Evidence of meeting #143 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was indigenous.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Laurie Swami  President and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Waste Management Organization
Bob Watts  Vice-President, Indigenous Relations, Nuclear Waste Management Organization
Chief Arlen Dumas  Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Philippe Méla

8:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Good morning, everyone.

I'm so pleased to have you here. We're at the indigenous and northern affairs committee to hear from witnesses from across Canada on the issue of community capacity-building for indigenous people, specifically on reserve, but we all know that a lot of the training is off reserve and in different locations.

We recognize that we're in a process of truth and reconciliation, which this committee in particular is sensitive to. We are anxious to hear the truth from you. Moreover, in this process, we always recognize the territory where we're holding our meetings, not just as a formality but actually to give it some consideration. We're on the unceded territory of the Algonquin peoples here in Ottawa.

The way it will work is that you'll have 10 minutes to present. Then we'll go through rounds of questions by the members, first seven minutes and then five minutes. If you want to see where we are in the process, I will try to give you hints when we're coming to the end of your allotted time.

Welcome, once again. The way you do it is up to you, and you can start when you're ready to go.

8:45 a.m.

Laurie Swami President and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Thank you very much.

Good morning, Madam Chair and members of the committee.

It's an honour to appear before you today to discuss our work at the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

I am joined here today by Bob Watts, our vice-president of indigenous relations at the NWMO. My colleague, Véronique Dault, director of government and external relations, is also here today to assist with any questions you may have.

I understand that this committee is currently studying community capacity-building and the retention of talent. The NWMO has a great story to share.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization has a significant history of community capacity building and talent retention.

Bob will share the bulk of our work, but first I want to provide you with a bit of background about the NWMO.

We were established in 2002 by Canada's nuclear electricity producers as a requirement of the federal Nuclear Fuel Waste Act. Our mandate is to work collaboratively with Canadians to design and implement Canada's plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel. We are a non-profit funded by the owners of Canada's used nuclear fuel, which are Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power Corporation, Hydro Québec and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.

The NWMO spent its early years talking to Canadians, including first nation, Métis and Inuit peoples, while designing an approach and plan to ensure the safe, long-term storage of Canada's used nuclear fuel.

The approach that emerged through this dialogue—known as “adaptive phase management” or “Canada's plan”—calls for the safe containment and isolation of used nuclear fuel in a deep geologic repository located in an informed and willing host community. It was an approach that the government of Canada selected in 2007 and the one that we at the NWMO are actively implementing today. The plan aligns with the values and priorities Canadians identified as important and also with international consensus.

Scientists around the world agree that a deep geologic repository is the best approach for protecting people and the environment from used nuclear fuel over the long term.

To ensure that we stay abreast of the latest knowledge, we work with similar organizations around the world to share best practices and science.

During those early dialogues, Canadians told us that we continue to benefit from nuclear energy. We need to manage the waste in a way that does not burden future generations. We've also committed that the project will only proceed with the involvement of municipal and indigenous communities in the area and surrounding communities working in partnership to implement it. In order to do so, we had to work to build capacity in potential host communities. Canada's plan is a 100-plus year, $24 billion infrastructure project. It will have economic and social benefits for generations, but ensuring local communities are well informed and prepared to take on a project of this magnitude takes time and resources.

That's why the NWMO has spent years working with communities, including municipalities and first nation and Métis communities. The voluntary site selection process that was launched in 2010 saw 22 communities express interest in learning more about the project and exploring their potential to host it.

Through increasingly intensive study and engagement, we have gradually narrowed our focus. Today we are active in five of these areas as we work towards selecting the preferred site. Each of these communities has neighbouring indigenous communities with whom we are working as well. We plan to select the single preferred site by 2023.

I'm also pleased that we have indigenous representation in our senior management, on our board of directors and our advisory council. Over 7% of our workforce identify as first nation or Métis.

At this time, I will ask Bob Watts to provide more information about the many programs that we have.

April 4th, 2019 / 8:50 a.m.

Bob Watts Vice-President, Indigenous Relations, Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Thank you, Chair.

Since the very beginning, the NWMO has sought to walk with indigenous people on this journey. Our leadership has long recognized the need to listen to indigenous elders. An elders advisory council was founded almost immediately after the organization was formed. As we evolved, so has this important body evolved. Since Canada's plan will affect generations to come, we've added young people to this group, which is now called the council of elders and youth. Their advice and principles of honouring the land and serving as stewards inform activities across our organization.

Eighty-five percent of our staff have received cultural awareness training. This is a requirement for both our staff and contractors before they begin any fieldwork with our communities.

