Northwest Territories Devolution Act

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, the people who are watching may find it curious that the hon. minister, perhaps moved by the sentiments of Valentine’s Day, has given me half of his time. Members of the House will find it even more curious to realize that the Green Party alone will be voting against Bill C-15 in this House at third reading, as we did at second reading. I thank the hon. minister for giving me the opportunity to explain our position.

To be clear, the leadership on this bill from the hon. member for Western Arctic is nonpareil. I have no interest whatsoever in suggesting that I criticize his vote in favour of the bill. It is a difficult decision to vote against Bill C-15, and I want to explain why my hon. colleague in the Green Party and I will be doing so.

The first part of the bill is unquestionably important, and we would vote for it. It is long overdue. The devolution of authorities to the Northwest Territories, as the hon. minister has mentioned, is right. It was of great benefit to the Yukon when that territory had its powers vested locally. It is about time that we have a devolution of authorities to the Northwest Territories.

However, the contentious parts of this bill, as the House will now well know, is that Bill C-15 has inexplicably jammed fundamental changes to the water and resource boards of that region down the throats of first nations.

I want to go through some of the history and background on this to underscore how deeply shocking this should be to Canadians from coast to coast, whether they live in the Northwest Territories or not. These are not mere administrative arrangements, or the product of a bunch of civil servants figuring out what is one board, what is two, and what boards should be consolidated. Rather, these boards are the product of government-to-government negotiations. They are the product of the whole structure of negotiations with the Gwich’in, the Sahtu, the Wek’eezhii, and the Tlicho. These boards are the result of government-to-government negotiations in good faith.

There is a tremendous, unassailable, and incontrovertible body of jurisprudence from the Supreme Court of Canada that first nations’ rights are inherent and protected in our Constitution, and that the federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure those rights are not infringed upon. Therefore, if a government wishes to ignore treaty obligations and unilaterally rewrite agreements that have stood for some time, we would have to think there is a crisis of some sort that has brought this administration to run counter to the law, to ignore the decisions of the Supreme Court in the Haida, Delgamuukw, and Marshall cases. It is rare in any area of law that we would have so many cases that all say the same thing, which is that the rights of first nations are not a fringe benefit but fundamental to first nations. They are part of our Constitution. It is the obligation of the Crown to protect those rights, those treaties, and ensure that first nations are adequately consulted, particularly in cases of resource development.

That is where I find this bill so extremely disappointing. There is no case to be made that there is something wrong with the way the current boards are working. In fact, it is to the contrary. Many witnesses before the Bill C-15 committee said that the only evidence one can find is with regard to the timeliness and predictability of permit approval through the boards, which this act will unravel, and that they have been more predictable, more timely, and more efficient than other boards of a similar type in the region. In other words, if industry wants predictability and to know that its applications will be dealt with on a timely basis, the status quo is the gold standard.

This proposal is a way to unravel something that is working. It will create an untimely, unpredictable environment for resource applications of all kinds. It is also a fundamental insult, and there is no word I can find other than “insult”, to the notion that the Crown negotiates in good faith.

We had the budget tabled this week, and it made reference, at page 145, to the fact that this administration recently commissioned Mr. Douglas Eyford as a special representative on the issues that affect my constituency a great deal: proposed pipelines and tankers on the west coast. These are opposed by most of the first nations that could be impacted by that development. The budget tells us:

The Government has made public the Special Representative’s final report and is closely reviewing the recommendations made in all four areas: building trust, fostering inclusion, advancing reconciliation and taking action.

I do not know how we can have an administration that so clearly talks out of the both sides of its mouth. The Prime Minister did not need to commission Mr. Doug Eyford to tell the administration about the status of first nations’ rights in this country. They are constitutionally enshrined. There is a direct relationship with the Crown, going back, in some cases for centuries, but certainly decades, and the law is not unclear.

