Speech – Bill C-15: Northwest Territories Devolution Act
February 27, 2014
My fellow Senators, I am very pleased to speak today as the Senate Sponsor to Bill C-15, Northwest Territories Devolution Act, which fully merits the support of all Honourable Senators in this Chamber.
The proposed legislation would finally grant the people of the Northwest Territories a meaningful role in the decisions that affect their lands, resources and day-to-day lives – giving Northerners the same level of economic participation and benefits enjoyed by Canadians south of 60. .
As someone with some roots in the Northwest Territories, I know first-hand that Northwest Territories residents are more than ready, willing and able to make their own decisions about lands and resources in their own backyards and to make the most of current and emerging opportunities in the region.
I also personally know the long road that has been travelled to get to this point and I can’t tell you how privileged I am as Senator for Nunavut and Sponsor of this important legislation in the Senate to stand here today – nearly 35 years after I was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, and more than two decades since I last served as territorial Premier – and mark this momentous moment in the political and economic evolution of the NWT and our great country Canada.
During my time in the NWT Legislature and Cabinet, years of intense debate and hard work were devoted towards a achieving a devolution agreement on lands and resources.
However, while the Northwest Territories was successful in achieving devolution in other areas of provincial-like responsibilities, such as health care and education to local territorial authorities, many successive governments have attempted to reach a devolution agreement on lands and resources, but failed.
It was only under the tireless leadership of this Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and the Premier of the Northwest Territories, Premier Bob McLeod, that we are here today.
As Premier McLeod described in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, as we began our pre-study of this important bill in December:
“Devolution will mark the culmination of a political evolution that began with the original creation of the Government of the Northwest Territories in 1967. For the first time, the people of the Northwest Territories will enjoy a level of self-determination and control over territorial affairs on par with that enjoyed by their fellow Canadians in the provinces and Yukon. Devolution will make good on the promise from 46 years ago and which we have secured through the ongoing development of a fully elected and representative legislative assembly that has steadily assumed responsibilities from Canada.”
As a result of this bill, Northerners will be able to exercise more control over their economy, their communities and their lands and culture and shape their own future for themselves and future generations.
I’m convinced that this is even more timely as the North plays an increasingly prominent role in Canada’s prosperity.
Throughout our history, Canadians have considered the North mostly in terms of its future potential. This potential is now being realized, prompting the question: who decides? Who will make the many far-reaching decisions about resource development and the protection of environment in the North?
In a modern, progressive democracy such as ours, the only acceptable answer is Northerners themselves. Devolution to Yukon and the creation of Nunavut have empowered Northerners and now the Northwest Territories’ time has come.
However, equally critical in this development is the ability to provide a stable, predictable and timely regulatory system which encourages investment in exploration for and development of the NWT’s rich resources.
As my colleagues from the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources and I heard during our pre-study hearings on this bill, the current regulatory regime is clearly outdated. It cannot, in its current state, meet the needs of Northerners post-devolution. To realize their full potential and the promises of devolution, residents of the Northwest Territories need an efficient, responsive regime; one that avoids needless delays, duplication and red tape.
That is a why a key element of this legislation is a modernized regime governing the management of Northwest Territories lands and water resources.
To create such a regime, Bill C-15 would amend a series of acts, including the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act, the Territorial Lands Act and the Northwest Territories Waters Act.
An essential component of the new regime—and one that’s been the focus of considerable debate—is the establishment of a single board to manage land and water resources.
This is not a new concept. The possibility of establishing a single board has been around for decades. In fact, the proposed Dene/Métis comprehensive land claims final agreement negotiated with the Dene Nation and Métis Association of the Northwest Territories in 1990 included a provision for a single board that would serve as the main instrument to regulate land and water use throughout the Mackenzie Valley.
The final agreement was based on the 1988 Dene/Metis Joint Land Claim Agreement in Principle signed in Fort Rae, NWT with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signing on behalf of Canada.
