Mr. Speaker, it can be seen from the number of people present that aboriginal and northern questions are extremely exciting. I hope that our viewers exceed the number of members in the House.
At any rate, since aboriginal issues are always characterized by their technicalities, I think that the Bill we have before us today is also characterized by its technicalities, the first one probably being that one may well wonder why the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the official opposition critic for Indian affairs are discussing a bill on natural resources like gold and quartz in the Yukon.
The two would appear to be irreconcilable at first glance, unless one takes a minute to think about the department name, which I would remind you, Mr. Speaker, includes the words Northern Development. So, automatically, everything north of the 49th parallel falls under that department's jurisdiction. That is why today the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, and myself as critic find ourselves the key figures in the debate.
But the bill is also characterized by other technical details such as the environment and natural resources. A consensus and compromise were, moreover reached on this by my colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois who sit on the environment and natural resources committees. Finally, I am admitting to you that we will support the bill, but I shall return to that in my conclusion.
I am particularly interested in what is going on in the Yukon. As you know, there are several ways to manage a portfolio like Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Personally, I subscribe to hands on experience; like many others, I love to go there and share people's experiences.
When any bill is introduced on a given part of the country, you will have a better sense of things if you have travelled and seen the people and the countryside. I think the bill before us imposes a few more environmental constraints on open pit or underground mining. I think I am in a position today to describe what I saw there.
Since 1994, since we arrived in this House, we have passed bills on the Yukon dealing with, among other things, government autonomy and territorial claims. I made friends at the time and I was pleased to see them again in the Yukon a few weeks after these bills were passed. I must say the trip to the Yukon was absolutely extraordinary.
An effort should be made to manage the environmental issue there a little better. Not only are there flora and fauna I have never seen, but nature is still wild there. I went out on the Yukon River and caught a 20-pound salmon there. And no this is no fisherman's tale. The native people really took me fishing. We even ate our catch that evening. It was an absolutely sensational traditional native meal with moose and caribou in addition to the salmon we caught.
I have a lot of friends in the Yukon. The countryside is astounding. You have to see the river. There is almost no pollution, because places are so far away that there is no ever present pollution like on the St. Lawrence, for example. The river water is from glaciers and is both crystalline and deep green.
We must strive to protect those parts of the country that make it rich, not only because of the landscape and the wildlife, but above all because of the people who live there. I was pleased to meet them and I am better able to speak about Bill C-6 and to express what I feel because I have been there and made friends there.
I took some notes since it is always important to have reference points. The Yukon covers an area greater than that of France. Onle 28,000 people live there, so you can imagine the open spaces. I admire immensely the people who took part in the gold rush in the Yukon in the Klondike days. Once, I took off from Whitehorse and flew two hours due north. That was the Klondike, that was Dawson City.
One must recognize the merit of people who went there in order to become rich, to find millions of dollars in gold. It was physically very demanding and it deserves to be recognized.
When we remember that the Yukon is as big as France, and compare France's population to the Yukon's, we soon realize how big it is and how few inhabitants there are per square kilometre.
In 1898, the Yukon became a separate territory. The commissioner as well as six members of the Commission were appointed by the government. It is only in 1908 that all these people became elected representatives. The end of World War II also meant the end of the gold rush. The rush to the Klondike really happened around the turn of the century and fizzled out toward the end of the war.
At that time, thousands of immigrants went to the Yukon. Native people were a majority then, but with the influx of immigrants in the mid 1940s, at the end of the war, they became a minority.
Today, as we speak, native people account for only 23 per cent of the population. It is still a lot. I do not want to overlook that, especially as I noticed that native people and white people get along well there. Mind you, on a territory that big, you do not meet
your neighbour every day, and you do not step on each other's toes every time you go out the door. On such a vast territory, chances are the neighbour will be far away.
However, from what I saw in Whitehorse, relations between the white people and the natives are very good; after all, there are 28,000 people in the Yukon Territory, which is not many given the size of the area.
So there is a territorial administration. Naturally, the federal government kept some fiduciary responsibilities toward the native people but there is a Yukon government which manages social services, the development of small and medium size businesses, education, tourism and renewable resources.