NWMO has also stated its commitment to integrating indigenous knowledge into our work. One small example are elders and other knowledge keepers who walk the land with our subject matter specialists in western science, and together they share their knowledge and learn from each other. We recently held a two-day workshop that brought together indigenous knowledge keepers and western scientists. During the workshop, participants shared information and perspectives on how indigenous knowledge and western science can be interwoven into research applications pertaining to our safety system.

Last year, we made a formal commitment to reconciliation which was formalized through traditional ceremony. Right now, we're in the midst of finalizing a reconciliation policy that will deepen our commitment to reconciliation. This policy sets out how the NWMO will contribute to reconciliation in all of its work. Some initiatives will include training, employment and procurement for indigenous peoples. This is one small way that we are ensuring that our actions back up the words in our reconciliation statement.

The NWMO works with indigenous communities as well as regional and national indigenous-led organizations. In this work, we recognize the fact that resources are required to engage in our process. We've committed that no community should be out of pocket for learning about and engaging with Canada's plan. We're actively working with communities to determine how we can each build capacity to participate in the project if it is located in their area. We are making investments in training and education to equip community members, including youth, to benefit from the project. At the same time, these investments support building transferable skills that could be applied to other projects or workplaces as well.

I should note that in conversation with the chair prior to the meeting, we were talking about language. We've translated the bulk of our work into nine indigenous languages. Since we've narrowed the focus of our activities, we have narrowed the amount of translation being done, but we've made a big commitment to ensuring that our information is translated so that everybody in the community has access to that knowledge.

Some of our support directly facilitates participation in our process, but some is less tangible. For example, we are committed to increasing access to indigenous knowledge, western science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM education, in potential host areas. Many of these initiatives are funded through our early investment in skills and education program. This will build capacity for generations to come in those communities and help fill the jobs that a repository could provide.

Direct activities include covering the cost of meetings, travel, financial reporting and other expenses associated with engagement and learning. We also support part-time and full-time jobs in communities that we work with to coordinate and manage their participation. Last year, we hosted 45 engagement activities with indigenous youth. Currently, the NWMO funds 18 positions within indigenous communities, comprised of 15 community liaison officer positions, one youth position, one technical officer and one administrative support person.

To support discussions about the potential for partnership and further create a strong foundation for future decision-making, the NWMO has implemented a program of near-term investments. These investments are intended to support community capacity-building to participate in discussions about potential partnerships, and if selected as a single preferred location, ultimately hosting the project in the future.

Funding is in the form of investments provided to municipalities and first nation and Métis communities in the vicinity of the area where assessment activities are planned and that are helping to lead these activities. Since 2008, we have invested approximately $29 million in indigenous communities and organizations. Of that, close to $6 million was invested in Métis communities and organizations, $14 million to first nation communities and $9 million to first nation national, provincial and regional organizations.

In conclusion, above all, we know there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, we approach all of our capacity-building from a place of transparency, respect and partnership. Canada's plan is called adaptive for a reason; so too is our approach to community engagement and capacity-building. The NWMO actively reviews and refines our programs as we continue to learn and work with communities and as discussions about potential partnerships advance.

I look forward to hearing from members of today's panel and later to answering any questions the committee members may have about our experience.

Thank you very much, Chair.

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

We're going to start the questioning by MPs. We begin with MP Will Amos.

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you to our witnesses.

You're a unique witness for this study, and I want to take this advantage to learn a little bit. I understand that the NWMO is focused on designing and implementing a plan to store used fuel. For many indigenous people, that's a big issue, particularly if their traditional territories cover the area that might be chosen. That's an obvious issue.

I represent a riding in western Quebec where that's not really being contemplated. I don't believe there are any sites being considered there, but there are non-fuel nuclear waste management issues. I'm sure you're well aware of matters related to a proposal about near-surface disposal at Chalk River.

In this context, there have been calls for the development of a federal policy around non-fuel waste. I'd appreciate your thoughts on that because it's an issue I'm only starting to become familiar with. I'm sure your organization has significant expertise.

Thank you for providing your comment.

9 a.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Laurie Swami

There is currently policy direction from the government with respect to management of nuclear waste. There is policy that requires the owners of the waste to put in place steps to manage all of the waste they're responsible for, whether it's used fuel or low and intermediate or less radioactive materials. Owners are required to come up with programs. In Canada, a number of programs have been proposed by owners of those types of waste. As I understand it, they're going through the regulatory process to establish those facilities. I think that's an important step for the nuclear sector to be able to manage their waste appropriately.

I would say that for the most part money has been set aside to handle those wastes so that, as the projects come forward, there will be funding available to implement the appropriate means of waste disposal.

9 a.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Is it a fair characterization to say that the government policy is that there be an extended producer responsibility of some kind?

