It was standing room only for the packed crowd at the devolution Bill C-15 hearings in Yellowknife Monday where concerns from Aboriginal groups were heard loud and clear by the federal standing committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
The committee listened to presentations from 30 groups over the one day of hearings at the Explorer Hotel, including the Tlicho, Sahtu and Gwich’in governments who have been critical about the omnibus nature of the bill and its effect on the territory’s future regulatory system.
Only two months away from taking effect, the devolution bill will transfer federal authority over land use to the GNWT. The bill also includes amendments to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act (MVRMA), which will see the regulatory authority of existing regional land and water boards forged into one superboard.
Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington, who was present for the hearings, has criticized the federal government for lumping regulatory changes in the bill, calling the proposed superboard “colonial” for stripping regulatory power from the Aboriginal governments.
Bernard Valcourt, federal minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, was notably absent from the hearings Monday.
“I think it’s more important that the people of the Northwest Territories have an opportunity to present to departmental committee,” NWT Premier Bob McLeod said about the minister’s absence at a press conference Monday morning.
McLeod was the first to present to the standing committee Monday where he faced questions about the proposed five-year review on the MVRMA, measures for the protection of the environment and the participation of Aboriginal governments.
Though most of the territory’s Aboriginal governments have already signed on to devolution, the Dehcho and the Akaitcho First Nations are holding out, both calling on the federal government to address unfinished land claim deals.
McLeod said getting all Aboriginal governments on board is a critical task for the GNWT. “We’re very close to finalizing those agreements,” he said.
McLeod told The Journal there will be provisions in Bill C-15 to include regional representation from Aboriginal governments with settled land claims in the territory’s regulatory superboard when it comes into effect in 2015.
Chief Bill Erasmus of the Dene Nation has repeatedly expressed concern that one day of public hearings is not enough time to cover all the issues raised by C-15.
McLeod told The Journal the decision to have only one day of public hearings in the territory was not up to the GNWT. The standing committee has no plans to return to the NWT, but will be hearing from other witnesses in Ottawa at a later date.
Despite the GNWT and federal government facing several wrinkles in the legislation, transfer is still slated for Apr. 1.
“We can’t lose our focus on the finish line,” McLeod said. “We still have a lot of work to get the legislation through on both the federal side and the territorial side so we need to make sure we stay focused.”