Mr. Speaker, as the member of Parliament for Yukon, it gives me a great deal of pride to stand here today and speak in support of Bill S-6, the Yukon and Nunavut regulatory improvement act.
No doubt we will touch on this through some of the questions that are asked, but the member from the Western Arctic rose in the House to talk about public hearings and by implication was making the suggestion that I as a member of Parliament for Yukon have not had public consultation, simply by defining it as a public hearing. I can certainly say that since being elected in 2011, I have met with stakeholders, be those first nations or chiefs individually or as a collective group; with industry as stakeholders, or individuals from it; with government folks; and with citizens.
I heard my colleague from Labrador talking earlier in her address about talking to people in grocery stores. In small northern communities, a lot of time that is how discussions and consultations bear fruit. It is by informal discussions where we take the opportunity to meet with people. We give them the time, hear their concerns, provide them with information on the bills and things that are moving forward in Parliament, and we note their concerns and bring them forward. I have always had the opportunity to bring those concerns forward to any minister on any of the topics.
Before I begin to talk about the specifics of the bill, I want to acknowledge and thank the Yukon first nations leadership, who have come all the way to Ottawa. They have travelled very far to be here to participate and hear members of Parliament from all sides of the House speak about this important bill and the topics that we are here to debate.
I am also pleased that they recognize the importance of this legislation to first nation communities. It was great to have met with many of them this morning alongside the minister and to hear their concerns directly.
Many of those concerns I have heard through the evolution of the bill. For months now, we have had the opportunity to talk about some of the direct concerns they have and talk about some of the changes in Bill S-6 that actually are beneficial and that we have found consensus on and want to move forward with.
I believe the meeting was productive this morning. It is always great to hear concerns, of course, in true northern tradition and in Canadian tradition.
As the minister pointed out in the House, we may not always agree, but we always respect each other's views, and it is clear that we share the same desire for a prosperous, healthy, and sustainable territory that will benefit all Yukoners, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike.
Bill S-6 would amend the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, commonly referred to as YESAA, which would impact all Yukoners. For the benefit of any colleagues who may not be familiar with the legislation, YESAA governs the environmental and socio-economic assessment process in our territory. The intent of the legislation is to protect and promote the well-being of Yukon first nations persons and their communities and Yukon residents generally, as well as the interests of other Canadians.
Just as importantly, the legislation also seeks to protect the environmental and social integrity of the Yukon while fostering responsible development in the territory that reflects the values of Yukoners and respects the contributions of first nations.
When YESAA was first put in place in 2003, as required under the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement, it was considered state of the art. In concert with devolution, it has certainly served our territory well. I attribute this success to several factors.
First, YESAA respects the co-management structure of the Umbrella Final Agreement among Yukon first nations and governments of Canada and Yukon. This means that the interests of all parties are taken into consideration during the decision-making process.
In addition, the federal government provides significant funds annually to Yukon first nations government to participate in the YESAA process. Last year alone, Yukon first nations received $1.7 million to participate in the process, and YESAA itself received $5.7 million to conduct its important work.
Perhaps most importantly, as a result of devolution Yukoners now have greater control over their own resources and decision-making, and the impact of this control can be profound.
Yukon's unemployment rate is well below the national average. Even more impressive, our territory has had nine consecutive years of real GDP growth. That is primarily due to private sector investments, especially in the mining sector.
As proud as a Yukoner must be with this progress, the current system does require improvement in order to ensure that Yukon remains an attractive and competitive place for investment. However, as a result of regulatory improvements in other Canadian jurisdictions, Yukon now runs the risk of lagging behind. The premier of our territory stated, we desire to ensure that the Yukon continues to be a progressive and responsible place to invest and to do business and an even better place to live.
Bill S-6 proposes reasoned and practical amendments to YESAA following nearly seven years of consultation. These amendments would not only ensure the territory remains competitive in comparison with other jurisdictions in Canada but would also strengthen environmental protection standards.
Under YESAA currently, every single project that requires permitting in Yukon must go through an assessment before a project receives the green light to proceed, including changes to existing projects. This includes everything from a septic tank to a winter road to subdivisions to larger projects like placer mining or projects in copper, gold, and ore mines.
The legislation would also establish the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, or YESAB, which is responsible for conducting these assessments and providing recommendations that would eliminate or mitigate significant adverse effects. Depending upon the proposed project's size, type, and complexity, an assessment can take place at three different levels.