The federal government is responsible for the native people themselves and for nonrenewable resources. Therefore, mines, oil and gas remain under federal jurisdiction. Furthermore, almost 60 per cent of the transfers and grants forming the territory's budget come from Ottawa. Thus, the participation of Ottawa is extremely important.
What is Bill C-6, which is before the House today, meant to do? It seeks to amend both the Yukon Quartz Mining Act, dating from 1924 and concerning rock mining, of course, and the Yukon Placer Mining Act, which has been in force since 1906.
When I started reading the summary of the bill, I looked for the Translation of placer and realized that we have the same word in French. I was very happy to add the word to my vocabulary. The French word "placer" means a gold deposit. Expanding one's vocabulary is always interesting.
One must understand that, in those days, environmental issues came far behind economic concerns. At the time, prospecting for gold was closer to an art than a science. People would head for the streams with their sifter. They would keep the little gold nuggets and throw away the rocks. The scenery is extraordinary up there. The midnight sun is something incredible. I had never seen it. I went to Dawson City, the Klondike town, and was taken to the mountain called Midnight Dome. From there the midnight sun is truly an incredible sight.
However, when you look down you also see a lunar landscape around the Midnight Dome. It was caused by reckless development. Piles of earth were left there and completely spoil the scenery.
It is easy to see that, at the time, the environment was not at all a concern, unlike today. The bill before us seeks to promote a behaviour that is more respectful of nature than in those days. At the time, people were just not concerned about the environment. They were concerned about finding gold. The land was so vast and so sparsely populated that people did not care. Today, we have to care.
These two acts do not include environmental protection measures. However, the requirements regarding development are such that they are tantamount to environmental protection measures.
One of the main features of the act is the establishment of a link between the previous acts and the Yukon Waters Act. In the past, several acts were implemented in an attempt to control development in the Yukon, including the Yukon Waters Act.
All the changes that will be introduced through Bill C-6 will now come under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Thus we see that the intent is good on the part of the legislator. That is why that after the consultations we had, we might receive some slight recriminations or grievances that we will try to review with my colleague in the standing committee. But we would certainly say that on the whole, this piece of legislation is a worthwhile effort. There is a system to approve various classes.
I mentioned that there was no environmental protection, but there are indeed now various classes, and my colleague listed them earlier, which will require some approval and which will help discipline the operation as such for a better protection of the environment.
Thus, class I activities require no preliminary approval but must comply with existing regulation. So there is a first small problem. The regulation was explained to us yesterday through a briefing held by the Indian affairs department, and of course we did not have time to get into it in depth today. We worked at it for part of the day, but the regulation is rather complex and moreover somewhat random and arbitrary. Let me explain.
Among other things, about class I activities, the bill says that a class I program may include activities going beyond the parameters set out above. A camp can be used throughout the calendar year, but never by more than five people at a time, for a total of 150 days per person. If this condition is met, no approval will have to be requested, and the regulations will have been complied with.
But why five people? Why not six or ten? Eventually, we will have to do our homework a little bit more seriously, and scrutinize the regulations, because the bill before us simply says that a class I program will have to comply with the regulation. But the regulation has not been made yet. It is being prepared. As we could see yesterday, 13 drafts have been prepared. We have been given the most recent one, which was completed last week. So there is still a bit of work to be done on the regulations, and we will examine this further later on.
I would like to give you one more example. It is about the construction and permanent use of storage facilities for no more than 5,000 litres of petroleum fuels. For a single container of petroleum fuels, the volume is 2,000 litres. Here again, we have specifications, but I would like to know why 5,000 and not 10,000 or 3,000. This seems to be rather arbitrary, and we did not have time to look at the rationale. I think we will have time to dig a little deeper during the coming weeks, both in committee and at third reading.
Class I activities also include the deforestation of a strip of land not exceeding 1.5 metres in width, the development of a corridor not exceeding 5 metres in width, the excavation of a volume not exceeding 400 metres per placer per year. I just wanted to give you an idea of what is included in each category, because the principle is the following: when you go from class I to class II, the regulations get a little stricter. Also, class II activities require prior notification being given to a federal authority. Class III activities require the advance submission and approval of an operating plan. So, as you can see, the bigger the operations are, the stricter the regulations become.
