatality rate of cancers caused by asbestos is very high, as is the treatment cost. Managing this in a responsible way will pay off down the road.
In terms of vulnerability, it goes back to native women being in rural and remote locations, but a lot of our women are in urban areas as well. For example, there were the recent fires in Fort McMurray.
Again, the socio-economic situation of aboriginal women is that they are the lowest in Canada in terms of income. In addition, they have a tendency to have more dependants, so when they're in a climate change emergency, they're very stretched in terms of resources. As well, for example, in our communities we have a severe housing shortage, and climate change exacerbates the whole issue of mould, let alone fire mitigation. Also, when you're spread out in terms of access to resources in a rural or remote area, it's quite the challenge.
As for how women become vulnerable, you become a climate refugee, which is similar to what we've recently experienced here, and then there's the migration to urban centres and trying to access additional resources. As well, they tend to have a higher proportion of female single-parent households, and as we all know, children cost money. It's not just about aboriginal women. It's about Canadian women.
We also need mitigation strategies and emergency planning, because it's different when you have children and you have limited resources. I think that's the biggest vulnerability in terms of climate change, but there are also the environmental impacts of, for example, the resource industries.