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Evidence of meeting #29 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was lake.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Marianna Couchie  Chief, Nipissing First Nation

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

I am going to call this 29th meeting to order. Today we continue our hearings with regard to the study on land use and sustainable economic development for first nations communities.

Today we have the privilege of having with us Chief Couchie. She comes from the Nipissing First Nation.

We do thank you, Chief, for coming. We know that you have a lot of wisdom with regard to the matter we're studying. You were one of the first first nations involved in the First Nations Land Management Act, and you as a nation have been a trailblazer for others. So we want to thank you for being here today.

Colleagues, my understanding is that there is an impending vote in the House of Commons, and the expectation is that the vote will happen some time during the committee meeting.

We'll be expecting bells at some point, Chief, but we're hopeful that we can get through at least your opening statement before we have to skip out for votes.

We'll turn it over to you, Chief, and we look forward to your opening statement.

Thank you.

3:30 p.m.

Chief Marianna Couchie Chief, Nipissing First Nation

Good afternoon to the members of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. I appreciate the opportunity to come before you today to talk about how we of the Nipissing First Nation use our land and how we are striving to obtain economic sustainability.

I trust that all members have received my briefing package. I have given my speaking notes to the translators. I have some facts and figures with me in case we get time for questions and answers. I am very flexible as a person. If the vote has to happen, it has to happen. I appreciate that.

First I'll say a little bit about Nipissing First Nation. Since time immemorial, we've occupied the land that surrounds Lake Nipissing. That's the lake from which we derive our name. Actually, we were called Nipissing, and because we lived around the lake, the lake was called Lake Nipissing.

We have an interesting archeological study. There they have found evidence of an interesting site that carbon dates back at least 10,000 years. We have only just begun exploring our history.

Presently we occupy a land base that stretches about 35 kilometres, on the north shore of the lake. That covers approximately 14,962 acres. We are bounded by two municipalities. To the east we have the city of North Bay, and on our western boundary is the municipality of West Nipissing.

We have a unique geography. We're different from most first nations. We stretch 35 kilometres along the land, as I have already said, but our members live in nine different communities. Some of them are large communities and some are hamlets with just a few people. The majority of our members live in the westernmost community and the easternmost community. We have a population of about 846 on-reserve members, and our off-reserve membership totals 1,521 people.

I said that Nipissing was unique. It's not like a typical first nation, where they have less acreage to monitor. The majority of their membership lives in one community. As I said, we have nine communities. Whatever is provided in the western community requires duplication in the eastern community. For instance, we have two day care centres. Our public works has to service all of our communities. We have two volunteer fire departments, and we need to build a third one in our eastern end.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has on record that we have just over 51 miles of road. The funding formula does not take into consideration that for us to travel from the westernmost community to the easternmost community we have to transport equipment—everything—on highway 17. That's a 45-minute drive one way. Our public works staff will spend an hour and a half just going from one end to the other end of our community. If you want to get into all of our communities, you'd better plan for a full day of travelling.

Our public works department does not receive the funding it requires. It's as if they need that northern factor that will help us maintain our roads, maintain our equipment, and replace aging equipment.

Now I want to get to our land use. We use our land in four different ways. We have residential land. We lease land for residential purposes, and we presently have 308 leases. We also lease our land for commercial uses, and there are eight companies who lease land from us. We also use our land for recreational and traditional purposes. Under recreational, we also have a tent and trailer park on the beautiful shore of Lake Nipissing.

In 2003 we became a land management band. Since then we've made and passed bylaws to ensure our land is properly used. We are still in the process of developing our environmental law, a zoning bylaw to regulate businesses, and an archeological management plan. I'm very, very committed to the archeological management plan. There is so much history along the shore, along the streams, and along the rivers that our people used.

I want to highlight two areas of concern that we've been dealing with since we passed our land code. The first issue is an abandoned mine site. This land was leased around 1950 to a company that was mining uranium on one of the islands in the lake. The land was leased by the then Department of Indian Affairs. The company would bring raw materials that were mined on to the shoreline in one of our communities, and in their processing they left behind radioactive materials or tailings. That's called radon.

When the company gave up their lease, there was no requirement that it had to clean up that site on our shoreline. Today people can't go there; we have it barricaded off.

It was in the process of becoming a land management band, and thankfully we had to undertake an environmental assessment study.... That's when it became known that this site was contaminated. We have been attempting to work with Health Canada to clean up this site. We do want the material moved off our reserve. We don't want it stored on our reserve. We'd like it moved to a government-sanctioned site.