The regulations in relation to class IV activities are certainly the most demanding because they require the advance submission and approval of an operating plan and also public consultation. For those who are more interested in the economic issues than in the environmental issues, public consultations have become a pet peeve, because it only takes three or four people who object for the project to be questioned. So, class IV activities certainly involve large scale projects requiring public consultation, which means a lot more preparation work for the people who develop the resources to be able to provide the required information to the environmental groups and all those who would want to take a critical look at the class IV activities.
The bill before us did not appear overnight like magic. In fact, we checked and found that consultations were made. In 1990, an advisory committee on the Yukon mining industry was created.
As you know, the issue was a concern to developers as well as to natives and environmentalists in the Yukon. For them, the issue was theirs. There was no way Ottawa or the Yukon government could tell them what to do.
Since they wanted a purely Yukon solution, they gathered together a certain number of interesting people, including the president of the advisory committee, a businessman. The Chamber of Mines was part of the advisory committee. There was also the Klondike Placer Mining Operators Association, the First Nations Council which represents, as you know, 14 communities. A nation and a community are not the same thing, because a nation is often composed of many communities.
This time, it was 14 communities of Yukon native peoples represented by one tribal council, and there are 14 communities in the Yukon. Another member of the advisory committee was the Conserver Society. The Yukon government was there, naturally, as well as the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
Consultations were held. It always difficult for us to determine if the consultations were adequate. Even with all the people I just mentioned, were there enough consultations? Did we take all the necessary steps to let them all have their say?
Maybe not. Indeed, representatives of the Yukon first nations made representations and came to meet me about two weeks ago. They told me that they had some difficulty in following the process. They did not participate in all of the meetings, not because they did not want to, but because, as they told me, they were not given all the necessary support to do so. The meetings did not always take place in the delegated chief's community. I will enumerate the 14 Yukon nations in a few moments.
Some come from Northern Yukon, others from Southern Yukon. When the meetings were scheduled in Whitehorse, as was often the case because most of the people I mentioned have their headquarters in that city, the Yukon's capital, it was not easy for people from the North to be there. The natives told us that, unfortunately, they received little support from the governments to facilitate their presence in the consultative committee meetings.
We were also assured by Indian Affairs officials that the bill is consistent with the land claims in the Yukon and with the self-government clauses that have been signed or will be signed.
Government officials reassured us by saying that, in terms of the environment, in terms of the categories and in terms of development, there was no contradiction with what was given to the Yukon First Nations as far as self-government or land claims were concerned.
We still have some checking to do because, as my colleague mentioned, this exercise has not been completed yet. Four native communities in the Yukon have signed land claims and self-government agreements.
They are the Gwitchin Vuntut, the Champagne and Aishihik, the Nacho Nyak Dun and the Tlingits from the Teslin area, who signed in 1994. They were all here in the gallery and I was happy to salute them at the time. They had been negotiating for 21 years.
They told us that their fathers and their grandfathers had started these negotiations, and I recall that applause was prohibited in the gallery. I think that the guards at the time were understanding and
allowed these people to express their happiness at a settlement after 21 years of negotiations.
We must now see not only whether Bill C-6 before us today is in their interests, but also whether it will have an impact on them. And I would also remind you that negotiations are still outstanding in ten cases. I do not know the size or date of a final settlement for these nations, but they are still awaiting a final settlement on their land claims and their right to self-government.
Among others, I see that Dawson First Nation is in Dawson City, which used to be the capital of the Klondike. I mentioned it earlier, and I also told you about the Midnight Dome, but I could also tell you about the casino that used to feature the Folies Bergères back then. I do not know whether my colleague had the chance to visit, but it is truly a glimpse into the past. The streets are unpaved and the casino is a very popular place. The hotels are also authentic. I myself had a drink with my native friends in the local saloon. It is just as it was at the beginning of the century, really something.
Half of the city belongs to Heritage Canada, which is anxious to preserve this considerable heritage. There is even a wonderful theatre, which is rather like today's versions. There are even boxes for those who had been more successful in their prospecting than others and could afford to rent a box for the whole year, close to the stage, while the poor devil who had had bad luck finding gold had to settle for being way at the back. The same values applied in Dawson City at the turn of the century. There was also a First Nation there, one which would certainly have to be consulted first of all, in order to determine the impact of Bill C-6, for it is on their land that nature has been the most ravaged by gold and quartz mining.
