Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise to speak to this particular bill.
I have had the privilege of living and working in Canada's north. This would provide yet another opportunity for other Canadians to travel to the north and not just learn about the richness of the beauty of the land, the wildlife, and the rushing rivers but also to meet with and get to know the first nations and Métis communities of our north.
I am pleased that the government is finally moving forward with the establishment of this park reserve. I am hopeful that it will soon be an actual national park, not just a park reserve. We shall see.
I am rising in support of Bill S-5, Nááts’ihch’oh national park reserve act. I understand it will be going to committee. I am hopeful that the government members of the committee will allow for as many people as possible to come forward who would like to speak to the matter.
That would certainly include the first nations and Métis people and other residents of the Northwest Territories, potentially those who think they might benefit from the tourism development, those who are concerned about the fate of grizzly bears and other threatened species and what might be necessary for the government to commit to actually making this happen.
This park reserve, like many, has been a long time in coming. My previous experience with the designation of parks in the north was during my tenure as the assistant deputy minister for renewable resources in Yukon. During that tenure, I had the privilege of working with first nations and Métis peoples in the negotiation of the first nation final agreements, a huge part of which was always the rights and interests of the aboriginal peoples of the north and how they could benefit from the settlement of those claims.
I sat in on many of those negotiations, which included the potential for designation of park boundaries. Among the more contentious issues was what happens when a national park is established. There can be a lot of benefits that come with the creation of a national park or a national park reserve, but it also means that some people might lose out.
In the case of this situation, as the member for Northwest Territories addressed very clearly, there has been some contention about the boundaries for this park and how much land would actually be set aside.
Typical to a lot of these discussions, particularly in the north where resource extraction is only just beginning, there is always the contention about whether or not there are pre-existing rights and interests that have been filed, or whether or not they might be filed in the future.
Clearly that was also part of the discussion about setting the actual boundaries for the setting aside of the Nááts’ihch’oh national park reserve.
There is also the issue of when the first nations may have rights or have previous rights, and it is always at the table. The Sahtu people had already finalized the first nations final agreement, so a lot of the decisions had already been made about the lands that were allotted to them and what might occur.
It is my understanding that all along, during the course of those negotiations and then also as negotiations continued on the establishment of this park reserve, they wanted to make sure that they might have rights and opportunities continued in this park.
To the credit of past governments, there have been some exceptions made. Certainly there were in Kluane National Park and Reserve. In that agreement they made some exceptions to what had happened normally in national parks.
We can recall in our history that, when Banff National Park and Jasper National Park were created, we basically booted the Métis and first nation peoples out of those parks. In fact, they have become the forgotten peoples. After the park was created, all we had was the heritage photos of when they used to have powwows.
Now, to the credit of the government, there have been arrangements made so that the first nation peoples can actually continue some activities and benefit from the establishment and development of this park.
As has been mentioned, this park, which is to be situated on the northern one-sixth of the South Nahanni River watershed, would cover almost 5,000 square kilometres. As has been mentioned previously, there was a lot of support for a slightly larger park, but I will speak later about why it was a matter of contention.
Most significantly, this park would be situated by and large within the Tulita district of the Sahtu settlement area, and as I mentioned, this area has long been recommended for protection by the Sahtu during the course of the negotiation process. The creation of this national park reserve has long been supported not only by the Sahtu but also by the Dene and the Métis peoples of the Northwest Territories.
In 2012, an impact benefits agreement was entered into between the Government of Canada and the Sahtu, Dene, and the Métis. I am advised that discussions were also held with the Tulita Renewable Resource Council, which I understand was established under that first nation final agreement.
It is important to understand what that agreement signed onto in 2012 provided for. It acknowledged the right to continue the aboriginal harvest. Clearly, that was recognizing the prior existing rights of the aboriginal peoples in that area.
Second, it provides for co-operative management. The agreement was already made, pre-existing the creation of this national park reserve, that whatever would be created would provide for co-operative management between Parks Canada and the first nation and Métis peoples.
Third, under that agreement, the government guaranteed economic opportunities to the signatory communities, including contract work.
Also, there was an undertaking in 2012 to build in the Tulita community a national park office and a tourist reception centre.
As we heard when the member for the Northwest Territories spoke in this place, similar kinds of promises were made when there was the expansion of the Nahanni National Park in 2008, the first year I was elected. As I recall, I was NDP environment critic and was at committee when we discussed that agreement. I am very disappointed to hear that still those undertakings to build those facilities have not occurred. We can only hope that this time around the government will move more expeditiously on delivering on these undertakings.
Finally, under that impact and benefits agreement, there was an undertaking to build housing for the park workers, that those would be built by the local tradespeople, and that it would ensure at least eight local full-time jobs. So here are some very specific undertakings, and we look forward to those being delivered for the benefit of the northern peoples.