Mr. Eyford, predictably, told this administration what people know, that we cannot ignore first nations’ rights. We cannot approve things and call it consultation, if we merely hold meetings where first nations say they absolutely do not agree.

In this case, it gets even more shocking. The only source of any recommendation to do away with these regional boards was a report made some time ago and referred to generally as the McCrank report. Mr. McCrank made a number of recommendations, and one of them was to restructure the board system. It was one of many recommendations. For some reason, this one, to which the first nations immediately expressed opposition, is the one that has been fast-tracked. The McCrank report also said this:

…a fundamental restructuring…would require the agreement of all parties to amend the comprehensive land claim agreements…

In other words, the very source of the recommendation upon which the contentious and unacceptable parts of Bill C-15 are based came from someone who understood it himself, and who included in the body of his report, “Don’t do this over the objections of the first nations themselves”.

These boards are the result of land claims negotiations and they represent the good work of the Crown. We should not come along later with a bill like Bill C-15 and dismantle that over the clear objection of the Tlicho, of the first nations in those communities. The fact is that the boards have worked well.

I want to quote something from a letter from the Tlicho government to the department. This was from last fall. It makes it very clear about what would happen if Bill C-15 goes through. They wrote that under the proposed amendment to the Mackenzie Valley Regional Management Authority, the scenario would be changed:

The connection between First Nations and the regional boards would be substantially eviscerated under the larger board. Additional requests for consultation and environmental assessment, and even judicial review in court of the larger board’s decisions, would likely become the norm, thus further undermining the system’s predictability and timeliness.

This is where it becomes inexplicable. We have heard that a number of industry groups themselves let this administration know that they had no quarrel with the way the current board system is working. In fact, they praised it. On the empirical evidence, to which nothing has been adduced to suggest there is any dispute on this point, the current board system works. It is timely. It is efficient. And, it is respectful of the first nations on whose territory these developments would go forward.

The hon. minister quoted the diamond mining sector which said that they want to hurry up with things. I have heard nothing from any industry group that suggests they do not feel confidence that the current regime works for them. If there has been behind the scenes lobbying from larger developers who do not want to take the time to be respectful with first nations, then it is not just an option for this administration, it is the duty of the Prime Minister to send those developers packing. The government’s obligation under the law, its fiduciary responsibility, is to protect first nations’ rights, not gut them, as Bill C-15 would do.

Bernard Valcourt: Mr. Speaker, I have listened carefully to the hon. member, and I am disappointed that she has indicated she will vote against this historic piece of legislation that would devolve powers to northerners living in the territory.

I would like to ask her how she can do that. She may often be misguided in her statements, but how can she intellectually affirm honestly in the House that this a breach of the treaty, which the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement has become, and just like the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement and the Tlicho Land Claims and Self-Government Agreement have become?

These treaties specifically envisage the very piece of legislation that we have here today. Sections 25.4.6 (a) of the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, and 24.4.6 of the Gwich’in agreement, and the Tlicho agreement, section 22, says expressly that where legislation establishes any other land and water board with jurisdiction in any area larger—

Since this is in the treaty, how can she claim in the House to all Canadians that it constitutes a violation of our treaty obligation and section 35? I suggest—

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bruce Stanton): Order, please. The hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands.

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, did I hear unparliamentary language at the end of that question?

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bruce Stanton): I did not hear anything unparliamentary.

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I heard the word “dishonest”, but perhaps I misheard it.

I am not going to assert anything based on my own opinion. I am relying on the words of the first nations themselves. To answer the minister’s question, I would ask how he can approve this bill when Bertha Rabesca Zoe, whose title is law guardian of the Tlicho government, in reference to Bill C-15, said:

Our input is being ignored, our interests are not being accommodated, and the changes to the regulatory scheme in the Amendments will, if implemented, fundamentally undermine the balance struck in the Tlicho Agreement about how we will have a say about the most important issue—the use of our lands and the effects of those uses on our way of life.