9 a.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Laurie Swami

The policy is that the owner of the waste material must put aside a program to address that, which could include funding at this point in time. Some of the industry has progressed further along that path to develop projects. I think the observation from the industry is that there are enough projects in the pipeline at this point in time that, as those get through the approval process, we would expect to see more projects being proposed to deal with the waste, depending on who the owner is.

9 a.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Would you agree with those who suggest that the Government of Canada ought to develop a long-term, non-fuel nuclear waste policy?

9 a.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Laurie Swami

I believe the policy direction is sufficient for the owners of the waste today to deal with the situation. In our case, we have a federal act that is very clear on what responsibilities are assigned to the various players. The policy itself provides that owners of nuclear waste are responsible for establishing the programs around it. I think it's very clear to the industry owners that they are responsible for that aspect. I don't believe there is a policy gap at this point in time.

9 a.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Okay.

Just turning back then to the issue at hand around capacity, what would you say the hardest lesson has been for NWMO to learn with regard to capacity-building for indigenous communities in your sphere of operation?

9 a.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Laurie Swami

Maybe Bob and I will both answer that. I'll answer it from the business perspective, if you will.

I think the hardest lesson to learn is that first nation and Métis communities are involved in many, many things just as any community is. They have a lot of their own business to take care of. They're running their own organizations. Some of the communities we work with are running the water treatment plants, the sewage treatment plants and all of the infrastructure needs to meet their community's needs, so when a project comes along, people have to understand that there's a certain level of capacity available to engage with us at the beginning because they are busy. These are busy people.

I think it takes time. You need to build trust with communities. You need to come in with an understanding of being very respectful of their time and their world view, which is not necessarily the same but which needs to be very respected. We need to be very cautious about that and take that into consideration in everything we do.

The help we can provide is to help build that capacity, to provide them with what they need to be able to actually engage with us. That's taken us time but it's a very important part of the steps we need to go through as we build partnerships with the communities that will eventually be willing hosts for our project.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

I'm sorry, but that ends our time.

We're going to move on to MP Cathy McLeod.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Thank you to the witnesses.

I'm just going to take one minute before I get into my questioning.

First of all, I want to say I appreciate the very methodical approach you're taking to what is an incredibly important issue. I think that really speaks to what happens when things aren't done properly. We can use Grassy Narrows as an example where successive governments have really failed—I think we all need to take responsibility nationally and provincially—and the results have been quite devastating and tragic. I think it is incumbent on us as MPs on this committee to understand.

I do want to move my motion. I hope it can be quick and we can agree, even if it means extra hours. I'm willing to do the extra hours. Then we'll get into our questioning. I think it's important. I would suggest that we should all support this:

That, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), and given the significant long-term health impacts of mercury contamination, the Committee undertake two meetings on the federal government's commitments to the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation; that the witness list include representatives of Grassy Narrows First Nation, health experts, officials from the Department of Health Canada, the Department of Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; and, that the Committee report its findings to the House.

As I say, I believe this should be non-controversial. I think it is incumbent after six years of provincial and federal successive government failures. I know we have legislation coming to the table, but even if this takes extra meetings, let's just understand the issue in a fulsome way. Hopefully we can vote and move onto questioning of the witnesses.

Thank you.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

I have on my speaker's list MP Mike Bossio.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

I would like to thank my colleague for bringing this up. It is a very important issue. We agree that it is an important issue that should be studied. The only amendment I would like to suggest is that we invite provincial ministers as well. I think it's an important issue that needs to be addressed by all levels of government.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

That would be a friendly amendment.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Yes. We don't have a problem with that. If you're agreeable to that, then that's great. I say let's go ahead.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

MP Amos.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

I also agree that we should be looking at this. It's a really, really important issue.

The only thing I'd add is that for those who are inclined to read lots in advance, there's a particular professor, a former colleague of mine at the University of Ottawa, by the name of Dr. Jamie Benidickson. He's one of the world's foremost experts in law and policy around Minamata disease and all the issues particular to Grassy Narrows. I'm sure our analysts could provide a short list of other articles in PDF form or book references, because his work is second to none on this issue.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

MP Blaney.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

I'm happy to support this. I just want to make sure we look at the schedule, because I want to see that all of the tasks that are put before us are done before we walk out of this place.

I agree with Cathy. I'm more than willing to do the extra hours that are required to do this. I think this issue is very important and very timely. I know that the people in that community are suffering tremendously. It's really important that we have a fulsome understanding of that so that hopefully we can see more action.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

All right.

We have 10 minutes for committee business at the end of our hearings today, and we'll—

9:05 a.m.

An hon. member

[Inaudible—Editor] the vote.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

I understand. Just give me a second. Thanks.

We'll add, for the scheduling and the details about it...can be moved to that portion of the meeting.

I understand we're ready to vote, so—