Thank you Mr. Chair, members of the committee.
[Witness speaks in Nuu-chah-nulth]
Thank you for that pronunciation as well. My name is A-in-chut...[Witness speaks in Nuu-chah-nulth ]
Just a few words in my Nuu-chah-nulth west coast of Vancouver Island language to express my appreciation for being here in Algonquin territory.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about part 3 of Bill C-38.
As you are aware, I am currently national chief for the Assembly of First Nations. We are a national political advocacy organization for first nations in Canada.
In January of this year, first nations and representatives of the crown and the Government of Canada participated in a historic crown-first nations gathering. The intent of this gathering was to strengthen and reset the relationship between the crown and first nations, to move away from unilateral imposition of policies or laws that have had impacts on first nations peoples and territories to one that recaptures mutual respect and partnership.
Bill C-38 and the wide-sweeping and comprehensive changes to other pieces of legislation it contains continues historic unilateralism and imposition that we have worked, and continue to work, to overcome.
In November 2010, Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which reflects the recognized customary international legal standard of free, prior, and informed consent. Free, prior, and informed consent, Mr. Chair, is not mentioned anywhere in Bill C-38.
Domestic law recognizes and enforces the duty to consult and accommodate first nations when crown conduct or omission may adversely impact established or potential aboriginal and treaty rights. Part 3 of C-38 will have a direct impact on the federal government's ability to fulfill these standards.
The Assembly of First Nations, to be very clear, is not a first nations government. Consultation or engagement with the AFN does not replace or fulfill the crown's duty to consult and accommodate treaty and rights holders where their rights may be infringed. To date, first nations have not been engaged or consulted on any of the changes to the environmental and resource development regime proposed within Bill C-38. This opens the crown to future risk and will have numerous and likely unintended consequences.
The stated intention of these legislative and associated regulatory changes has been said to improve the timeliness and efficiency of environmental regulations and project assessments. In its current form, part 3 of C-38 clearly represents a derogation of established and asserted first nations rights. If enacted, it will increase the time, costs, and effort for all parties and governments, as first nations will take every opportunity to challenge these provisions.
There are a number specific concerns, Mr. Chair, with the changes proposed in part 3 of C-38, which I will outline.
As I know you're aware, C-38 changes the scope and purpose of the Fisheries Act to the protection of fish that supports commercial, recreational, or aboriginal fisheries. Previously the act had prohibited “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat”. The proposed change prohibits “serious harm to fish”, defined as “the death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat”.
I come from a fishing people, the Nuu-chah-nulth, as I said, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
[Witness speaks in Nuu-chah-nulth]
In my language, core principles that we govern ourselves and live by are how our people manage aquatic resources within our respective territories. These words in my language describe an understanding about the interconnectedness of all life forms, that nothing is isolated from other aspects of life around it and within it—in essence, the ecosystem. These principles are the basis for respect for ourselves, others, and nature. In managing aquatic resources, these values bring respect for the oneness between humans and the environment and respect for all other life forms. Our obligation is to sustainably manage all aquatic life forms that exist, regardless of their perceived economic value.
The balance of resources in habitats is one that changes over time, and this is something well-known to first nations. However, only enabling the protection of aquatic species once there is certainty of their demise or permanent destruction of their habitats is likely too late and will not restore the necessary balance for their sustainability.
Specifically, C-38 would remove protection for fish habitat from the Fisheries Act and enable the minister to create regulations allowing for the deposit of deleterious substances. This may leave fish species and habitats vulnerable to destruction and prevent first nations from continued enjoyment of their constitutionally protected right to fish.
I feel strongly that first nations have a shared vision with all Canadians, particularly for clean water. Our watersheds provide us life, food, and health. Bill C-38 clouds that vision by creating new political discretion to poison our waters by changing section 36 of the Fisheries Act. Instead of allowing deleterious deposits to destroy our water, we must fulfill our inherent obligation as responsible stewards of the environment.
Changes to the Fisheries Act will also reduce federal decision-making about fisheries management, the effect of which will be to narrow the triggers to consult and accommodate first nations, thereby reducing the federal obligation. First nations will vigorously oppose any attempts by the crown to erode or evade lawful obligations and responsibilities to first nations, which leads to an important element regarding the honour of the crown being called into question.
The CEAA last underwent a legislative review prior to Supreme Court decisions that established the duty to consult and accommodate. The sequence here is very important to point out. It has never been updated to operationalize the duty to consult and accommodate. In this regard, Mr. Chair, CEAA 2012 is a step backward.
