Mr. Chair, members of the committee, thank you for having invited me to appear before you today.
As you noted, I'm joined here today by some excellent public servants. We have Michael Martin to my right, deputy minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada. To my far left is Ron Hallman. He's president of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. To my immediate left is Daniel Watson. He's the chief executive officer of Parks Canada Agency.
I'd like to start by acknowledging that we are meeting today on the traditional territory of the Algonquin and Anishinabe peoples.
My commitment to working with indigenous peoples extends far beyond my appointment as Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Like many of my colleagues, I worked in close collaboration with indigenous peoples prior to joining government, and those experiences helped me to better understand and value the importance of working in partnership with indigenous peoples. I'm a human rights lawyer, and over a decade ago, I co-founded an international human rights organization, Canadian Lawyers Abroad. Our initial focus was supporting human rights and good governance internationally. We were fortunate to have the guidance of former Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Lamer as a member of our board. You may recall that he was the author of the Delgamuukw decision, which is one of the most important decisions on aboriginal title in the history of Canada.
When he joined our board, he asked why we weren't doing more in Canada to support indigenous peoples. This led to a refocusing of the attention of the organization on working in partnership with indigenous peoples in Canada. One of the projects I'm most proud of is the dare to dream program, which provides mentorship and justice education to indigenous youth across the country, with indigenous and non-indigenous lawyers.
I share the story with you because I have learned from speaking with elders, indigenous youth, indigenous women, and indigenous leadership that true partnership is more than how we deliver our programs. It extends to building true and meaningful relationships that can only be achieved through mutual respect and recognition of the rightful place of indigenous peoples in Canada.
I am very proud of the leadership that has been demonstrated by Prime Minister Trudeau through his deep commitment to renewing the nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership. These commitments have been demonstrated in the significant investment in our government's recent budget to address the gap in infrastructure and services available to indigenous peoples in Canada.
Minister Bennett has also provided incredible leadership to address the long-standing and tragic legacy of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
I am proud of the fact that ministers Bennett and Wilson-Raybould confirmed this week before the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that Canada will be fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, in compliance with Canadian legislation and the Canadian Constitution.
I'd also like to point out another person who is with us today. Sitting behind us is Jesse McCormick. When I was first appointed, I realized that we needed greater capacity when it came to working with indigenous peoples. I had met Jesse McCormick, who is a young indigenous lawyer, a few weeks before and was fortunate enough to be able to convince him to come and join my office. He has provided really invaluable support as my director of indigenous relations and regulatory affairs.
I'd now like to highlight for you how we are implementing the commitment of our government to a renewed relationship with indigenous peoples through the key areas of my mandate: climate change, environmental assessments, national parks, and wildlife areas. We know that indigenous peoples are often the first and most affected by the impacts of climate change.
When Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami organization, ITK, appeared before this committee in March, he said something that can inspire us all. Speaking of the Inuit people, he said:
||We are a land-based people. We are of the environment. We want to be a part of the Canadian conversation on climate change, not just as a people but as a core component of all the work that happens.
Mr. Chair, I agree. We are all the environment, and we all need to work together to find solutions.
Throughout my work on climate change, I've had the privilege of hearing from indigenous peoples across Canada about the impacts of climate change on indigenous communities. The critical importance of an ambitious international climate agreement really hit home for me when, in the middle of the negotiations, the Minister of Environment for Nunavut, Minister Mike, as he likes to be called, shared with me the story of his own experiences on the land as an Inuit hunter.
He told me that in his youth he harvested his first caribou with a dogsled on the snow in June. He said that now they can no longer go caribou hunting on snow in June because the snow is no longer there. Minister Mike also shared concerns relating to ice fishing. Whereas people used to be able to ice fish for turbot from January to May, now the season only lasts from February to March, or to April at the latest.
Climate change is not just an inconvenience, it's affecting the way indigenous peoples move from place to place, how they access food for their families, and their very relationship with the land. Elders have warned of the changing weather patterns for decades, and we are now seeing the significant impacts of the changes that they have warned us about.
At the Paris climate negotiations, our government recognized this fact and in collaboration with indigenous leaders advocated strongly for language in the agreement recognizing indigenous rights and the role of traditional knowledge in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, commended the efforts of the Canadian delegation for acting as a champion of indigenous rights. He also said that first nations and Canada together will lead by example and demonstrate that implementing the rights of indigenous peoples is the best way to address climate change.
We've continued since then to bring those commitments home to Canada in a cross-country process of collaboration to develop an action plan to address climate change. We are working hard to ensure that the concerns and solutions of indigenous peoples are heard and their views reflected in the creation of the pan-Canadian framework on clean growth and climate change.
Since my appointment, I have been active in meeting with indigenous leadership. As recently as yesterday I had the opportunity to sit down with the executive committee of the Assembly of First Nations, and just this morning I had a brief meeting with National Chief Dorey of the Indigenous Peoples' Assembly of Canada.