This site is on the contaminated list of sites in Canada. Presently Canada is trying to find the budget to get this material moved.

Another area of concern is a decline in our land management budget. Since 2003, we estimate our budget has dropped almost $300,000. The problem is that when new bands enter into this land management regime, the money gets divided among all the bands. Nothing more is added to that land management budget.

Last year, when we were at our Lands Advisory Board annual general membership meeting, we were informed of further cuts to our budget as more first nations were joining. In January, when I was present at the crown-first nations gathering here in Ottawa, the Prime Minister announced that even more first nations were going to be permitted to enter this very important process. The Prime Minister did not indicate any additional moneys for land management; he just said more are going to come into this process. I waited, and he didn't say they were adding more money for land management. So we have a situation where more bands are now having to use less and less money to develop their lands.

I don't want to sound as if I'm complaining, but it's my opportunity to bring some concerns forward.

When it comes to sustainable economic development, Nipissing First Nation is known as a progressive community, especially when it comes to economic development and the sustainability of projects that will benefit our first nation. We use best governance practices, open lines of communication, and we like to build partnerships.

Currently we have one industrial park, and that's on the eastern side of our first nation. In the park we have a recreational vehicle dealer, a tile and brick company—

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

I do apologize, Chief. I've just been informed that the bells have started to ring for the votes. If we had consensus from committee members, if we gave consent, we could finish hearing the chief's opening submission and then head out for the votes. We won't go past 15 minutes; it allows 15 minutes for everyone to get to the vote, and then we will come back, if there is consent to do that.

3:40 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

Seeing consent, Chief, we'll turn it back over to you.

Sorry for the interruption.

3:40 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

Chief Marianna Couchie

Thank you.

As I said, I'm very flexible. I'm patient.

As I was saying, we have a recreational vehicle dealer, we have a tile and brick company. We also have the Miller Group of Companies in our industrial park. This company supplies liquid asphalt and they do road construction. They are also into waste management, and they sell quarry granular products from a quarry on our first nation.

We have a retail sales and confectionery store, and a tobacco manufacturing plant that supplies Giimaa tobacco products. “Giimaa”, in our language, means “chief”.

These businesses have been operational for many years. What makes our industrial park attractive is the fact that it's located on Highway 17 and it's in very close proximity to Highway 11. The infrastructure that supports this park includes reliable water sources, access to natural gas, and access to three-phase power hydro services.

We are planning to build a second industrial park—we have willing renters—and this will require a very large investment to develop the land with the same infrastructure. Presently we have more willing renters than our first phase of this park can accommodate. It's phase one.

On our land we also lease to the head office of the Union of Ontario Indians, and it is our goal to entice more similar organizations to locate in our community.

Our band members have that entrepreneurial spirit. We have 44 band member-owned businesses that operate within our boundaries. These businesses offer a variety of services that include 17 different types of services. Outside of the usual businesses, such as confectionery stores, the businesses offer concrete curbing, equipment rental, legal services, and storage services; we have a travel agency, and one of our own band members operates a medical doctor's office. These provide full-time, part-time, and seasonal work to our membership. It's an integral part of our own community.

In order to establish a business on reserve, the prospective owner must go through a rigorous business licensing bylaw process, and that is contained in the brief that you have been given. In the English version it would be on page 8.

We ourselves, as a first nation, are in the process of trying to obtain permission to operate a 64-bed long-term care nursing home. This would be a real economic boon to our community. We estimate salaries in the range of $2 million. We have a feasibility study and we know it will work.

Just briefly, I want to talk about our Nipissing First Nation fisheries management program. Our people have fished Lake Nipissing in a sustainable manner for thousands of years. Prior to European contact, fish was our major trade item—smoked pickerel or smoked walleye.

In 1850, the Nipissing people signed the Robinson-Huron Treaty with the British crown. Through the treaty there was an agreement to share the resources of our traditional territory and set aside reserve lands for our exclusive use. It also guaranteed:

...the full and free privilege to hunt over the territory now ceded by them and to fish in the waters thereof as they have heretofore been in the habit of doing...

Over subsequent years and governments, we were harassed by the Minister of Natural Resources about our right to fish and trade fish. In 2005, we established our own commercial fishing law. It sets out a quota for the amount of walleye that our people will take for commercial purposes. We also established a moratorium that says there will be no netting permitted during the spawning season of the walleye. That’s our way of protecting the spawn.

