Mr. Speaker, as always, it is an honour to speak here in the House of Commons, representing my constituents from Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, and today, more specifically, all Canadians, as we debate Bill C-565.
I would like to use this time to address an integral issue at the heart of this debate on Gatineau Park, which is the effective and realistic protection of Gatineau Park, its beauty, biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as its integrity, status, and significance as an integral part of Canada's capital region, a larger region that also requires protection for generations to come.
The government has a record of trying to move forward with proposals to amend the National Capital Act that would offer strong and effective protection to not only the park but also the entire national capital region. This record includes Bill C-37 in 2009 and Bill C-20 in 2010, both of which unfortunately died on the order paper, as well the signalled intention to introduce a similar government bill in the near future.
On the other hand, the latest attempt by the opposition to pre-empt our efforts, as embodied in Bill C-565, comes up short by being too narrowly focused and too short-sighted.
I think we can all agree that the key to ensuring the beauty and vitality of not only Gatineau Park but also the entire capital region for generations to come is by taking concrete legislative and administrative steps to protect the natural gifts that we have.
Recognizing this fact, over the past several years the government has introduced Bill C-37 and Bill C-20, both of which sought to strengthen and update environmental protections for the entire national capital region, including the greenbelt and Gatineau Park.
These bills sought to legislate the national interest land mass, or NILM, concept, a designation applied to both Gatineau Park and the greenbelt, which would offer strong protections and oversight, including requiring project proposals to be reviewed by the National Capital Commission and prohibiting the disposition or transfer of property within these green spaces without Governor in Council approval.
Under these previous bills, the Governor in Council would also have enjoyed the authority to oversee the criteria and process for designating property in the national capital region as NILM land. Additionally, these bills required the NCC to manage its properties in accordance with the principles of responsible environmental stewardship, which would have obligated the NCC to always consider possible environmental impacts when managing its properties in the entire national capital region.
By contrast, Bill C-565 is unnecessarily restrictive as it only applies protections to Gatineau Park. As my fellow colleagues have pointed out previously, there is a lot more to the national capital region than Gatineau Park alone. We are also surrounded by the greenbelt and multiple urban green spaces that fall under federal authority and the NCC's stewardship.
Bill C-565, curiously, unfortunately, and needlessly, introduces measures to protect only one of these parks: Gatineau Park. This approach in Bill C-565 is overly narrow and we must ensure that any re-opening of the National Capital Act enhances the protection of all green spaces in the capital region, including both Gatineau Park and the greenbelt.
With regard to protecting the integrity of Gatineau Park and its boundaries specifically, and in addition to their designation of the entire park as national interest land mass, the previously mentioned government bills sought to legislate defined boundaries for Gatineau Park and the greenbelt. By explicitly defining the boundaries in the National Capital Act, these bills would have ensured that the park was protected and that its boundaries could only be altered by the Governor in Council when absolutely necessary, such as when required for the public benefit, for example. This would combine active protection of the park with a necessary degree of flexibility in recognition of the unique characteristics and location of this natural asset.
Let us talk about the environment protection of Gatineau Park specifically. Protection of the natural systems and internal integrity of the park figured prominently in the previous government bills in this area, and I can assure the House that these imperatives remain a priority for this government.
As already emphasized during our previous debates on this issue, the government remains fully committed to the protection and maintenance of the park as a destination of natural beauty and recreation for all Canadians as well as for international visitors to our capital. This commitment to environmental protection was evidenced in the previous government bills through their application of the concept of “ecological integrity”.
Ecological integrity is a concept used in the Canada National Parks Act and is applicable to all of Canada's federal parks, with a view to ensuring their protection and preservation. Bill C-37 and Bill C-20 both sought to apply this concept to Gatineau Park, including to all of its ecosystems and biodiversity, in order to provide the park with this high degree of environmental protection.
At the same time, one of the key proposals to protect Gatineau Park in the member's bill is the imposition of an obligation on the NCC to purchase all privately owned properties in the park. We are talking about approximately 377 properties in the park with a roughly estimated current market value of $100 million. Furthermore, this $100 million does not take into account the inflation in property prices that would almost certainly materialize as a result of this legislative obligation.
This proposal is also unnecessary. The NCC already has the authority, pursuant to a 2008 order in council, to purchase private properties in the park without seeking Governor in Council approval for each specific purchase. This has permitted the NCC to increase its ownership of properties in the park while also taking into account the availability and prices of the properties, the resources it has available, and the strategic importance of the sites for significant ecosystems, in prioritizing its property purchases in the park. This, in our view, is the most fiscally and environmentally responsible course of action for Gatineau Park and Canadian taxpayers.
Speaking of protecting Gatineau Park for all visitors, I want to address a problematic component of Bill C-565 that seeks to provide hunting rights in the park. Let me say that it is an absolute imperative of this government to protect and ensure the safety of all Canadians as well as international visitors to the park. We are talking about an area visited by over 2.7 million people per year, many of them young children. In light of these facts, it seems rather irresponsible to be proposing such hunting rights in a shared space, which could seriously jeopardize the safety of visitors to the park.
I would suggest that there is little debate that the National Capital Act, enacted 55 years ago, in 1959, could use a significant update. Although the act still effectively governs the National Capital Commission and its activities in the National Capital Region, it is clear that the NCC could benefit from updated enabling legislation in order to even more effectively administer its mandate in the national capital region, including the continued protection of Gatineau Park.
That being said, Bill C-565 does not enhance those protections in an effective or appropriate way and is, at the same time, unnecessarily narrow in its application solely to Gatineau Park. In our view, the bill would have negative consequences for the park, the region, and Canadian taxpayers.
This government has repeatedly introduced legislation in recent years to amend the National Capital Act in order to improve the NCC's transparency and governance structure, strengthen environmental protections, and provide the commission with effective and modernized tools to manage and protect its properties in the national capital region. These legislative proposals are evidence that we are working toward implementing a clear and comprehensive vision tor the continued protection and improvement of the entire national capital region and are seeking to provide the NCC with updated legislation to accomplish this goal.
I anticipate that the next government bill in this area will provide another embodiment of this commitment and our continued perseverance in this endeavour and I look forward to its introduction.