These meetings, whether formal or informal, bring great value to my work as minister. Many times I've been told by indigenous peoples how much they appreciate the opportunity to meet. I will certainly continue these meetings throughout my mandate.
The Vancouver declaration, agreed to by the Prime Minister and the premiers, builds on the recognition of indigenous peoples' rights in the Paris agreement, and commits to strengthening the collaboration between governments and indigenous peoples on mitigation and adaptation actions.
In the context of the Vancouver Declaration, four working groups on climate change have been created. The declaration provides that these working groups be guided by a large-scale consultation of Indigenous peoples. The working groups will meet on a regular basis with the organizations representing Indigenous peoples, and my team and I will also have meetings with them so as to hear their concerns, their viewpoints and their ideas. It is only through sustained cooperation with the provinces, territories and Indigenous peoples that we will be able to take concrete actions to fight climate change and fulfil the obligations we agreed to in Paris.
I would now like to touch upon my role as minister responsible for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. As you know, Prime Minister Trudeau has instructed me and my colleagues to immediately review Canada's environmental assessment processes to regain public trust and help get resources to market.
In January, Minister Carr and I launched an interim approach and adopted interim principles to guide decisions on major projects currently undergoing environmental assessment. The government is committed to restoring public trust in the environmental assessment processes. We want our decisions to be based on scientific studies and traditional knowledge.
Making sure indigenous peoples are more fully engaged in reviewing and monitoring major resource development projects is critical, in my view.
One of the interim principles states that indigenous peoples will be meaningfully consulted, and where appropriate, impacts on their rights and interests will be accommodated. We believe we can and should do more to ensure meaningful dialogue and nation-to-nation consultation takes place and is incorporated into the environmental assessment process, and we are.
In that regard, I will point out that budget 2016 provides an additional $14.2 million over four years to increase the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's capacity to undertake consultations with the public and indigenous groups during environmental assessments and to support its compliance and enforcement program.
The examination of the environmental assessment processes will allow us to gain some perspective, to see what works well and examine possible options so as to correct flaws. At the end of this consultation, our government will put in place a new, improved environmental assessment process that will respect the rights and interests of Indigenous peoples. This is how we will manage to exploit our natural resources in a sustainable and responsible way and ensure their marketing, while growing the confidence of investors in the Canadian economy.
I would now like to speak to a part of my mandate that is as close to my heart as it is to the hearts of all Canadians, our national parks. Prime Minister Trudeau asked me to develop Canada's national parks system as well as manage and expand national wildlife areas and migratory bird sanctuaries. Over 50% of the current area of Canada's national heritage system is preserved as a result of indigenous peoples putting aside lands through a land claims process. For example, Torngat Mountains National Park, which I look forward to visiting this summer, was created because of two land claims with different Inuit groups—the Labrador Inuit and the Nunavut Inuit—who agreed to establish this park in their homelands as a gift to Canada.
It is important to remember that the development of new national parks, new wildlife preserves, new migratory bird sanctuaries and new national marine conservation areas would be impossible without the engagement and cooperation of Indigenous peoples. Parks Canada manages one of the largest networks of protected natural and cultural areas in the world. These are mainly located in remote rural areas. We are often the closest neighbour of remote Indigenous communities, and their main employer. This is particularly true in the north, where protected areas are co-managed by Parks Canada and local Indigenous communities.
The agency works and consults with over 300 indigenous communities. UNESCO commended both Parks Canada and the indigenous population of Canada for their efforts in the management of Canadian cultural and natural heritage and the benefits that result in their shared knowledge and respectful co-operation.
About 89% of Canada's national parks and almost 300,000 square kilometres of land are managed in accordance with treaties or other constructive agreements with indigenous peoples. Indigenous traditional knowledge working groups inform research, conservation, visitor experience, and visitor safety in many parks. Parks Canada is proud that all the activities offered in our national parks, historic places, and marine conservation areas are respectful of the traditions and culture of indigenous peoples and recognize their important contribution to our national heritage and history.
Mr. Chair, these are some of the key examples of the actions I'm taking to fulfill the priorities in my mandate letter relating to indigenous and northern affairs. We are committed to upholding the renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples enunciated by the Prime Minister.
Mr. Chair, let me close by again thanking the committee for the opportunity to join you. As a new minister. I certainly value your input and welcome the committee's ideas, questions, and suggestions.
I cannot agree more that we need to rebuild trust. That is a commitment by the government, and that's a personal commitment of mine.
We're taking a number of practical actions across my different portfolios. If you look at climate change, which I mentioned briefly, as I said, indigenous peoples are often the first people impacted by climate change and they feel the most significant impacts. They also have traditional knowledge, which we should be learning from.
In the north, the Inuit were already seeing the impacts of climate change with changing weather patterns and changing hunting seasons. Unfortunately, I don't believe that we paid enough attention to that and so we're playing catch-up.
