Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. David is here, accompanying me today.
Prior to starting our formal remarks today, the national chief would like to convey his message of congratulations to all members of the standing committee on your election successes and your appointment to this committee. Of course, he wanted to be here. Unfortunately, his scheduling did not allow that today.
Environment and sustainable development is critically important to first nations, so it is with pleasure that we make our first appearance before you today.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is important to all Canadians because it is the primary legislative vehicle used by Canada to reconcile environmental and economic considerations in the context of development. What is less well known is that the act is also the main legislative vehicle for reconciliation of aboriginal and treaty rights with development projects. It is through the environmental assessment process that first nations are often first engaged on proposed developments. This is especially the case where developments are proposed or conducted in the absence of an existing partnership with first nations.
Let the AFN be very clear that first nations are not opposed to development. There is no shortage of first nations either working in partnership with industry or even taking the lead on major resource developments. A number of these success stories were featured at the international mining and energy summit that the AFN hosted earlier this year in Niagara Falls. In these cases, first nations have already determined that development is entirely consistent with our obligations to the Earth and our peoples.
Many of these first nations are interested in an act that respects first nations environmental knowledge and economic interests. The act must be streamlined to allow first nations to develop our own territories. More often, however, development is proposed by companies that have not developed a relationship with first nations, which is of critical importance. They must do so in the context of the environmental assessment process.
Sometimes projects are proposed that threaten critical resources or culturally significant sites. This makes the process of engagement and dialogue difficult, because first nations may enter the process under threat of unknown impacts to their lands, territories, and resources. In these cases, first nations require a CEAA that can effectively reconcile first nations' rights with the interests of developers. Sometimes these rights and interests can be reconciled quite easily; other times they cannot. First nations are concerned that the current CEAA framework does not adequately assess whether and how our rights can be reconciled with the interests of industry.
AFN's main recommendation is that the committee should recommend that the government establish a joint crown-first nations process to reform the CEAA to fulfil the honour of the crown and make the act effective with respect to consultation and accommodation. The time and resources it takes to do so should be seen as an investment to get it right for all actors, rather than simply an exercise in first nations engagement.
In 2004, after the last review of the CEAA, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered many decisions that stated that reconciliation was an imperative in Canadian law in relations between the crown and first nations peoples and between industry and first nations peoples. That imperative of reconciliation is also reflected in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which of course Canada now supports. We're keen to work with the Government of Canada in implementing the rights set out in the declaration.
I would also point out that it's very important that Canada get it right, because of the recent announcement that was made by the Prime Minister of Canada on the creation of the Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development. That announcement was made at the gathering of the heads of the Commonwealth. It states that the newly created institute will undertake policy research to identify best practices in extractive sector management for individual countries and arrange technical assistance for governments and communities in developing countries through a partnership between Canada's private sector and Canadian civil society organizations.
It's important that Canada get it right before it starts exporting policies and practices to other countries, in particular where there are indigenous peoples who may be affected by development.
We recommend you look at the report of the special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya. He's a United Nations rapporteur. He issued a report earlier this year, in July 2011. One of his conclusions and recommendations is:
On the basis of the experience gained during the first term of his mandate, the Special Rapporteur has come to identify natural resource extraction and other major development projects in or near indigenous territories as one of the most significant sources of abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. In its prevailing form, the model for advancing with natural resource extraction within the territories of indigenous peoples appears to run counter to the self-determination of indigenous peoples and the political, social and economic spheres.
We have plenty of legal developments, both domestically and internationally, that direct that states and indigenous people need to achieve reconciliation in terms of their relationships, in all forms: politically, economically, socially, and culturally.
As far as the Assembly of First Nations is concerned, the act needs to be updated to ensure consistency with the crown's obligations in relation to the reconciliation imperative.
Members of the standing committee, I must inform you that first nations have litigated issues related to CEAA more than perhaps any other group. Expensive scientific and legal studies, coupled with litigation, are both major causes of delay. I must also inform you that despite the groundswell of litigation and delay, virtually no policy work has been undertaken with first nations to address consultation and accommodation issues, or reconciliation generally.
I'll skip right to our recommendations in view of operating within the 10-minute framework.
In the absence of more time or funding to explore potential improvements to CEAA with first nations, or even to analyze the current act, the Assembly of First Nations recommends that the standing committee recommend that the government engage first nations in its response to the report of the standing committee. First nations require a joint crown–first nations process to determine how reconciliation can be reflected in the act. Such a process should include, among other things, the following: recognition of free, prior, and informed consent in the preamble language of the act as well as an articulation of circumstances under which the free, prior, and informed consent of first nations must be secured prior to development; expanding triggers to include aboriginal title, treaty rights, and aboriginal rights, which is consistent with rulings of the Supreme Court of Canada and in particular with respect to Haida and Taku; a framework within which the crown will work with first nations governments on screenings and on strategic environmental assessments; a requirement for the crown to share strength of claim assessments with first nations and an opportunity for first nations to comment on those assessments; delivery of plain language assessments of environmental impacts by the proponents so that our community members will be able to understand them; and first nations participation at all decision-making stages of the environmental assessment process, including the policy development process, particularly with respect to scoping decisions.
I'll conclude there, Mr. Chairman. Thank you.