This final agreement was initialed by negotiators; however, it was never put to a vote and instead, Canada negotiated a series of regional agreements based largely on the original accord. Over the next 13 years, regional agreements with the Gwich’in, the Sahtu Dene and Métis, and the Tlicho were negotiated. Each agreement, in keeping with the vision of the original Dene/Metis claim provided for the creation of a single land and water board for the Mackenzie Valley. These are spelled out in chapter 24.4.6 of the Gwich’in Agreement, chapter 25.4.6 of the Sahtu Dene Agreement and chapter 22.4.1 of the T’licho Agreement.
In the interim, in the absence of a larger board, regional boards were established. Each regional board (Gwich’in, Sahtu and Wek’èezhìi) has five members while the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board also has five members for a total of 20 members.
Without this legislation, the settlement of five land claims currently under negotiation would likely lead to an increase in the number of regional panels and the number of members, which could balloon the size of the board to as many as 55 members! Not exactly a model for efficient management of land and resources in the Mackenzie Valley
Moreover, there can be no doubt that multiple boards are less effective and efficient than a single, integrated board. Various studies of regulatory reform in the North—including Neil McCrank’s 2008 report, Road To Improvement—recommended restructuring the land and water boards in the Mackenzie Valley. A single, integrated board managing land and water usage would support consistent, informed decision-making, and a strong, effective and efficient regulatory regime. A single board would ensure consistency and predictability in the regulatory regime.
To get a sense of the potential impact of regulatory regimes, one needs to look no further than Yukon. A decade ago, prior to devolution and the establishment of the Yukon Environmental and Socioeconomic Assessment Act, Yukon struggled to attract project proponents and investors. Today, Yukon’s economy is much stronger. The territory’s Gross Domestic Product has grown nine years in a row and exceeded Canada’s annual growth rate in eight of the last ten years. Since devolution, the territory’s Gross Domestic Product has increased 150 per cent.
The rregulatory regime in Yukon has ensured that resource-development projects proceed in a way that doesn’t compromise environmental considerations. Here’s how Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski described it late last year in a speech to the Canada’s North Summit:
“Frameworks like the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act enable us to harness the momentum of the past decade and turn it into sustainable economic growth, with the confidence that such growth will not occur at the expense of the territory’s environmental integrity.”
Honourable Senators, Yukon’s recent success stands as a valuable lesson of the potential impact of regulatory reform and devolution in the Northwest Territories.
The legislation now before us will provide the Northwest Territories with the same opportunity to benefit from its own lands and resources.
Indeed, the Northwest Territories is blessed with a remarkable abundance of natural resources. This is part of the reason that the Conference Board of Canada predicts that the Gross Domestic Product of the Northwest Territories will nearly double by the year 2020 to $9.6 billion.
To realize this potential, however—to ensure that development adequately benefits Northwest Territories residents and safeguards the environment— a responsive, predictable and timely regulatory system needs to be in place.
But don’t just take it from me. As Premier Bob McLeod of the Government of the Northwest Territories rightly noted before the House Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development:
“We need an efficient and effective regulatory system in the Northwest Territories that protects the public interest, allows us to manage our land and environment, and promotes responsible development.”
The pre-study of this bill at Senate Committee was wide-ranging and extremely valuable, and we heard from a number of witnesses and one of the recurring themes that we also heard was a need ensure that the regulatory regime envisioned strikes an appropriate balance between environmental and economic considerations.
Some representatives of the mining industry were calling for a 24-month maximum time limit per project on environmental assessment and impact-review processes. Many environmentalists, however, express hesitation toward limiting the length of time for reviews.
Bill C-15 proposes timelines that are broadly similar to those authorized in relevant federal legislation, namely the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 and respects existing land claims obligations regarding the conduct of environmental assessments and environmental impact reviews. The time limits in Bill C-15 will provide certainty and clarity for all – proponents, boards, governments and Northwest Territories communities.
Finally, another concern that was expressed by industry was that the phrase “public concern” remains undefined in Bill C-15. As a result, many small-scale, low-impact activities such as small exploration, drilling and geophysical-survey projects may be subject to environmental assessments.
