Residents along the Slave River are joining forces to act on getting recognition and protection for their waterway following a meeting with Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan in Fort Smith Thursday evening.
The Member of Parliament behind the bill to reinstate the Slave River under the list of protected navigable waterways in the country visited Fort Smith last week to explain the proposed legislation and encourage concerned citizens to take additional avenues to protect the river.
Duncan spent several days in the community last week with Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington, meeting with local groups and hosting a public meeting on Thursday evening, to talk about her private member’s bill that is waiting to receive second reading this fall in the House of Commons.
Representatives from First Nations and Metis in both Fort Smith and Fort Resolution packed the museum for the short-notice meeting, along with the Fort Smith Paddling Club, local MLA and NWT Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger, Fort Smith Mayor Brad Brake and various residents.
While part of Duncan’s mission was to gain support for the bill, which seeks to amend the omnibus budget bill that proposed removing the Slave River from the list of rivers protected under the Navigable Waters Protection Act last December, Duncan said her piece of legislation is not the be-all, end-all when it comes to taking action on the Slave.
“The bill is only one small tool and people need to understand that my bill doesn’t have that much chance of becoming law,” she told The Journal. “That’s simply because it’s a private member’s bill in a majority Conservative government. The purpose for tabling the majority of these private member’s bills is to put the heat on the government to take the action that’s proposed in the motion.”
Rather than wait for legislation to be passed, Duncan is pushing the public to apply for heritage river designation for the Slave River based on its natural value, historical importance and recreational potential, which she said could be a “pressure point” to have the river protected by the federal government. Though the status has no legal weight, it does have persuasive weight, she said.
“If this river was designated a heritage river, it would be pretty hard for them to say they shouldn’t list it in navigable waters, given the long history of transport and the significance of this river…Between Fort Chip and Fort Res and then on up to the Mackenzie, people are concerned all along the route. So that would be a trigger point too for greater action to protect both ends of the river,” she said.
Getting the designation would take a combined effort from various sectors in the community, but Duncan said she believes Slave River communities already have all the right players to make it happen.
The Recreation Advisory Board in Fort Smith recently presented a petition to town council aimed at protecting the Slave River rapids for recreational use. The Deninu Kue First Nation in Fort Resolution also provided Duncan’s fellow NDP MP Dennis Bevington with a petition supporting the bill.
“The band in Res just gave me a petition – I think most of the community signed it. The band went door to door collecting names,” the Western Arctic MP said.
Backing for Duncan’s bill has also come from Dene leaders across the NWT, who passed a resolution in support of the motion at the recent assembly meetings in Inuvik, as well as Fort Smith’s town council.
“The more people can get interested, the better,” Duncan said. “The recreational value is important for health, it’s important for economic development and it’s an important aspect of the river, so I think that you’ve got all the players here. I think the potential is huge, not just for getting the designation, but also for helping to develop the First Nation and Metis community and non-Aboriginal community’s economy here by recognizing the value of this heritage river.”
Duncan also urged citizens in Fort Smith and beyond to put pressure on governments to follow through with commitments agreed to in the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement aimed at protecting the watershed – commitments shared by the federal government, NWT, Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan.
While the proposed changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act have yet to be proclaimed, meaning the Slave technically still has protection, Duncan warned against what will occur when the amendments are made official.
“The way the law is right now, everything is navigable water, within reason, if it’s a certain size and so forth. What they’ve done is changed in law only those lakes and rivers that they list as navigable waters will be considered under the legislation, and the Slave River is not included in that schedule. What’s bizarre about that is that in the Mackenzie Basin, the Athabasca is protected, the Mackenzie, but not the Slave, which is absurd because you can’t get to the Mackenzie if you don’t go through the Slave,” she said.
Meeting attendees agreed to come together for a planning session later this fall to work on an application for heritage status for the Slave River. The meeting, tentatively set for the end of October, is being coordinated by Smith’s Landing First Nation elder Francois Paulette along with Bevington.