A group of MLAs heard mixed reviews on three proposed bills when it recently visited for public meetings in Hay River and on the Hay River Reserve.
The Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Economic Development and Environment was looking for input on the Protected Areas Act, the Environmental Rights Act and the Forest Act.
On the Hay River Reserve on April 25, the standing committee heard particular concern about the Forest Act from K’atlodeeche First Nation (KFN).
Larry Innes, a Yellowknife lawyer speaking for KFN, said the Forest Act was judged on three criteria: impact on rights, degree of Indigenous government participation in decision-making, and the recognition of Indigenous governments in their roles and responsibilities in relation to forestry.
“We can say that the Forest Act fails on each of these points,” he said.
Innes noted the bill proposes a permit for the exercise of Aboriginal treaty rights.
“This is an unwarranted and unnecessary infringement of constitutionally-protected rights,” he said. “This is in contrast to other (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) legislation, which has express provisions to exempt Indigenous rights-holders from requirements to obtain permits or pay fees to exercise their Aboriginal or treaty rights.”
The lawyer said the way the legislation is structured in terms of recognizing the rights and authorities of Indigenous governments is also significantly deficient.
“This is, frankly speaking, a bill out of time,” he said. “It belongs in the 19th century, certainly not the 21st.”
The lawyer’s comments on the Forest Act were supported by KFN Sub-Chief Doug Lamalice.
“To me, this bill is not fit to move forward,” Lamalice said.
Innes said the process worked well for developing the Protected Areas Act and it offers protection for Indigenous rights.
“The commitments that were made to KFN by the Government of the Northwest Territories in the Devolution Agreement and in the Intergovernmental Agreement on Lands and Resources were followed in respect of the Protected Areas Act, but were not followed in respect of the development of the Forest Act,” he said.
Innes noted KFN is satisfied that Indigenous governments would be directly involved in developing protected areas.
KFN offered no comment on the Environmental Rights Act.
The standing committee also held a public meeting in Hay River on April 24.
Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Metis Nation, made a lengthy presentation to the MLAs.
One of Bailey’s main concerns was that the proposed Protected Areas Act would enable the GNWT to establish a protected area with the support of just one Indigenous government, even if other Indigenous governments are not in support.
“The PAA cannot be used as a wedge to drive regional and community Indigenous governments apart,” he said.
Bailey also said the Protected Areas Act does not sufficiently protect Aboriginal rights to harvesting activities.
As for the Forest Act, he said the Metis Nation only saw a draft in December, which did not provide sufficient time to be involved in the development process.
Bailey said the Metis Nation supports the Environmental Rights Act, but noted it needs a mechanism for Indigenous governments to apply to the GNWT if they have grounds to believe an action is causing or may cause significant harm to the environment.
All the bills will be debated in the Legislative Assembly in August.