Northwest Territories Devolution Act (Bill C-15)

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.