The first is the designated office evaluation. The majority of assessments are conducted in the six community-based designated offices. which that are located in Dawson City, Haines Junction, Mayo, Teslin, Watson Lake, and Whitehorse.
The second process can be an executive committee screening. The executive committee of the board will assess larger projects that are submitted to it directly or are referred to it by a designated office.
Third is review by a panel of the board. A panel of the board may be established to assess projects that, for instance, have the potential to have significant adverse effects, are likely to cause significant public concern, or involve the use of controversial technology.
Thus far, a panel review has never taken place in Yukon.
In 2013 and 2014, a total of 165 projects were submitted for assessment; of those, 163 were reviewed by a designated office and two were subject to an executive committee screening. Many of these projects were related to community infrastructure projects, such as roads, residential development, water, and waste sites.
In 2013-14, the Whitehorse designated office, as an example, assessed 26 projects. Land development made up approximately half of the submissions, followed by utility, which made up a quarter of the submissions. Other submissions were related to solid and contaminated waste, geotechnical investigations, forestry, and scientific research. The remaining projects were related to industrial and commercial mining or energy projects.
Unfortunately, it seems as though some confusion has arisen with respect to some of these amendments. Let me deal with a couple of these head-on.
Amendments in Bill S-6 would not in any detract from the board's independence. YESAB would remain an impartial and independent arm's-length entity responsible for making recommendations to decision bodies. A decision body is set out in the legislation and can be a federal, territorial, or first nation or agency that regulates and permits the proposed activity. A decision body can accept, reject, or vary a YESAB recommendation. It would not change the fact that YESAB is a co-managed process wherein first nation participation is guaranteed through having one of three members on the executive committee and three of seven members of the YESA Board, nor does anything in Bill S-6 deviate from the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement or infringe upon aboriginal or treaty rights.
The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development addressed this concern this morning when he spoke to the committee. He said that there is absolutely no justification for this concern, because the Yukon umbrella agreement continues to remain the law of the land.
First nation rights are not diminished at all. In fact, the protection for these rights may be found in five legally constituted documents of Canada: the Constitution, under section 35; the Yukon umbrella agreement; the Yukon First Nations Land Claims Settlement Act; the Yukon devolution transfer agreement; and the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act itself.
This legislation is designed to make common sense amendments to the legislation that arose out of the five-year review of YESAA mandated under the Umbrella Final Agreement. One such amendment would be that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012 would no longer apply in the Yukon. This would ensure that YESAA, which has many of the same features as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012 but was designed especially for the Yukon, would be the only environmental assessment process to apply in our territory.
Another amendment stemming from the five-year review was also to allow a member whose term has expired and who is participating in an executive committee screening or review of a panel or board to continue to act as a member for the purpose of completing the screening or review until the documents are issued.
At the same time, it would strengthen environmental protection by ensuring that designated offices are obligated to consider the need for effects monitoring when conducting an evaluation. It would also allow decision bodies, including first nations, to impose more stringent terms and conditions than required by a YESAA recommendation. Previously, decision bodies could only accept or reject recommendations; now they would be able to modify them by making conditions more stringent.
It would also reduce duplication for project reviews by implementing the principle of a one project, one assessment timeline and would implement several amendments arising out of our government's action plan to improve northern regulatory regimes. It would introduce beginning-to-end time limits for environmental assessments consistent with time limits effective in the Northwest Territories and under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012.
According to the board's annual report, among the designated offices' evaluations, the median number of days spent in the adequacy stage equalled 19 and the median number of days in the seeking views and information stage equalled 20. The total median number of days it took to complete an assessment in 2013-2014 from proposal submitted to recommendation sent, including proponent time, was 55 days. Clearly, in many instances the board is already doing great work in meeting all of these timelines. This is also something that we heard clearly through the consultations.
However, that is not always the case, and Bill S-6 is designed to ensure that all projects are subject to legislated beginning-to-end timelines to ensure consistency across jurisdictions and to provide greater certainty to proponents, aboriginal groups, and governments. This amendment received significant support from Clynton Nauman, president and CEO at Alexco. When he testified at a committee hearing of the Senate, he said:
We support time limits for both the adequacy and assessment stages of the YESAA process. I can give a simple example of Alexco's experience. Over the past five years, Alexco has undergone the environmental assessment process — the YESAA process — four times, specifically for mine development and mine operations purposes.
Another amendment would ensure that approved projects that have not been modified do not need to go through a new environmental assessment for a licence or a permit renewal unless they undergo a significant change. For example, mining projects already granted approval are currently subject to new environmental assessment simply because a water licence or a land authorization needs to be renewed, even where there has been no change at all to the project. This has created an uncertain investment climate and generates significant additional work for all parties involved.