Between 2006 and 2011, Nipissing invested nearly $1.25 million in fisheries management. No other agency or government matched that figure. We employ our own fish biologist. We have staff to assist with the enforcement of our law, and we have our own fish processing plant. We also employ supervisors for this plant. The fish cleaned and packaged in this plant are certified to be harvested in a sustainable manner and in a government-inspected facility. The local restaurants are now buying fish from us, and they advertise it as Lake Nipissing pickerel. It doesn’t come from Lake Erie any more and other places far beyond that.

Because of ecological changes in the lake, we are now hosting a second Lake Nipissing summit. Something is not right in the balance in our lake. We’re inviting the leaders of all the municipalities that surround Lake Nipissing, the appropriate ministries, stakeholder groups, and researchers. They will discuss what is happening to the ecological balance in our lake. Our expectation is that each ministry and stakeholder group, even the general public, will come away from there with an idea of what they can do to assist in restoring the balance to Lake Nipissing.

The economic studies have shown that the municipalities derive close to $1 million a year from Lake Nipissing through tourism and fishing, and that means there's year-round pressure on the fish in Lake Nipissing.

I have four recommendations to the standing committee. First, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, in the funding formula for our public works department, must contain a factor that recognizes our unique geography. As I've said before, there is a northern factor that is included in the federal budget.

Second, the cleanup of the contaminated radon site needs to be expedited and remediated so our members can use that shoreline.

Third, the government needs to review the land management budget and increase the amount of money that is being set aside for land management.

Fourth, future economic development funding must include more than just job training programs; it should include opportunities to allow for infrastructure development.

That, members of the committee, is my short brief of the longer brief I have provided to you.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

Thank you, Chief.

We will now leave for a vote.

Thank you.

We'll suspend now, colleagues.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

We'll call this meeting back to order.

Chief, we thank you for your patience. We appreciate that you've waited for us. We thank you for your opening statement as well. You have a lot of things to share with us.

We're going to start with the questioning round. I'm going to turn to my colleague Linda Duncan.

We'll give it over to you, Linda, for seven minutes.

4:35 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Yes, thank you very much.

Thank you so much for appearing and testifying. It's nice to have you here. Your testimony is most interesting.

You appear to be one of the first first nations that actually did a land code and were initially supported. You raised concerns that it's your impression that as more and more first nations get on board and want to pursue having a land code and implementing it, there seems to be some clawing back of your funds.

I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on that for us.

4:35 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

Chief Marianna Couchie

I'll try to explain that. It's not a perception; it's an actual fact.

Each year, our lands department is informed that they have less money to do what needs to be done. Presently, we have six employees in our lands department. They need to be out there surveying and recording all land transactions. We're trying to build a GIS system for our first nation, and we're trying to locate everything.

Eventually, our GIS will be able to point to one place on the map, and everything will show up: the hydro services, the natural gas, the different hydro capabilities. I do attend the lands advisory board's annual general membership meeting, and they do tell us every year, “I'm sorry, but our lands budget has not increased.” In fact, probably the overall lands budget is decreasing, and they tell us each year that we are going to have to do with less money.

At that last lands advisory board meeting, there were some first nations who were going to experience a decline in their lands budget, and we were asked to voluntarily give up some of our operating budget to help those first nations who were in a declining situation. Not many first nations were willing to do that, because we are strapped, and we do have to supplement our lands office with their budget.

Once our environmental law passes and we get our zoning bylaw, we know for a fact that we're going to have to hire a bylaw enforcer, and we're also going to have to hire someone who will ensure that the businesses and the houses are obeying our environmental law.

We know for a fact that we need at least two more positions. We were able to do a lateral transfer from our IT department of one person, who is now trying to input all of our GIS data. Any moneys that we make from our leases get divided amongst all of our infrastructure programs. The lands department is critical.

Does that help?

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

I commend you. Just looking at your brief and your presentation, your first nation has obviously gone to a lot of work to try to develop the bylaws and pursue as many avenues as you possibly can.

You mention that you had been trying to add lands over a 15-year period and that there were delays.

We've actually heard testimony from other first nations about their frustrations with delays in the processing of the addition of lands. Did you want to speak to that a bit more?

4:40 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

Chief Marianna Couchie

That's a good question; I'm glad you raised it. The additions to reserves policy are arduous. Back in 1995, we were promised 33,000 acres, and this was unsold, surrendered land. Back in 1904 and 1907, the government, or Indian Affairs at the time, had.... The councils differ on whether they signed those surrender agreements. But there was a lot of land, because the two neighbouring towns wanted more land to expand. So the government was convinced that it was in the best interests of these municipalities to open up our reserve lands. In 1995, we were promised the return of those 33,000 acres of land. The year is now 2012. The Ontario government transferred its interest in those lands to the federal government. I keep writing to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and saying it's been a long time.

