Mr. Speaker, I am rising today because I feel it is important to speak to Bill S-6. It is important not only to the Yukon and the people who live there, but also to Canadians.
Bill S-6, the Yukon and Nunavut regulatory improvement act, is one of those bills that we have traditionally seen come to the House for amendments. It is one of those bills whereby there is partly a consultation with people in the region, and then there are sections that are always added by the government for good measure, which often create controversy. In this particular amendment process, through the consultations, there was agreement on substantial portions of change that would occur as part of the bill. However, there were some portions where it did not achieve or did not work to achieve consensus, and because of that, the first nations groups in the Yukon are not supportive of the bill.
As our party's critic for the north, I have had the opportunity to travel across the territories and other northern regions. I have met with many local stakeholders, community leaders, and individuals, and all too often I have unfortunately seen how the government opposite is failing northern Canadians. I have seen it for many years within my own constituency of Labrador, and it is quite evident in all regions across the north as well. The Conservative government has spent the last few years trying to paint a very rosy picture of life in the north. Much of the legislation that it has introduced and pushed through Parliament has been playing along those same lines. Sadly, for those of us who live in the north, we continue to fall behind the rest of Canada, and the federal government has simply turned its back.
Last week, the Auditor General of Canada released a scathing report on the nutrition north program, which was picking and choosing which communities received subsidies based on historical levels of support. Many communities that should have qualified for subsidies received next to nothing or nothing at all. The government has also insisted that all is well with this program and that somehow the average cost of food for the north, based on the northern food basket, has decreased. However, we know that the costs for food in northern regions increased by 2.5% last year.
When I stop at a grocery store, whether it is in Labrador, as I did this weekend, or the territories, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, or Nunavut, shoppers are always telling me that there is increasing price gouging and that the food subsidies are not being fully passed on to the consumer. I am explaining this in the House today because it is another situation of where people in the north are giving the government one message, and the government is sending back a different message and not listening. That is the conclusion that the Auditor General reached in his report. I am using this as an example because he quantified the fact that checks and balances were not in place, and that the purpose of the program was not meeting the needs of the people in the north, regardless of the fact the government continues to say that it is.
In addition to the bill we have before us today, this past year the government pushed through a number of other bills in the House on behalf of first nations people that were very contentious. When it brought forward a bill on devolution in the Northwest Territories, we know that process was started by previous Liberal governments. The Liberal Party has had a long history of working with aboriginal people and the territories to give them greater autonomy over their lands and territories.
When we dealt with the NWT devolutions, the bill included very sweeping changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act, which served to muzzle the voices of aboriginal governments in the Northwest Territories. What it did, in essence, was to give the federal minister greater authority to make decisions in the territory, which does nothing to empower northern Canadians, aboriginal governments, and residents there. Instead, we heard that territorial governments were acting on the will of their constituents, and therefore they should be the ones making their own decisions on issues that will affect the future of their territory, based on their own treaty agreements that they have achieved.
As I will outline shortly, Bill S-6 is taking the same approach that we saw in the bill on devolution for the Northwest Territories. It is a top-down, Ottawa-centred approach to dealing with northerners, especially those in the territories. I have been troubled when I have listened to Canadians in Nunavut and the Yukon speak about how these bills would impact negatively on the work they do and on their region.
With regard to the proposed changes to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, known as YESAA, some background information is important to understand. I want to point out that the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act was established under the umbrella final agreement between the Government of Canada, the Yukon government, and the Yukon first nations. The act set out an assessment process for all lands in the Yukon.
Responsibility for the management of that land and the resources was devolved from the federal government to the Yukon government in 2003. That is when it was given this authority under what was then a federal Liberal government. I want to point that out because the goodwill that has been built with first nations by previous Liberal governments is being eroded by the current government, in passing legislation in the House that does not respect the rights of first nations, aboriginal governments, and the people in the territories.
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act was passed, as I said, in 2003. It was done under the terms of the UFA, as I have already pointed out, the umbrella final agreement. It was a comprehensive review of the act by the parties to the agreement. It was required at that time by the parties, including the Yukon first nations, the Yukon itself, and the Government of Canada, that there would be a review of this within five years of the act becoming law.
That review was completed in March 2012, and at the time the Council of Yukon First Nations, and other groups, voiced many concerns over the government disregarding their input into the review, and subsequently into the finalized documentation. The federal government ignored those concerns, which has left us with the bill before us today in the House of Commons.
My party has always supported accessing resource wealth in the north when it is done right. History has demonstrated that developments can find a way to be environmentally conscience and successful, while also finding trilateral support among aboriginal, territorial, and federal governments, as well as local communities. There is no reason why this cannot continue. Indeed, the only way to move forward with resource development is to work together, not against each other.
This is not just a moral obligation, but I feel it is a legal obligation as well, particularly in regions like the Yukon, which are subject to comprehensive land claim agreements. It is important to remember that the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, which this bill would significantly amend, is strictly linked with the 11 Yukon first nation claims and final agreements. We cannot ignore that fact. Unfortunately, despite spending years of working with Yukon first nations on a comprehensive review of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, the federal government blindsided them earlier this year with a number of key changes that are contained in this bill and were not discussed throughout the process.