There would be an ability for the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to provide policy direction to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board in order to ensure a common understanding between the government and the board. I would like to emphasize that this legislation specifically states that this power could not be used to influence a decision on a project or restrict or expand the powers of the board. That point is worth reiterating: this part of the legislation would not be used to influence a decision on a project or to restrict or expand the powers of the board.
Finally, the ability of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to delegate certain powers under YESAA to the territorial government supports our northern strategy of improving the devolution of northern governance.
I want to also point out that the amendments we see in the Yukon and Nunavut regulatory improvement act have been enriched by Yukoners' input. The Council of Yukon First Nations and other aboriginal groups were deeply involved in the development of the original YESAA, which came into effect in 2003. They were active participants in the five-year review process that informed the current legislative proposals. The development of the terms of reference for the five-year review began in December 2006 and was completed in April 2008, at which time the review commenced. The cost of the review was just over $650,000, not including federal official time and resources over the five-year review process.
In December 2012, after the completion of the five-year review, the passage of the amendments to CEAA and the announcement of the action plan to improve northern regulatory regimes, the Yukon government requested additional amendments to YESAA to ensure consistency across all regimes, including policy direction and the authority to delegate powers to the territorial minister.
While these amendments were not discussed as part of the five-year review, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada consulted with Yukon first nations in 2013 and 2014. The first draft of Bill S-6 was shared with the Yukon first nations for review and comment in May and June 2013. Formal consultation sessions followed, which provided the opportunity for first nations to learn about the proposed amendments, voice their concerns, and make recommendations on how to improve the proposals.
Feedback that was received informed a subsequent draft of the legislation, which was shared with first nations in February 2014. More consultations and opportunities for written feedback followed. I can confirm that continued opportunities for consultation and written feedback are ongoing to the present day. While there are some significant areas of disagreement, it does not mean that consultation was not done or was inadequate. As the minister articulated, it is Canada's belief that it met its duty to consult and that it accommodated where appropriate.
Input received helped to shape the current version of the bill. For example, the legislation was amended at the request of Yukon first nations to explicitly require that the interests of first nations be taken into consideration when conducting an assessment of a project. Funding has been made available to aboriginal groups each step of the way to ensure that they could participate in the many consultations that were held. In addition to this extensive process, aboriginal groups and Yukoners are also participating in the parliamentary review which is currently under way.
At this point, I would strongly urge the New Democratic Party to support the call I have made to take the committee to the Yukon. I was happy to hear that the Liberal Party has confirmed its support for the committee to travel to the Yukon and get input from the people in the territory on exactly what they would like to do. I hope that the past year-long practice of the NDP obstructing committee travel ceases for the purpose of this important piece of legislation.
The bill has, of course, been subject to significant debate already in the Senate, and the Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources heard from numerous witnesses from the Yukon. At the end of the study in the Senate, both Conservative and Liberal senators endorsed the bill unanimously. The Senate committee has recognized the importance of the bill for development and investment in the Yukon. In fact, Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell, the opposition critic on the bill, spoke in favour of the bill, stating:
There has been, I think, quite adequate consultation. It's complicated up there in these territories. You have federal, territorial and Aboriginal interests. [...] So it is very complex, and the fundamental core of this bill gets to that and is an effort to make all of that better and to make processes in the North better.
I think that we will find, after the process of reviewing this bill in committee, coming out and summarizing it in third reading, that in fact this bill will have a very good chance of accomplishing what it has set out to accomplish.
The rhetoric from the NDP suggesting that this is supported by just the Conservatives is not factual.
Now that the bill has passed the Senate, it will be reviewed in the House of Commons, and Yukoners will have one more opportunity to provide input to this bill at the House committee. Again, I am urging the committee to travel to the Yukon to hear directly from Yukoners. I invite all Yukoners, as I always have, to provide written comments, to reach out to my office if they would like to learn more about the bill, to talk to me, and to express their concerns. Indeed, on a daily basis, I receive comments from the territory that are compiled, assessed, and reported directly back to the minister. That will be ongoing, in my role and responsibility as Yukon's member of Parliament.
I hope that we can collectively move together to review this piece of legislation with a balanced approach, considering all of the complexities and diversified interests that exist in the territory, with the main objective that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, for a better Yukon and a strong environmental process that respects all Yukoners' needs, including those of our first nations.
I would like to thank them once again for coming to Ottawa to participate in this very important debate.