Mr. Speaker, at this stage of our debate on Gatineau Park, it is important to note that all members of the House agree that Gatineau Park is an immensely beautiful treasure that needs better protection. Unfortunately, that is where our agreement ends right now. We do not agree on what kind of legal protection Parliament should provide for that park, which we all love so much.
The member for Hull—Aylmer believes that her bill, which we are debating here today, Bill C-565, An Act to amend the National Capital Act (Gatineau Park) and to make a related amendment to the Department of Canadian Heritage Act, is adequate.
The Conservative government would rather focus on its own bill, which it promises to introduce soon and which it claims is very similar to bills it has introduced in the past. The Liberal caucus believes that both the NDP and Conservative approaches are inadequate and do not provide sufficient protection for Gatineau Park while respecting the rights of property owners. However, the Liberal caucus is prepared to support Bill C-565 at second reading so that a committee can examine it and make amendments.
Let us consider the magnitude of the problem. Gatineau Park is the only federal park that is not protected by Parliament. Unlike national parks, this park's boundaries can be modified and its land sold, and roads can be built through it without Parliament's involvement.
Gatineau Park is managed by the National Capital Commission, which does not ban commercial or industrial activities or land development. As a result of inadequate legal protection, Gatineau Park has lost a significant amount of land. When the National Capital Commission redrew the park's boundaries in the 1990s, it severed 48 properties, for a total of 1,508 acres. At the same time, 334 acres were allotted for the construction of roads, which were built in violation of the commitments made in the master plan, bringing the total number of acres severed up to 1,842, or nearly 5 km2.
All this was done without Parliament's knowledge, let alone its approval. This would not have happened if Gatineau Park were protected under the Canada National Parks Act, which establishes in subsection 5(3) that the size of the park can only be reduced by an act of Parliament.
In addition, because the land management system is inadequate, the NCC has allowed considerable urbanization within the park. Since 1992, 125 residences have been built inside the park.
Despite repeated NCC commitments to acquire private property, some 296 private properties, consisting of 2,112 acres, remain within Gatineau Park. Moreover, several large private properties remain inside the park that risk being turned into major subdivisions, which would impede the park's evolution as a conservation site intended for public enjoyment.
Gatineau Park must be given the same kind of legal protection and parliamentary oversight as Canada's national parks.
Through amendments to the National Capital Act, the park must acquire the legal status, borders and land management mechanism needed to ensure transparency in its administration and guarantee its long-term protection.
We must give this park the protection framework that various citizens' groups have been advocating for decades and help the NCC fulfill its commitment to gradually acquire the private properties, while respecting landowners' rights to continue to live in the park.
Today, the Conservatives are saying they want to come back to this issue with something equivalent to their Bills C-37 and C-20, which died on the order paper in 2009 and 2011. That is not exactly reassuring.
These bills did not offer Gatineau a proper legislative framework, failed to meet basic park protection criteria, perpetuated developments and road building, and would have impaired the park's ecological integrity.
Under these bills, the park boundaries could be changed by administrative decree, without oversight or parliamentary debate.
Now we have the NDP Bill C-565. This bill establishes but a moral obligation to ecological integrity. Measures to ensure the protection, preservation, and management of Gatineau Park for the benefit of current and future generations are put forth with little framework and no real legislative backbone.
In fact, at least three aspects of Bill C-565 could represent setbacks.
First, although Bill C-565 gives the NCC the mandate of acquiring the real property situated in Gatineau Park, it stipulates that:
10.1 (2) The Commission may not, in pursuing its objectives, infringe upon the property rights attached to any real property...located within Gatineau Park.
By so doing, Bill C-565 weakens the NCC, since the existing National Capital Act allows the NCC to expropriate private lands whenever it becomes necessary for the purposes of its mandate.
Bill C-565 will create a dangerous precedent by removing the NCC's ability to expropriate land. It will allow large landowners to divide their land and build new residences in the middle of the park, which would be completely contrary to the park's public and ecological purpose and all the park master plans.
The problem with Bill C-565 is that it does not include a mechanism for acquiring the land.
This is why there is a need for a right of first refusal. Clear regulations would give the NCC the first chance to purchase private property should the private landowner decide to sell, subsequent to which, parkland may be bought and sold on the open market.
People who own land in Gatineau Park could continue to live there and leave their property to their children through estates and trusts. It is important to note that the NCC supported the use of such a right of first refusal when it appeared before a Senate committee in 2007.
Second, although the most recent Gatineau Park master plan clearly establishes that the park's ecological integrity is a management priority, clause 2 of Bill C-565 simply states that the NCC will “protect Gatineau Park’s natural biodiversity, as well as its underlying ecological structure and environmental processes”.
Simply saying that the NCC is to protect the park's natural biodiversity is not as strong a mechanism for preserving the park's ecological integrity as making that protection the first priority. Let us remember that the Canada National Parks Act considers protecting ecological integrity to be a management priority.
Third, Bill C-565 could open the door to hunting in Gatineau Park. Right now, fishing is allowed in the park, but hunting is prohibited.
It is clear that serious amendments are needed to Bill C-565, to better back the NCC objectives of long-term ecological integrity while respecting the rights of landowners. Many amendments would be required.
Indeed, the bill provides no mechanism for public consultation, completely ignores the issue of Quebec's territorial integrity, and fails to make conservation the first priority of park management, which, as I said, is a cornerstone of the Canada National Parks Act.
Above all, the bill should provide, subsequent to consultations with the Quebec provincial government, a real protective legislation for Gatineau Park via an amendment to the National Capital Act.
Such a legislative framework by Parliament would support the NCC's role as park manager and would give the park the same kind of statutory protection and adequate parliamentary oversight that is given to national parks throughout Canada.
We have our work cut out for us. We need to conduct an in-depth examination of this issue in committee in order to find legal protection that works for our beloved Gatineau Park.