I look at the words she has written and I see a future court case. The accommodation of interests are requirements of the law. The Conservative administration is setting a course to chaos in resource development. Where it wants to creating a steamroller, it has created a road wrecking team.

Phillip Toone: Mr. Speaker, I listened closely to the speech by my colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands and I found it very interesting.

Clearly, some points warrant our attention. I have a question for her, to follow-up on what the minister is proposing. I also think he should have said it in a more respectful manner.

As everyone knows, the Supreme Court has said many times that the federal government is obliged not only to consult the first nations, but to accommodate them as well. In my opinion, that is what is missing here. There were consultations, but the accommodation does not seem to be on par with what the Supreme Court requires of the government.

I would like my colleague to share her interpretation of the Supreme Court rulings. Has the obligation to consult the first nations truly been respected?

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine.

I totally agree with him. It is clear that the Supreme Court requires the federal government to consult the first nations of Canada and to respect and accommodate their interests and rights.

It is clear that in this situation, and since the institutions are the product of negotiations, this is not acceptable. This is against the law and it violates the right of the first nations to have a government that makes unilateral changes. That is why in the future, everyone will understand that it is against the law.

Phillip Toone: Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Manicouagan.

I rise today to debate Bill C-15 at third reading. It is definitely an honour to have the opportunity to express the views of my constituents and my party on this bill.

We worked very hard on this bill at second reading stage in committee and at report stage in the House of Commons. We are now at third reading stage, and we have repeatedly pointed out that this bill has some shortcomings.

However, there are some very worthwhile elements. The devolution of power should have taken place a long time ago. I am very pleased that this bill will finally give the people of the Northwest Territories the rights that people in the provinces do not give a second thought to. The fact that they will be able to share in the wealth more directly than before this bill was introduced is reason to celebrate.

I would like to quote Robert Alexie Jr., president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, to emphasize one element of the bill. He said it better than I could.

He said, “We don’t have to fear devolution. It’s a new beginning”. He is absolutely right. It is a very exciting time to be in the Northwest Territories, and devolution has certainly been a very long time coming.

We have not seen devolution of powers to the Northwest Territories for decades. The last time we saw it was in the 1980s, when we had an agreement where we were going to devolve certain jurisdictions: education, health care, transportation, and renewable resources, in this case specifically forestry and wildlife. At that point, we transferred some powers. The debate then was that perhaps the Northwest Territories was not prepared to go ahead with devolution, just not ready. My reading of what was happening at that time was that, in fact, it was more than ready. It was just that the federal government benefited from the fact that it received a lot of the revenue stream from the exploitation of the natural resources.

This bill before us today would go, in a large measure, to addressing that problem. The Northwest Territories would now be receiving 50% of the royalties for the mineral exploration and other surface exploration of natural resources that will happen, and that is a reason to celebrate. The minister himself said that this is going to lay the foundations towards greater economic prosperity for the Northwest Territories, and he is probably right.

However, the minister made some statements that do not really measure up to where we should be. Because he had discussions with corporate citizens, he said that corporate citizens want to see the changes as fast as possible; corporate citizens have been pushing for not only the devolution, but also modifications to the water management boards. That is the issue that is really sticky. There are some serious difficulties with this element of the bill. I find it abhorrent that the federal government, knowing that it has a duty to consult and that it has a duty to accommodate, tells me that the most important thing here is that a company such as Dominion Diamond Corporation is pushing the bill forward, and that is an important aspect of the bill. It certainly is, but so is the fact that many first nations have told us, on many occasions, that the water management boards are working just fine and that they would like to leave them as they are. This bill would modify that, and that is not respectful of those first nations.

I believe that, when it comes to respecting the direction the Supreme Court is giving us, the government has lost its way. I do not think the Conservatives fully understand what the Supreme Court has said on many occasions: that the duty to consult is not simply to set up a web page and not simply to go and hear people, but also to listen to them and find a way, as best as possible, to accommodate them.

