Evidence of meeting #85 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 community.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Joe Alphonse  Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government
Chief Edward John  Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

We've heard quite a bit about a need for a first nations fire marshal. What are your thoughts on that, and how would you envision that helping in situations such as this?

12:20 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

I think we agree with that. I know just about every community has a volunteer fire department. I know my community does. I know that Chief Alphonse's community does.

We have also established a First Nations' Emergency Services Society to deal with preparing and helping our communities address these. In British Columbia we have been proactive on many fronts. We take people who have expertise in certain areas and assign them to the First Nations Health Authority, for example, the first nations education, the first nations child welfare, across the board. Those who have expertise are assigned by the leadership in British Columbia to take the lead on many areas and develop action plans to move forward.

One of these areas is safety in our communities, which is absolutely essential. In our communities I'm aware that the training is sporadic, but it's desperately needed. This is part of the recommendations we make. We called for the government to set aside over a four- or five-year period $200 million to help first nations to have a thorough review. Minister Goodale's response was that they'll do an inventory. Do it, but there's still action that needs to be taken: up-to-date, decent firefighting equipment and skills, and the training necessary to fight domestic fires in the communities or other kinds of emergencies that may arise, including wildfires.

When I flew over one of these communities adjacent to Chief Alphonse's community, there was fire on three sides of the village. In the middle of the village as we flew over, what they were doing was protecting the houses. It's the grass fires, as you will see in the pictures here, that will burn the houses down.

What they had was two skidders, I think one water tank, and they had these little tanks called piss cans. Firefighters call them that. I'm not saying bad words here. Everybody uses those words out there. They are just small tanks that the firefighters use to fight little grass fires here and there.

That's all they had there to protect that community, and they managed to do an amazing job of that. Similar to what Chief Alphonse was saying, if they had evacuated as they were requested to, they would have lost many of their houses in the community including a brand new health centre, the school they have, and the infrastructure for water and sewer. They would have been all gone.

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

What are the three top learning takeaways from this year's fire for us?

12:20 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

I think one of those would be to review the B.C. wildfire agreement as well as the B.C. first nations emergency management services agreement with Indian Affairs, and to figure out in some detail on the operational side how to make it work, from the good ideas here in the MOU to the operational side of it, which means you must engage the communities.

The communities must be supported to ensure they have full and effective plans as well as the capability, capacity, and training to respond.

I think those are essentially the most important things we learned from this summer's catastrophe. There were a lot of discussions at the high level. All of the high-level decision-makers had no knowledge of the communities. They didn't realize they should talk to the chief and council, who have emergency plans and decision-making authority, and they can issue evacuation alerts and evacuation orders, which as a government they have every right to do.

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

With respect to capacity building, are we talking about strictly training within the communities or making sure we have members from the indigenous communities in fire services across the country who are employed, who are staff, and then have them deploy perhaps in certain situations?

12:25 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

I don't know about the rest of the country, but in British Columbia, where I'm from, what we want to see is the capability, capacity, and training in each and every one of the 203 communities. That's one capacity. The other capacity is the infrastructure necessary, the equipment and supplies, to be able to respond to the fires effectively.

If this summer is any example of what to expect next year and the year after, we'd better get our ducks in a row, get things up and running now, and not wait until the fire season is upon us. It is urgent that this be done during this winter, when there is no problem with fires in the province. It's the same situation we saw in Alberta, and in the Prairies as well, extensive fires and the impact. We saw evacuations of people from first nations communities in the prairie provinces, and they've run into exactly the same situation.

In one community, the community of Esk'etemc, we had two elders who were evacuated and died away from their own community. There was no way to bring those elders back into the community until the evacuation order was down.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

We're going to continue the conversation with questions from MP Arnold Viersen.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you to our guests for being here today.

One of the interesting things that a former guest talked about was the mismanagement of the forests. It's probably a bit of the upstream scenario that happens. People like to talk a lot about a whole-of-government approach to these kinds of things. We're talking a lot about the response to a big event such as this, but sometimes there's a bit more in looking at ways that we do other things. He talked a little about all the deciduous trees taken out of the forest. Were there any other things you'd like to add to that?