The minister says there have been extensive consultations, and maybe there were on some aspects of this legislation. However, we know that through Bill S-6, the government is now proposing new measures without having properly consulted, and that has been the opinion of Yukon first nations groups and Yukoners as well. These areas include giving sweeping powers for the federal minister to issue binding policy direction to the assessment board, unilaterally handing over powers to a territorial minister without the consent of first nations, allowing government to approve the renewal or amendment of permits and licences for projects without assessment by YESAA, and newly establishing unrealistic timelines for assessments.
Northerners are tired of the federal government trying to retain the final say on important matters that affect their own region. Just as territorial administrations cannot and should not be based out of Ottawa, the time has passed for this level of interference and the hands-on approach by the minister. The assessment board ultimately loses its decision-making authority, and that leaves the door open for the minister to repeatedly interfere with binding policy decisions. This is what first nations are objecting to.
This bill includes the ability for the federal minister to delegate binding policy direction to a territorial minister, which gives the impression of local engagement. It still means that local communities and aboriginal governments may not be included in the decision-making process. Again, this is wrong.
It is not sound policy for the government to allow permits and licences to be approved or renewed without any secondary assessments. These renewals could seriously impact the environment, regional economies, and local communities. It fails to recognize that, over time, changes may occur to climate, wildlife populations, technology advancement, and so on.
It is important that we maintain the timely reviews that had been a part of the current process. Local stakeholders have been vocal on this point, and I fully agree with their rationale. I have had many emails and letters from people in the area who are opposed to these recommendations that have been added to the bill at this late date. They feel it has been done with no consultation.
The imposition of new timelines has left many people in the Yukon confused over the approach being taken by government. They feel that the current process for lower level assessments has already been quick and efficient, and, for larger projects, it is only reasonable for those assessments to take a little longer. Rushing assessments in this process will only lead the board to make rash decisions in its goal of meeting these new arbitrary deadlines.
Yukoners believe in working together toward a successful territory, which includes all aboriginal governments, territorial governments, businesses, and developers. Unfortunately, the major changes proposed in this bill will serve to further unravel an already damaged relationship between many of these key stakeholders and the federal government.
Yukoners have publicly stated their pride in the effectiveness of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. It was a very proud moment in their history when they were able to achieve that. They are left wondering why the federal government has decided to take unilateral steps to try to fix a system that is not broken. While doing this, it has ignored local communities and aboriginal governments, thinking that this is the best way to continue developing the north. However, we know that is not the case.
We have seen ongoing lawsuits around the lack of adequate consultation in certain regions, which have blocked some developments from proceeding, and resource revenues have been slowed dramatically. If the government persists in ramming these changes through, it will be creating more legal uncertainty and jeopardizing development in the territory.
Time and again, the courts have sided with aboriginal people regarding constitutionally required consultation, yet the Conservative government has continued to wilfully ignore aboriginal rights and pursued a pattern of litigation rather than consultation.
The Council of Yukon First Nations has made it public that the passing of the legislation before us would lead it to consider legal action. On the other side, business and developers have also found the current unilateral moves by the government to be negative for their advancement. They understand the requirement to ensure that the aboriginal governments and communities have a prominent seat at the table. The government should not have to be told this by developers.
We have seen many major projects move forward in the north and in the territories because of good relationships between aboriginal and first nations and the business community. However, the government would now play interference and be blocking a system of negotiation and decision-making that is already working.
The approach that the government is now taking will lead to unnecessary delays, increased costs, and the further erosion of trust, and because of Bill S-6, the mistrust of the people of the north with the federal government will become even more entrenched.
We must return to the original respectful and collaborative partnership with our aboriginal communities, including the recognition of their inherent and treaty rights.
In Nunavut, we see the government proposing changes to the Nunavut Waters and Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal Act, which would not benefit the territory. The allowing of “life-of-project” water licences in the Nunavut Waters and Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal Act would not allow for reassessments should the need arise, which is very important.
We are in an ever-changing society. The northern regions, despite what the Minister of the Environment claims, are dealing with traumatic factors relating to climate change. There should always be opportunity for reassessment by the people in these areas when it comes to these particular licenses that are being issued today, especially if significant changes to a project should occur or there are other defining factors that could affect the project or the previous decision made by the people of Nunavut.
The introduction of timelines for a water licence review is very troubling to the people of Nunavut and to many others who would be affected. As it is with the Yukon portion of the bill, the timelines would rush assessors and projects into finishing reviews that in all likelihood would require additional time. The measure would essentially invoke closure on an important review process.
We have seen the current Conservative government invoke closure on many bills in the House when it has not wanted to continue debate. Again, the Conservatives would bring forward measures that could invoke closure on very important reviews that should be ongoing by the first nation communities that are affected.
We need to ask and understand why these reviews take the time they currently do. What would we lose by dramatically cutting the length of time available for a review? I am not satisfied that the government has made the case for this or justified it appropriately.
The government is proposing sweeping changes in Bill S-6, which local aboriginal governments and communities do not want enacted and who have been vocal about the negative impact these changes would have on the future of Nunavut and Yukon Territory. However, instead of listening to these concerned groups, as is legally mandated, the government has repeatedly refused to make any changes or include any stakeholders in the review process. This is disrespectful of the territories and its people.
I would strongly encourage the government to make sweeping changes to the bill if it is seeking support from the House. There is an opportunity here for the government to make the appropriate changes and to do so in respect of the aboriginal people and the people of Yukon Territory who would be impacted by the bill. I encourage the Conservatives to build good relations with our first nations people and work co-operatively with them.