Regarding climate change, as I said, as part of our Canadian delegation to COP21, we included indigenous leaders. We worked very closely with them to fight for the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and the role that traditional knowledge plays. It was actually very tough. Some countries don't share the same perspective, but it was amazing that—and I think this is a very practical example of how you build trust—through all the time we spent together working on a common cause, we developed relationships. At the end of it all, relationships are what will help rebuild this trust.
We have continued that. The and the premiers announced a working group process whereby we will look at different areas in respect of which we need to develop our pan-Canadian plan on climate change. One working group is on carbon pricing. Another is on other mitigation measures, looking at how you reduce emissions from oil and gas, from buildings, from vehicles. A third is adaptation, which is clearly a very big issue. We need to be looking at how we can support communities in adapting to the impacts of climate change. Another is clean tech jobs and innovation. That's going to play a significant role in finding solutions, including how we support communities in the north to get off diesel, which is a commitment of our government.
We are consulting with indigenous peoples every week. There are calls with the officials who are leading those working groups. I have regular meetings with national indigenous organizations, and we're consulting broadly and seeking input from all Canadians, but particularly indigenous peoples.
This is going to be critical as we figure out how we are going to tackle climate change, how we are going to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and how we are going to help communities adapt.
When it comes to environmental assessments, those are also critical. These are environmental assessments that apply to major projects that often impact indigenous communities. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, I will say, has done a pretty good job of consulting with indigenous peoples, but clearly we can all do more. With major projects that fall under the purview of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, we need to make sure that we're consulting with indigenous peoples and that when accommodations are required, those are being followed and also that we're bringing in indigenous knowledge and we're working hard at that. I will say it's a learning process. I say this very humbly, because I realized, as I said, when I came to this position that indigenous issues impact every element of my portfolio and that we need to do better.
I believe everyone is committed to doing better and that's why having someone like Jesse on my team, who has worked with indigenous communities, who understands the challenges, and who has relationships that we can build on, has been very critical to me.
Chair, when we get a project description from a proponent, we work with the proponent, with indigenous groups, and members of the public through consultation to make sure that everyone understands what that project is, and the description. If it's not clear, then we ask the proponent to make it more clear.
Once we do that, we ask indigenous groups what impacts they believe that project may have on them, if they know. That helps form our environmental impact statement guidelines and the repertoire, if you will, of the work that we ask the proponent to do, and the analysis, to be able to indicate what those effects may be and what mitigations they would propose.
Typically, we would have a working group that would be made up of indigenous groups and other representatives, and the proponent and expert federal departments, chaired and coordinated by the agency, as the crown consultation coordinator, so that there would be single-window access to the process and so that we can coordinate the work going back and forth.
Whenever we can, we try to have boots on the ground in the community if the indigenous group wants that. We remain very flexible on how and when and where we do that consultation. It's often very valuable, and we get the best traditional knowledge information, when we're able to be in communities and hear directly from elders. Then if we see a gap between the traditional knowledge and what the proponent's analysis may say, we work with the proponent and ask them to identify how to bridge that gap in information so that both of them come together in terms of our advice to the minister on what we believe those effects will be, what those mitigations could be, and following from that what the legally enforceable conditions ought to be, if indeed the project proceeds.
It is true that no relationship is more important, and that means that we need to meaningfully consult, and we need to meaningfully engage, and we need to make sure that indigenous peoples are sitting at the table, that it isn't just lip service, that you have the conversations, that you listen to perspectives. This is a different way of doing things.
As I said, I'm very humble about this. It is a learning process, but it is critically important. It's critically important to doing what we've also committed to doing, which is to have real reconciliation, and to move forward as a country.
Everything we do we consider, how should we be meaningfully engaging with indigenous peoples? What conversations should we be having? Who should we be calling?
It's interesting because it even came up on the first day on the job regarding Montreal sewage. I inherited the file on the issue of whether there should be a release of sewage into the St. Lawrence.
It was a really tough file because based on the science and evidence, and in talking with my scientists, they said that a controlled release was far better as it could be monitored, and you could mitigate the impacts, as opposed to an uncontrolled release.
We had concerns. I had major concerns. I said that we could just make that decision, but a lot of people would not understand it. We knew there were communities that would be very unhappy and impacted, so we reached out to them. It was interesting because what they said was, “This is unbelievable. We cannot believe that you are reaching out.”
It was suboptimal for everyone, but it was a decision based on science and evidence. I think that's the important thing, that we actually make the effort, that you consider whether there is an impact. Is there a way to go forward? How do you have real conversations and find out ways to move forward?
I think that applies to major projects. I agree with you that working with communities and trying to find solutions, creating economic opportunities, are hugely important, but finding ways to do this in a sustainable way that reflects this view that we need a nation-to-nation relationship, that we will only be able to move forward with these projects if we have meaningfully consulted, meaningfully engaged.... Because the last thing we want, to the member's point previously, is litigation. The last thing we want are blockades. No one wants that.
The way to avoid that is to look at the opportunities. How do we strive for consensus? That won't always be possible, but that's what we should be striving for, and that's what we do. That's what I know the public servants I work with are very committed to doing.