Under the current CEAA, projects with minor environmental effects may have profound effects on first nations' rights, which triggers the duty to consult and accommodate. CEAA 2012 ends environmental assessments for minor projects currently referred to as “screenings”.
In addition, CEAA 2012 will continue substitution of provincial environmental assessments for the federal process as well as deem equivalency of such processes, which would exempt CEAA 2012 from further application.
The government is correct to note that where relationships with first nations, provinces, and the federal government have already been established, such as the Mi'kmaq-Nova Scotia-Canada consultation process, substitution in those cases may work well. But this also raises significant concerns, and it could very well lead to more situations that I know many are familiar with, such as the Prosperity Mine project in the interior of British Columbia, which was approved through the provincial environmental assessment process but subsequently rejected following more stringent federal review.
This also invokes for many first nations—for those of you familiar with the situation across the Prairies—the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement, or NRTA, of 1930. This was a unilateral agreement between Canada and the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta to transfer resources and lands that were never ceded or surrendered by way of treaty by the first nations—another major impact.
The impact of the NRTA has been to lesson the scope and implementation of the numbered treaties in the Prairies, and it is a source of continued and ongoing conflict and litigation over 80 years later. This is about all of us, and for Canada, learning from history. This is what the recent crown gathering was an effort to reflect on, and to do much better going forward. First nations will not stand for such unilateral actions and will take all avenues available to them to prevent further derogation of their rights.
The increase in discretionary powers afforded to the minister within the Fisheries Act and the number of cabinet decisions under CEAA 2012 and the National Energy Board Act will severely impair transparency and accountability to first nations. The broad restrictions around cabinet confidences will mean first nations will find it increasingly difficult to know how the government considered first nations rights when developing accommodation measures. This too compromises the crown's ability to discharge its duty to consult and accommodate first nations and is an area for clear challenge.
Finally, on the issue of timeframes established for first nations to respond to notices under CEAA 2012 and the National Energy Board Act, they are insufficient, not allowing adequate time for appropriate review, analysis, and response. It's unreasonable to provide first nations with only 20 days to provide comprehensive scientific and legal materials related to assessing the potential impacts of a project. Any notices under CEAA, NEB, or the Fisheries Act related to development, authorizations, regulations, or policies must be sent directly to communities in an accessible form. The use of online notices limits first nations participation and is therefore insufficient to fulfill the crown's duty to consult with first nations.
While the government has an established legal duty to consult and accommodate first nations under Bill C-38, part 3, as well as any regulations developed under the authority of the act and any new policies created to interpret the act, such consultations have not yet taken place.
Numerous organizations in addition to the Assembly of First Nations, including MKO, in Manitoba, and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, have all registered protest to the CEA agency's call for public comments on regulations to be developed under CEAA 2012, which had a deadline of May 23, 2012.
Paragraph 62(h) of the CEAA and paragraph 105(g) of the CEAA 2012 state that one of the objectives is to consult with first nations. However, to be clear, there's been no identification of a process for funding for such consultations to take place.
In conclusion, Canada, in our view, needs to take a step back and reconsider its approach. Hastily moving forward on significant and broad changes that will impact the exercise of established and asserted rights by first nations will have long-reaching and expensive consequences, contrary to the interest in moving in this direction.
Taking time to work with first nations jointly on resource management and protection plans will achieve far better outcomes in terms of certainty and increased prosperity, and we have many examples we can point to. This is the spirit in which, as I said earlier, we participated in the crown-first nations gathering, and it's in this spirit of a renewed and respectful relationship that we urge Canada to proceed.
We have the following three recommendations:
Part 3 of Bill C-38 needs to be withdrawn to take the time to work with first nations to ensure their rights and interests are reflected and will not be compromised through such legislation. Failing that, I would recommend that the legislative amendments in part 3 be separated from the main bill to ensure appropriate study and amendments can take place with engagement and input from first nations.
Specific funding allocations should be made to engage and consult with first nations on CEAA 2012, amendments to the Fisheries Act, amendments to other legislation within part 3 of the act, regulations under the amendments, and any new policies relevant to the interpretation of amendments to new or existing environmental regulation.
Finally, any and all notices provided with regard to project reviews must be sent directly to first nations.
Bill C-38 unacceptably impacts first nations' rights. While I've been speaking about fish tonight, really I'm talking about the lifeblood that connects all of us, and that's our waterways, our watersheds.
I will close on that notion that we not forget about the need for a vision going forward to achieve pristine water in our country.