I'm inferring that you agree with that statement. Do you agree with that statement?

12:25 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

One of the very important things that must be considered is at a very strategic level, at the high level. For example, in the Haida decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, dealing with Haida lands, the court said that if the government is even thinking about doing something in the territory of the Haida people, it had better talk to the Haida people.

Similarly here, the Tsilhqot'in people won a major court case in the Supreme Court of Canada. It's an important foundation for the recognition of their rights to their territories, the existence of aboriginal title in the Tsilhqot'in territory. In fact, in all of British Columbia, we have governments moving at that level. At a very strategic level, as an important development, the court said you do not want to be talking to the aboriginal people at the operational level when you've already made the decisions; do so upstream, as you put it.

One of the tools that's so essential both for first nations and for governments to engage with them is the strategic-level land use plans by the first nations in their territory. We're not just talking about the Tsilhqot'in Anaham reserve. We're talking about the Tsilhqot'in territory, their entire traditional title territory that extends way beyond the boundaries of existing reserve lands. Those strategic-level land use plans for first nations are essential, because now with that tool you're able to do many things, including what's to be developed.

In this territory, the major industry, of course, is forestry. These fires have had dramatic impacts on the forestry industry. There's the allowable annual cut determined by the Province of British Columbia. When you have massive devastation by fire, it limits the amount of timber available for harvesting. With the timber that's burnt here, you have to go in and take it down as quickly as you can, but I think it's already dead if it's mountain pine beetle infested. It's going to take generations to repair this.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

One of his other comments was that they're all afraid of being sued. That's an interesting comment. You talked about a couple of court cases on maybe the other side of that scenario.

I'd just like maybe some comments on when disastrous things do happen. In this case, upwards of 40,000 people were evacuated, without loss of life. Had there been loss of life, we would have seen an entirely different set of stories coming out of this. We would have seen a lot finger pointing and a lot of things going on with that. How do we balance that?

12:30 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

In this situation, and I will use Chief Joe's community again, there were concerns about that.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Yes.

12:30 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

But they had their own emergency plan, a very extensive plan. They were operating that plan in accordance with the resources they had. They had evacuation routes for their people, so they were never in any danger. As you can see, the community is an open grasslands area surrounded by timber. The major threat would be from the grass fires and those can move very quickly. In the Napa Valley we have seen how quickly those fires can move when the winds are high.

There was negligence. People would call it an act of nature that no one can anticipate. We can anticipate there will be fires. We don't know how the fires will act, but we can be prepared to act in response and contain those fires. But if there is some degree of negligence, it's a legal question. Families—I can't remember the name of the small community—in non-aboriginal homes, retirement homes around the edge of the lake, were told to evacuate and they were told their homes would be protected. The stories in the press were that no sooner had the community members left than those who were left there to protect the community left, so those houses burned down. Who is going to rebuild those houses? Where are they going to get the resources? Somebody should be responsible in that situation.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

How am I doing there for time?

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

You have seven seconds.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Thank you.

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

No, you have one minute and seven seconds. I didn't want to cheat you out of any time.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

I will cede my time.

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

We're going to MP Rachel Blaney.

November 23rd, 2017 / 12:30 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

Thank you very much.

Thank you so much for being here and spending your time with us today. One of the things that I feel is fundamental is really understanding what “nation to nation” means, and I think a lot of the communities I represent are still a bit confused about what that's going to look like in action. One of the things that I took away from the last testimony, and yours now, is that “nation to nation” also means learning from indigenous communities, and for the Government of Canada to stop having that attitude that they're always helping, and rather, that they're also learning. I look forward to that.

In this committee we talk a lot about the right to free, prior, and informed consent regarding issues that impact indigenous communities. Could you tell us a bit about the engagement process between the different levels of government and indigenous peoples in terms of creating management, prevention, and recovery plans? You gave us a very good example earlier, so perhaps you could talk a bit more about what that might look like.

12:30 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

The issue of consent is raised in the Haida decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. It's also raised in the Tsilhqot'in decision. The chair of the Tsilhqot'in Nation or the national government is Chief Joe. It's about the ability to make decisions.