As well there were other First Nations: Kwanlin Dun and Silkirk, Carmacks-Little Salmon, Ta'an Kwach'an, Ross River, Carcross, White River, Liard, the Kluane Council, all of whom are on the path to self government and are involved in as yet incompletely settled land claims.
So, even though we are aware of the legislator's intent, which is to put a little more discipline in place on the mining industry in order to protect the environment, I think that the Bloc Quebecois will make it its duty to keep a watchful eye and to check with all those people on the true impact of Bill C-6. If necessary, we will look at the regulations and ensure that everything is done properly.
We also have environmental concerns. We are in contact with the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Board, which is in the Yukon and is primarily concerned that the bill will provide for costs in the event of bad land management. If, in category II or III, for example, a plan was not followed and damage has been done to nature, the people will eventually have to pay.
The bill provides that people deposit a certain sum of money in advance, so it is available in the event of damage. In the past, companies left the environment in a terrible state when they left. The Yukon Fish and Wildlife Board does not think the money operators are required to put down before they start is enough.
The board recommends that operators in activity category (e) put down a security deposit equal to the cost of returning the site to its original state. This is what I wanted to say not just for category I but for all the other categories. They are not asking for a sum equivalent to the danger involved, but they are asking for a little more than the bill provides, or at least a chunk of it, so that, if disaster happens, the money provided by private enterprise, rather than society, is used for the clean up or for the damage caused.
I am briefly summarizing the bill. We consider it a significant improvement over existing laws, particularly as concerns environmental regulations. I believe I dealt with it extensively.
At the time, shameful exploitation was going on. The environment was not a concern then, it did not matter. Nowadays, it does. The intent of the legislator is to improve the situation, we do agree.
As I said, this bill did not come out of the blue. The result before us today is the result of a consultation process conducted by a committee whose membership I mentioned. Some members complained, probably for not having being able to attend as often as they would have liked.
However, one must admit that on the face of it, the result seems to be the result of a compromise. I say it again, the intent of the legislator was to have a consultation process, which can be criticized, but for the time being we see the result as a compromise.
Environmental and native groups seem to think that we did not consult sufficiently. This cannot be checked easily. We still have more consultations to do. There could have been some deficiencies regarding the consultation process, but would that justify questioning the whole bill? Today, we answer no. We feel that, as the intent is to protect the environment a little more, it is important to let the bill progress.
In committee and during third reading, we could propose amendments to satisfy all the interested parties from the Yukon.
The Standing committee must hear the representative groups to ensure an adequate legislation. Up to now, about ten groups have requested to appear before the committee, I think. I am not one of those who say right away that everyone will be heard. We may have to pay more attention to those who already have grievances. As for placers and mining companies, we have already received letters of
support saying: "As far as we are concerned, the bill is perfectly adequate".
Where there are problems, we will listen to what people have to say and, if necessary, we will make changes. This is what the legislative process is about. This is the purpose of the three readings. This is why standing committees review legislation. The purpose of the process is precisely to improve the bills before us. We have to take the time and use the resources to make these people welcome and listen to what they have to say.
As far as consultations are concerned, if there is a need for further consultations in committee or otherwise, the limited financial resources of First Nations should be taken into account. It is always a problem.
It is not easy to tell people from the Yukon: "Come before the Indian affairs committee in two or three weeks". It costs money and, usually, these expenses are not entirely paid for by the committee. The native people have some difficulty and, after listening to them, we realized that maybe that is what caused a problem with consultations in the Yukon. It required so much time and such financial resources that these people had difficulty following the tempo of the consultation committee.
In the next stages, namely the committee and third reading stages, we will have an opportunity to hear from them and we will see what they have to say.
In conclusion, the Bloc Quebecois will vote in favour of Bill C-6 at second reading stage, but we still want to hear representations from all the groups that wish to appear before the standing committee.
I think that once we have heard these people, fulfilled our duty as legislators, taken into account all of the representations, complaints and recommendations and we made all appropriate efforts to improve the bill as necessary, it must be remembered that Bill C-6 shows the government's good intentions. The Bloc Quebecois supports Bill C-6 for now, except for the small reservations we mentioned. At second reading stage, the Bloc Quebecois will endorse Bill C-6.