Leaders from throughout Denendeh are calling for more protection for Northern waterways removed from the Navigable Waters Protection Act in December.
Dene Nation chiefs, councillors and elders voted in favour of supporting Bill C-529 last Thursday at their annual assembly meetings in Inuvik, following a presentation by the MP who introduced the bill, Linda Duncan of Edmonton-Strathcona, and that bill’s seconder, Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington.
The bill, which moves to reinstate protection for the Slave River under the act as a heritage navigation route, was introduced in the House of Commons on June 10 and now awaits second reading, scheduled to take place when session begins again this fall.
The Dene Nation passed a resolution to provide a letter of support to Duncan for the bill, along with a second resolution demanding further protection for the Peel River. Although the Peel is not included in
Bill C-529, it was also pulled from the waterways protected under the act.
“There’s no protection on the Peel River, so there’s some elders who want to present a resolution to protect the Peel River, another watershed in the Northwest Territories that may not be protected,” said elder Francois Paulette, who made the resolution to back protection of the Slave alongside Duncan and Bevington at the Inuvik meetings.
“People are really, really concerned. People want everything protected,” said Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, who said they couldn’t hear from all the people who wanted to speak on the issue during the two-hour presentation because they ran out of time.
Erasmsus told The Journal it’s time for First Nations to step up and protect the rivers if the federal government isn’t going to.
“The interesting thing here is the federal government is vacating the field to a large extent, so we need to have a discussion about what that means. If they don’t want to protect the rivers, then as First Nation governments, we have to take on that responsibility as we always did. We always protected these rivers and we always cared for them. We need to talk about how that can continue into the future and not rely on the federal government to be the responsible agent,” he said.
Bevington said he will be talking to people in Yukon when he is at the Assembly of First Nations meetings in Whitehorse this week to see if there is also support on that side of the border for Peel River protection.
The result might be another private member’s bill aimed at reinstating protection to the Peel watershed, similar to Duncan’s action on the Slave River.
“The federal government could simply add them to the list (of protected rivers). It can be done through cabinet; it doesn’t have to be done through a bill. So we’re hoping to put pressure on them to do that, if not perhaps this government, then the next government,” Bevington said.
“These private member’s bills are designed to bring attention to the need for these issues, and to set the stage for the government to just include them on the list of heritage rivers, on the list of rivers that are protected to some degree,” he said, adding that support from Dene leaders is strong on the issue of water protection.
“This is a passionate issue for the First Nations in the North, the water issue, and protecting the water is something people here hold very dearly.”
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam also spoke on the water issue via telephone at the Dene National Assembly, giving an update on the state of a mysterious oily sheen detected on the Athabasca River.
That substance was identified Thursday morning as not petrochemical in nature, but likely the product of a blue-green algae bloom, caused by record-high water levels and temperatures in the Fort McMurray region.
Bevington said the incident, which caused enough worry in the community of Fort Chipewyan to shut down water intake at the local treatment plant, is a good example of poor management of waterways by government.
“I think what struck me with that issue was how Alberta Environment didn’t understand it, and yet it was killing fish and was potentially hazardous to human life, as well,” Bevington said. “Yet it took the First Nations to notice it, to bring it to their attention, and at first Alberta said that there was nothing there. So I think once again it shows how governments are just not up to the task yet of protecting that river system. They need to be more vigilant.”