The specific wording of free, prior, and informed consent is in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but it doesn't have its origin there. It has its origin in other international conventions that have taken those words. In the context of the UN declaration, it's threaded throughout the 46 articles. For example, it says that if the state must consult and co-operate with indigenous peoples. If it is considering legislative or administrative measures that may affect indigenous peoples, then it requires their free, prior, and informed consent when it is considering that.

For example, we heard Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould the other day speaking in support of NDP MP Romeo Saganash's bill on the UN declaration. Free, prior, and informed consent is an important concept. The bad thing about the media and those who don't support the declaration is, “How could those Indians have a veto?”

I think there's a misconstruction of the concept of free, prior, and informed consent. The better interpretation of free, prior, and informed consent.... Consent at the end of the day is a decision that's made after a process, so governments go through a process to come to some decision. First nations' governments are in that same place. First nations' governments will look at information ahead of time. They should be free from any coercion. It should be prior to decisions being made. There should be extensive consideration. It may require an environmental assessment process or some other process that would help inform the decision-making process.

Free, prior, and informed consent essentially, at its core, is about governments making decisions. When the Province of British Columbia, the provinces, the national government, the territorial governments, or municipal governments are making decisions, that's what they're doing. A good example is if you have a specific claims agreement or maybe even a land claims agreement with the Government of Canada, you insist that you bring it to your community. The community looks at it. There will be people who support it, and there will be people who don't support it. You should have all of the best information in front of the community. When the moment comes for voting, what do you think is being done? It's called free, prior, and informed consent, the decision-making process. The result is the consent. The consent that says “no” or the consent that says “yes”.

12:35 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

Thank you.

One of the things we heard very clearly from Chief Alphonse was the impact of having a complete lack of respect in the way that other people—the RCMP and the service providers—were asking after they made their decision as a government to stay where they were. I guess what I'm trying to pull out from this is how we create this change because so much of the onus feels like it's left in the indigenous communities' hands. You're supposed to let everybody know. What about the respectful relationship and how can we fix some of these issues?

12:35 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

It has been endemic in our systems for the last 150 years. The Government of Canada, in exercising its jurisdictional head of power under 91(24), could have embarked on a trajectory that's completely different from where we are now. Instead, where we are now is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded as its truth: cultural genocide. It was a perception that the knowledge of indigenous peoples was irrelevant to these things, that they weren't smart enough, that they didn't understand or have a philosophical or cultural base of who they are or where they come from.

When former prime minister Stephen Harper rose in the House and apologized, he said that they thought our ways were inferior and that they were wrong, and he apologized for that. I really think it's a perception. It's still out there in space. People think we don't have the wherewithal to make good decisions. The people think we're just drunks and people looking for handouts. There's an element in our society that thinks like that.

Thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process over these six years, together with the report and discussions in the House, there is a greater awareness of what is required to have greater successes, a reconciled relationship where we respect each other as equals.

The very best we can say about the 150 years is maybe that indifference was the best policy. Other than that, it was worse than that, right? Indifference leads to other difficult situations if left as it is. This Prime Minister has given us a very good example of what the tone should be, and he said that the most important relationship for him, as Prime Minister, and for this country, is the one with indigenous peoples. That's a very good tone that he has set.

Now we need to start taking those commitments made by this government and begin acting on them. With some of these, the review of the National Energy Board, for example, and the recommendations from CEAA, and Fisheries and Oceans, all of these, when we are involved in a process, the message we get on our side is that our reviews and thoughts are important and valid.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

We're moving to questioning from MP Harvey.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Thank you, Madam Chair.

First of all, I'd like to thank you for being here with us today, Grand Chief John. Certainly, the testimony from Chief Alphonse and you today speaks for itself and is arguably some of the best testimony we've heard since we started this study, so thank you very much for making the journey to be here.

I want to start by touching on one of the beginning parts of your testimony. You talked about the challenges with the MOU as it stands, and you said that there were two or three sticking points you were concerned about, which was why the choice had been made not to sign at this time. Can you elaborate on what those concerns were?