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

You said that because of this delay you lost considerable revenue from Ontario Hydro.

4:40 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

That could help to fill the gap in the funding.

4:40 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

Chief Marianna Couchie

It would help to retrieve some of that. Ontario Hydro operates transmission lines through our territories, and part of it is on this unsold, surrendered land. Unfortunately, the government didn't insist on a lease. So we're now in negotiations with Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation about getting leases, because they span considerable distances through our traditional territory.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

Thank you, Ms. Duncan.

Mr. Rickford.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Conservative Kenora, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Chief Couchie, for coming here today. I apologize for some of the interruptions.

On this side, we're in full cooperation with the committee members. We're looking at a number of relationships—legal instruments and policies for land-use planning and economic development. We appreciate that some difficult questions and answers have to come forward, particularly because our government is enthusiastic about more entrants into this process of first nations land management. To increase the number of entrants, we're going to have to take a look at this resource question. We've heard from the advisory board on that.

I want to return to economic development. There was a survey by the Nipissing land office in the spring of 2010. Are you aware of that survey that went out to 35 businesses located within the Nipissing lands?

4:45 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Conservative Kenora, ON

The return was about 40%. So for purposes of analysis, it's a legitimate threshold. There were 155 individuals employed very briefly—43 Nipissing First Nation members, 63 people from other nations, and 45 non-native people. There was a salary of $6.6 million. From these numbers, there are estimates that the other 60% of the businesses might provide an additional 231 jobs with a wage cost of around $10 million.

Chief, some of the issues you've raised today notwithstanding, there are real economic benefits to this process. As we go across northwestern Ontario, we're looking at increasing the number of entrants into this process. In our vast region, we are preoccupied with first nations communities in and around lakes, right near cities. For example, in Kenora, the great Kenora riding, we have communities near Thunder Bay and then we have our isolated communities.

Could you highlight some of your successes related to this process and give me a few recommendations for helping some of the native communities in my riding to move forward with this?

4:45 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

Chief Marianna Couchie

I will attempt to answer your questions, sir.

We’ve had control of our land since the sixties. That's when we took over the leasing of land. Indian Affairs had set up these lease agreements and we were not getting the return that we felt was necessary, that was fair market value for the land. So we had those lands assessed and were finally able to increase the lease amount, and that does bring in money for us. It's not a great amount—$108,000 or so, plus—but that money gets used because our budgets are not keeping up with the times. So whatever we make in our leases, we have to reinvest. But we're very fortunate—I'm not trying to bellyache here.

March 13th, 2012 / 4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Conservative Kenora, ON

I'm not taking this as bellyaching. I understand there are some issues around that, and that's one of the reasons why you're here today. But on the other hand, clearly some of these numbers tell us...and you've just said that you have significant increases, in some cases, of the land contemplated by this process.

You mentioned that 33,000 acres of land—and as unfortunate and longstanding as that issue is, and I would certainly be pleased to take a closer look at why that process has taken this long—and notwithstanding that, being involved in the FNLM process has enabled you to develop business in the unsold surrendered lands. Frankly, because of the capacity-building exercise under the First Nations Land Management Act, you've been able to provide the same leasing and permits on the reserve as are provided there. So whether they fall into the category or not, your development strategies are essentially—and by all accounts from stakeholders you interact with—quite advanced, developed, and secure. There's certainty there for them to make investments in a critical area of northern Ontario. Would you agree with that?

4:50 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

Chief Marianna Couchie

Yes, I do.

On those lands that we're waiting to get back...we do have some of our people leasing land from us. In those instances, we don't charge them a lease; we give them a land permit. In a way of helping our local economy develop, we forego any leasing charges. Now, for the non-nation businesses, we do charge them a proper lease.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Conservative Kenora, ON

I agree, Chief Couchie, that it is an unfortunate situation. There are other communities in the same situation, particularly some of the entrants. But just in the context of my question—a very narrow inquiry into some capacity and economic development—what's important is that commercial and industrial opportunities have been impacted by better land management structures and controls. I think that's what I'm hearing you say.

4:50 p.m.

Chief, Nipissing First Nation

Chief Marianna Couchie

Yes, definitely. We're always open for business, for new businesses.