Corporate citizens themselves have said that they believe that the water management boards, as they stand, are beneficial. Many times, the Conservatives make modifications that are poison chalices. They propose changes, saying to corporate citizens that they would make exploration and economic prosperity more accessible, with growth rates that would be larger. All of these things may or may not be true.

The point here is that we need to find consensus on the ground. We need to address the needs of the people in the Northwest Territories. It is their land and their resources. It is up to them how they are going to be exploited. It is up to them to tell us how we should be helping them move forward with economic prosperity. It is paternalistic to the extreme that the House of Commons, over and over again, will tell people in other areas of the country how they should be doing their jobs, especially in areas that are their own jurisdiction.

The recent example is the budget, in which the federal government simply does not want to negotiate a jobs program with the provinces, a skills training program that is acceptable to the provinces. Instead, the government says to take it or leave it because it knows best. There is a reason the separation of powers exists in this country, and it is that we know that local people on the ground, generally speaking, know best. We should be helping them build on that knowledge. We should not be imposing our ideological views, and the government, unfortunately, over and over again, seems to think that ideology trumps anything else. That is the wrong direction to take.

However, that said, the benefits of devolution are clear. The people on the ground are going to get many benefits out of this bill. This bill would address needs and requests that have been made of us over years and years, and we are finally in a place where we can bring some of those aspects forward. Those are the elements we need to support in this bill.

We know that the Northwest Territories knows best how to manage its resources. This bill, in large measure, would help it manage those resources and keep the benefits of that management and of being able to attract the kind of exploration and exploitation of its natural resources that the people themselves want without having to request that Ottawa ask for modifications in their name. The fact that they would be able to do it for themselves is something that most Canadians take for granted. Locally, at the provincial level, we do this all the time. In the territories, such as the Northwest Territories, they have not had that privilege, and that is abhorrent. This bill would address that. I am very pleased with that.

We need to be in favour of devolution in the House. It is important that we support the bill at this stage, knowing full well that there are difficulties with it and that we need to continue the dialogue with first nations in the Northwest Territories.

We have a long way to go. New Democrats presented ideas in committee and they were rejected. We presented ideas in the House of Commons, to all members in the House, and again those proposals were rejected. There has to be a better sense of dialogue. We cannot keep imposing our views on the territories. This is not going to benefit them in the long run. They know, much better than us, where we need to go.

When it comes to the water management boards, I will quote, for instance, Jake Heron, who is a Northwest Territories Métis nation representative. He stated:

It’s very frustrating when you are at the table and you think you’re involved, only to find out that your interests are not being considered seriously.

This is not dialogue that we should be hearing. We should be hearing that there is a partnership and that the government is in full and respectful consultation with the first nations. Oftentimes, we simply do not get that sense.

The member who spoke before me, the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands, said it very well when she brought up the comments by Ms. Zoe. I will bring up a quote from Bob Bromley, who is an MLA in that area. He stated:

The federal government’s proposal to collapse the regional land and water boards into one big board is disturbing, unnecessary and possibly unconstitutional. …a single board does nothing to meet the real problem, failure of implementation.

These words concern me greatly. We should not be moving forward with that aspect of the bill knowing full well that there is so much opposition back in the Northwest Territories.

Devolution is an important step. We need to address that step. It has been too long in coming. We need to move forward with it. I am happy that this bill would address that. I just wish it were not full of poison chalices.

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine again for seeing these issues clearly. I think anyone who looks at the bill will agree that the sections that take apart the regional boards are completely in violation of Supreme Court decisions and in violation of the principles of treaty-making. I find it so deeply shocking.

I cannot see any explanation for it other than some sort of back-door lobbying by larger industries that have not been busy in the area before and find that these boards look complicated, as they have not actually worked with them. I cannot see a solid explanation grounded in evidence for forcing through these changes along with the devolution parts that we would all support.

I wonder if the member has any theories as to why we are facing such a terrible bill, which is full of “poison chalices”, as the member said.