Clearly, industry wants to provide potential investors and proponents with the greatest possible level of certainty and predictability.
However it is most prudent to ensure that the term “Public Concern” is not overly constrained by a strict definition which could reduce discretion that the Board will require when determining how a project will be reviewed. Moreover, the approach taken on the public concern issue is consistent with other Northern Environmental Assessment Statutes, as well as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
I also want to elaborate on concerns raised about amalgamation of existing Land and Water Boards.
By way of background, concerns have been expressed by Aboriginal Governments and other witnesses that the present regulatory system provides meaningful opportunities for regional input into decision making through Regional Boards and that the system has allowed for the development of administrative capacity in the regions.
Aboriginal Governments expressed their concerns that one board in the Mackenzie Valley would diminish opportunities for regional input into decision making and that one board could result in a centralized administration which would diminish capacity and working relationships with industry in the regions.
On December 5, 2013 Northern Development Minister Valcourt appeared before our Senate Energy Committee and I asked him to comment on these board amalgamation concerns.
“The restructured board will not have permanent panels. However, in order to accommodate that concern, the amendments allow for the Chair to establish smaller committees to deal with applications before the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board. Furthermore, in response to comments received through the consultations, the proposed legislation requires the Chair to appoint the regionally nominated representative to the smaller committees when they are considering an application wholly within that region.”
At the same hearing on December 5, 2013 I asked NWT Premier Bob
McLeod to explain how his Government will address concerns about a centralized administration.
The Premier responded:
“Going into the process of devolution and working with
Aboriginal Governments very early on allowed us to recognize
that to get support we had to show that resources and positions
would also go to the regions and communities. We undertook
what we call a three phased approach to decentralization. The
first phase was to identify existing programs and services that
we devolved out of Yellowknife to the regions and communities.
The second phase was part of the devolution process, where
we recognize that there would be at least 300 jobs that would
be transferred from the Government of Canada to the
Government of the Northwest Territories. Certainly the
Aboriginal Government had an expectation that a large part of
those jobs would go to communities outside of Yellowknife. As
part of that, we were able to identify 90 jobs that would be
located outside of Yellowknife.
Once we have implementation on April 1 – or the transfer date
of April – we will be entering into the third phase of
decentralization whereby we will be identifying positions, and
there will be programs and services moved out of Yellowknife.”
The Premier went on to state that funding has been identified to build
up to 100 houses in communities for staff and that office space and
other assets will be in place to support the NWT Government’s
Decentralized Land and Water Management Regime.
I believe that these amendments in the bill and the clear commitments of the Premier of the NWT to maintain and develop a significant regional administrative presence in the regions of the MacKenzie Valley are significant responses to the concerns expressed about regional input into the new regulatory regime and regional administrative capacity.
Honourable Senators, the NWT is on the verge of changes that are remarkable. In living memory, the NWT has evolved from being governed by a territorial council and powerful Commissioner appointed by a federal Minister, to a fully elected Legislative Assembly and Cabinet soon to inherit full control over the territory’s lands and resources. This is a truly exciting milestone!
I see finalizing the transfer of control over the NWT’s public lands, resources and water through devolution as another giant step in constitutional development which the NWT has sought for decades, since a fully elected assembly and responsible government evolved in the 1970s and 1980s.
This is the North’s time to realize its potential for the benefit of all NWT residents and all Canadians! The NWT will now have its opportunity to contribute to nation building on its own terms, while reducing reliance on Ottawa.
Bill C-15 is the product of a comprehensive process of negotiation and compromise involving all of the parties with a direct stake in the matter: the Government of the Northwest Territories, Aboriginal groups with and without land claims and those with transboundary claims, and representatives of industry.
Parliamentarians have analyzed, reviewed and debated the proposed legislation in a thorough and judicious manner, including during a subject-matter study of Bill C-15 by the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.
All that remains is to ensure that this legislation is passed in order to meet the April 1 target devolution effective date in the Northwest Territories.
I urge my fellow Senators to join me in supporting Bill C-15.