Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and members of the House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Thank you for the invitation to appear before this committee as it undertakes the five-year review of the Species at Risk Act for the purposes of section 129.
I am pleased to have with me today my colleague, Joshua McNeely, who has been on the front lines of SARA implementation.
It's a pleasure to be here today on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin peoples. Here at the intersection of the Ottawa, Gatineau, and Rideau Rivers, aboriginal peoples met, traded, and negotiated for generations.
Aboriginal people are the traditional keepers of Mother Earth, and we have a solemn duty to prevent species from becoming at risk and to protect those at risk. On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it's appropriate that we are talking about this environmental issue.
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples is one of the five national aboriginal organizations that represent aboriginal peoples in Canada. Our constituency is made up of status and non-status Indians living off reserve and Métis. CAP has been in existence for 39 years and has been involved in all of the major constitutional events during this time. We were the first national aboriginal organization to establish a bilateral relationship with the federal government.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that the surface temperatures of the earth are warming up at unprecedented rates, and that climate change will directly and negatively impact the spatial and temporal conditions in which species currently live. DFO scientists have clearly stated that climate change will have significant and widespread impacts on species at risk. Climate change will accelerate, and we need to have the flexibility to adapt to this reality.
With a rapidly changing climate, the David Suzuki Foundation estimates that 45% of Canada's habitat could be lost by the end of the century, along with 20% of species and vulnerable ecosystems. This is a legacy that none of us wants to pass on.
Beginning in 1998, CAP participated in an aboriginal working group focused on species at risk. We sometimes had different political views, but by and large this did not prevent us from working together. Our mutual concern was Mother Earth and the protection and recovery of species at risk. This aboriginal working group was responsible for the high profile of aboriginal interests in SARA.
The Species at Risk Act went through a lengthy process before coming into force. Bill C-65 died on the order paper in 1997. Bill C-33 died on the order paper in 2000. And Bill C-5 finally passed in 2002 and was proclaimed into law in June 2003. When the House of Commons standing committee went through the process of dealing with Bill C-5, the resulting legislation included a significant role for aboriginal peoples. This was no accident, because the aboriginal working group had worked on the various bills leading up to the Species at Risk Act.
In 2003, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development unanimously passed section 8.1 of the act, which launched NACOSAR. This was a strong endorsement of the role that aboriginal peoples should play in species at risk. It's the only place in Canadian legislation where an aboriginal council advises a minister of the crown. NACOSAR also provides advice and recommendations to the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council, comprised of the FPT ministers responsible for wildlife species.
The aboriginal traditional knowledge subcommittee of COSEWIC is a major achievement, as it's where aboriginal traditional knowledge is considered in the assessment of species of risk. A recognition of the importance of ATK in SARA is vital to success.
CAP believes that the voice of aboriginal peoples is strongest when it's a united voice. We do not view the species at risk agenda as a place to pursue narrow political interests or to engage in political posturing. The elders have repeatedly told us that this is a time for all aboriginal peoples to speak and act on this critical environmental issue. The Species at Risk Act clearly sets out that aboriginal people must have a full opportunity to participate in its implementation from beginning to end.
Loss of diversity is considered one of the world's most serious environmental problems. We know that a useful yardstick for measuring the health of a country's biodiversity is the number of species at risk. In Canada, that number is growing. The more work that COSEWIC undertakes, the more species are added to the list. COSEWIC has classified 598 species in various risk categories. There are only 180 recovery strategies in place. One action plan has been completed, two are proposed, and five are in draft.
The architecture of SARA, as some of you already know, is a species approach, and at some point a fundamental shift to the ecosystem approach needs to take place. You've heard this before from the Auditor General, from the Stratos report, and from numerous other witnesses at this table. The numbers tell the story. If we continue on the species approach, we'll never catch up.
From your work on this committee, the members understand that the Species at Risk Act is a complex piece of legislation. It deals with three federal departments, interjurisdictional issues, a wide variety of stakeholders, and aboriginal peoples. It's actually hyper-complex.
Back in 2003, when SARA came into force, it brought many new responsibilities to Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Parks Canada. To be fair to these departments, the implications for delivery were not well known, and it was only through experience that they came to understand the real scope of this legislation. Similarly for aboriginal peoples, we were unsure how NACOSAR, the ATK committee, and the national aboriginal organizations would interact to ensure that the essential role of aboriginal peoples occurred in the conservation of wildlife.
For DFO to deliver on SARA requirements for aquatic species, they relied on volunteers, non-governmental organizations, universities, and aboriginal organizations. This is one of the fundamental aspects of this agenda. The cooperative voluntary approach is the linchpin of the SARA process. CAP is pleased with the proactive approach of DFO. We've developed a positive relationship. We've worked on many species at risk, such as the porbeagle shark, American eels, banded killifish, the wolffish, the piping plover, and Atlantic salmon.
The Species at Risk Act is well written and includes many sections that reference aboriginal peoples. In addition to the legislation, there are other processes where aboriginal peoples are engaged. For example, Parks Canada has established an aboriginal consultative committee that advises the CEO of Parks Canada. CAP would like to participate on this committee and be engaged with PCA.
The participation of the national aboriginal organizations in the policy and planning subcommittee to NACOSAR is vital for the flow of the information to the council members and to assist in reaching consensus. CAP is opposed to the NACOSAR coordinator being housed outside of Environment Canada and the secretariat housed within Environment Canada. The role of the council is to advise the minister on the administration of the act. Currently the coordinator is housed outside, in the offices of the Assembly of First Nations, and is perceived to be influenced and biased in that location. In addition, if the coordinator for NACOSAR is working out of an office at the AFN, how can he be engaged with the administration processes of SARA?
In the development of recovery strategies, the aboriginal voice is lost. There is a need to strengthen the role of aboriginal traditional knowledge in the recovery strategies, action plans, and management. We are not expecting significant changes to this legislation; however, we would advise the following modifications to strengthen the ATK role in recovery strategies.
Currently, under paragraph 39(1)(d), the recovery strategy must be prepared in cooperation with:
every aboriginal organization that the competent minister considers will be directly affected by the recovery strategy
Because there's no ATK advisory body in the recovery and action plan stages, government departments and academics are leading the ATK gathering process without understanding the sensitivities involved. In some cases, we've had situations where ATK holders have been approached by multiple parties on various days seeking the same information.
In order to strengthen the role of ATK in recovery, CAP recommends that section 40 of SARA be modified to read:
In preparing the recovery strategy, the competent minister must determine whether the recovery of the listed wildlife species is technically and biologically feasible. The determination must be based on the best available information, including information provided by COSEWIC and the ATK subcommittee.
CAP would recommend that paragraph 41(1)(a) be modified similarly, so it would read:
(a) a description of the species and its needs that is consistent with the information provided by COSEWIC and the ATK subcommittee;
Then again, that 41(1)(b) be modified to read--