When I asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment if any of these undertakings had been delivered on two years later, he replied that it is under discussion, or they will, or in other words, in the future. I repeat here again my concern. We are not simply talking about undertakings that might be in accordance with the bill that is before us—in other words, at a future point in time if the bill passes through committee and through this place and is agreed to. The point is that in 2012 the government already committed to take these actions and we have not seen any action yet.
It is clear that we do not have to await the final passage and proclamation of the bill. The government has already committed to those activities. It is clear that on the government side of the House members already committed to the creation of this park, to their credit. However, are they also committed to living up to the commitments they made in 2012? We hope so.
Also apparently under this 2012 agreement, the government committed to $1.2 million annually for an operational budget for the park and $50,000 per year for capital investments in Tulita. I guess the question will be to the government to respond. I look forward to Conservatives informing me following my speech of whether or not they have already begun to deliver some of these dollars. Clearly, if the creation of the park may be imminent, if any of the members in this place have ever spent time or lived and worked in the north, they know that there is a very short construction period and it would be great if we moved more expeditiously on creating those jobs in the north.
One thing is not clear to me, and it may well be under the 2012 agreement. One of the reasons the government members have given for why it is important to create this particular park reserve is that the current government is committed to the protection of threatened species, one of which in this area, apparently, is the grizzly bear. I guess we will all be looking toward future budgets. We know there have been ongoing cuts to the environment department and so there is less federal money there to actually act and protect threatened species.
I look forward to looking to the budget update and the budget next year to see if in fact there will be additional money; particularly, to create jobs in the north, where first nation and Métis people, many of whom are technically trained, work side by side with Canadian wildlife scientists on actually tracking the grizzly, verifying what the population is now and what needs to be done in the future to ensure that we protect this population within the park.
We certainly know from experience with the parks that already exist in Canada—certainly I know this from the parks in Alberta, particularly, in Jasper and Banff—that we are losing our grizzlies because of trains and because of traffic. I personally, so many times, have witnessed, to my chagrin, trucks and cars racing 20 or 30 kilometres above the speed limit where there is wildlife on the roads. Also, we have the problem where wildlife will interact with people who are visiting the parks.
It will be really important that Parks Canada also work very closely with the people of the north on defining the strategy to ensure we can attract tourism and, at the same time, protect these threatened species.
As my colleague the member for Northwest Territories has pointed out in this place, very clearly, very cogently, creation of parks is not a waste of resources. It actually helps to generate wealth for the country. It creates wealth for us because it actually can create tourism jobs.
However, in order to do that, we actually need to invest in and support those who want to enter into that trade; many of those include tour operators. It is not easy to set up those operations. I know from my experience in Yukon that, in many cases, while there was an absolute right for the first nations to participate in some of those outfitting jobs of taking tourists out, they simply did not step up because they did not have the training, and they need encouragement.
I think it is a really important point. I am very concerned that the government is cutting back on tourism dollars. Frankly, I am even more concerned with the cutbacks to Parks Canada.
We hear this over and over again from Canadians and Canadian organizations that watch what is going on in national parks; and it is very serious that we cut the budget in 2012 to Parks Canada by $29 million, over 7% of the budget, eliminating 638 positions.
If we are creating yet more parks where we can say, “I'm the Government of Canada; I created three new parks”, we also have to ensure that what it is doing is ensuring it is continuing to manage properly and protect the parks we already have and the parks of the future.
I just wanted to speak on that issue again, and that goes to the choices that were put before the government and the options of what they set forward.
As the member for the Northwest Territories clarified for us, there were three options presented.
As I understand, these were the options presented to the community considering the park and also to the public, asking what they thought should occur.
As I understand, almost 93% of Canadians who took the time to respond in this consultation process wanted to go with the larger size of the park.
Now, why is that? It is because the information they were provided was that we need that amount of acreage or hectares to actually deliver on the intent of the park. I presume that also includes sufficient habitat for the grizzly, who actually travel long distances and need that much for harvesting and so forth.
I have worked a lot on the protection of watersheds. It is important that we not just set aside the Nahanni Park, but that we also set aside and protect the watershed that serves the Nahanni River so it can continue into the future.
I, too, share with my colleague from the Northwest Territories, and the Canadians who responded, the deep disappointment at the decision of the government, presumably for the protection of mining extraction, to narrow the scope of this park. That is not a sizeable difference, but still there obviously was some kind of a rational reason for setting that size originally.
I share with those who have said that the tourism industry is important to our country. My own province suffers when tourists come to Canada. When the rest of the world was severely suffering in the recession, Europe, the United States and Asia, less people were coming to our national parks. It is important that the federal government, in partnership with the territorial government and with the bordering provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, put in dollars to help promote the northern parks and to encourage people to visit Canada. Our national parks, and the people who look after them, are probably the best emissaries that we have for our Canadian reputation.