Devolution bill amendments blocked

Devolution bill amendments blocked
Aboriginal leaders and federal representatives gather for hearings on devolution bill C-15 in Yellowknife on Jan. 27.Bill Braden.

Despite hours of impassioned appeals to the Conservative government to remove proposed changes to the NWT’s regulatory system from devolution Bill C-15 last week in the House of Commons, the NDP’s motion was defeated by 20 votes Wednesday evening.

Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair’s motion to delete sections 136 and 137 from the bill, which would create a single regulatory board for lands and waters in the NWT and eliminate the regional land and water boards, was voted down 150-130 at the report stage last week.

Though he didn’t expect the motion to go through, Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington said he was glad they were able to prove their point that the superboard should not have been included in the bill, despite recommendations by federal advisor Neil McCrank in his report.

“Even industry came out and said that there was good cooperation with the regional boards,” he told The Journal from Ottawa. “And we proved that McCrank didn’t get the idea to remove the boards from the hearings; they came from his head.”

Despite the negative vote, Bevington did end up voting in favour of the bill in the end, which received support, 279-2.

“It was a difficult vote for me,” he said. “I was conflicted, but in the end I felt it was the appropriate move. The questions of First Nations land claims, the only way they can be settled now will be in court, and that’s the step they should go to because we couldn’t get this amendment.”

The Tlicho Government has already said it will go to court in order to save its Wek’eezhii Land and Water Board.

It was the second attempt by the NDP opposition to divide the omnibus bill, which also includes legislation necessary to devolve authority over lands, water and resources from Canada to the territorial government.

Bevington tried splitting the bill at the committee stage after hearings in Yellowknife on the bill were overwhelmed by First Nations opposition. While Aboriginal governments in the NWT support devolution, those with land claims are loathe to see their regional land and water boards, established through the modern treaty process, eliminated.

“The changes to the system of land and water boards created through First Nations land claim agreements are disrespectful to the Dene and Métis of the Northwest Territories,” Mulcair argued during last Tuesday’s debates.

“The Conservatives heard over and over from the NWT’s Aboriginal governments and many concerned residents that they did not support these changes, but the Conservatives, unfortunately, were deaf to these concerns,” Mulcair said.

Mark Strahl, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, countered that because the creation of one, central superboard in the NWT was contemplated within the territory’s settled land claims and notice given to First Nations over several years of the coming changes, the bill should proceed as currently structured.

He said the changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act (MVRMA) contained within C-15 “modernize” the NWT in time for devolution, establishing time limits on environmental assessments, streamlining licensing, increasing fines for environmental violations and, most importantly, aligning the MVRMA with the federal environmental assessment legislation amended over the past year.

Though Conservatives were unsympathetic to the proposed amendments made by the NDP, Mulcair’s motion did receive wide support from Liberal and Green Party MPs.

“It is quite obvious to me that the Aboriginal governments are not satisfied with the composition that is being proposed. They felt that under the current structure, as Aboriginal governments, they have more say and more control over the lands upon which they live,” noted Liberal MP Yvonne Jones.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said she would not be surprised to see these opposed changes to the review board structure dealt with at the Supreme Court level.

“It is astonishing to me…that the Conservative administration refuses to take seriously numerous Supreme Court decisions,” May said. “With regard to the elimination of four regional boards that have been the result of negotiation and treaty, that are part of a government-to-government relationship, it is not really a matter of ‘We’ve told them about it for years, so they should be ready for it by now.’ That is not consultation.”

While authority over the MVRMA will not be transferred to the territorial government as of the devolution effective date of Apr. 1, territorial officials expect changes made to the regulatory system will be open to review in five years’ time.

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