Speeches | Northwest Territories Devolution Bill

27 February 2014

Hon. Grant Mitchell: Thank you, honourable senators. I am quite excited to be able to participate in this debate, and I'm equally excited to have been part of the committee that reviewed this piece of legislation.

For the record, before I start, I'm going to say that I will support this piece of legislation, because I think that it represents nation building. I might underline to colleagues in the Senate who didn't have the good fortune of sitting on the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources during the hearings that I think our membership had a sense of being at least remotely involved in a higher level, a higher ideal kind of nation building.

At one point, I mentioned in the hearings that, while we were perhaps not Fathers of Confederation, we were at least distant relatives and we have played a part during that process in committee. Each of us in this chamber today is playing a part in the process of nation building as we debate this very significant and important piece of legislation.

It is important to acknowledge, and others such as Senator Patterson and Senator Sibbeston have, the work of those who toiled through the negotiation process and the development of the legislation. Not to reiterate too much of that, I would like to acknowledge the work of federal public servants who on two occasions offered one formal and one informal briefing to the members of the committee and demonstrated two things: first, that they were extremely knowledgeable about this piece of legislation and about the process of devolution; and, second, that they were extremely passionate about the work that they were undertaking to build the nation in this way.

One of them is sitting in the gallery today, and I would like to acknowledge Wayne Walsh, who distinguished himself, along with his colleagues, in both briefing us and clearly indicating and expressing in various ways his passion and their passion for the work being done and being captured in this bill. I acknowledge Wayne Walsh and his colleagues.

I would also like to reiterate and endorse what Senator Patterson said about our committee. It is true that the committee did extensive detailed work. I'd like to applaud — not just because he was kind enough to recognize my efforts — Senator Patterson and the chair, Senator Neufeld. They are a delight to work with. They understand that there are two sides to every story and were very clear and careful in this process, as they had been in each review process and each study that we've undertaken, to ensure that, as much as we possibly could, all sides of the story were heard, and we did that.

We heard from those who were clearly in favour of every feature of this devolution process and this devolution bill, and we also heard from those who had concerns and questions. Those concerns and questions have been raised and outlined very carefully, extensively, and successfully by both Senator Patterson and Senator Sibbeston.

I would like to emphasize what I believe to be some very positive features of this devolution. First of all, I'd like to step back and just say that this is kind of getting to be the last stage of it. We're getting closer. Lots has gone on before.

Powers that include economic development, education, local government, social services, health care, transportation, administration of justice and matters of a civil nature have been devolved. This is specifically with respect to land and resource management, or generally with respect to that, so it's important in that way that it's yet another significant step.

It's not perhaps fair to construe it as the most significant step, but it is a step that is certainly not insignificant in any way. That is because it brings a great deal of economic power and potential to the territory and to the hands of the people who live there and the people who will manage it both as public servants and politically, the political leaders. So it has great prospects and great potential in the development of that remarkable area of our country. The prospects for economic development are, I would say, definitely enhanced. All of that is good.

I was also impressed by the manner in which the revenue sharing had been worked out. I can only imagine the nature of the negotiation that would go into that and the tension that might arise in that, but it seemed that an accord had been reached that was generally acceptable by all. I don't recall hearing testimony to the contrary. What was very significant is that Aboriginal groups and governments will be receiving, if development proceeds in their areas, significant amounts of money. That's extremely important for people to be able to develop their culture and their society as they see fit, where people can have high standards of living and a good quality of life. So much is said about the importance of self-government for Aboriginal groups, and it means a great deal, but it means a great deal more if they have resources with which to exercise that self-government.

I would also like to mention, and I'm not an expert in these things, that it may be that there is a very positive and powerful unintended consequence, and that would be that this lends greater credence to the arguments that will arise increasingly and are arising increasingly in the North about Arctic sovereignty and the sovereignty of Canadians over our North. The more presence we give and whatever way we give it, and certainly, political power to the people who live there, the indigenous people included, will bolster and strengthen arguments that will one day, I expect, inevitably have to be made in international courts about who has sovereignty over those remarkable regions. This devolution will, I think, end up proving itself as part of that important process and that important fight that I expect we will be engaged in as we go.

I do want to acknowledge, as others have, the concerns that were raised with the powers that will be given to the new super board. It's not the perfect word. I know some people are concerned with that, but it does capture some of the sentiment from the other side.

There is direct policy direction that will now come from the minister, whereas before, the heads of boards were recommended by the board members. In this case, that process won't exist. These are concerns to Aboriginal groups, the settled groups that we heard from, Tlicho, Gwich'in, and Sahtu, and they are legitimate concerns.

We also heard from Ecology North, a group that is well established and does excellent work, that they, too, are concerned about the possibility that regional representation in the review process for projects will be diminished and that there hasn't been an adequate, perhaps, relinquishing of federal powers in some ways.

I acknowledge those concerns. There are two reasons that they have not been sufficient to convince me to be opposed to this bill.

First, there are traditions of cooperation between Aboriginal Peoples, regional peoples and the central government as it has existed to this point in the Northwest Territories. There are traditions of cooperation and collaboration between and among actors in the industry and regional and Aboriginal groups. That point was made unsolicited, I believe, by certain industrial witnesses who said, "Of course, we're going to deal with and consult with regional and Aboriginal Peoples, because we need to do that. It makes good business sense and, of course, it's the right thing to do."

So, the prospects for that being accounted for and dealt with, I think, are at least good. If not perfect, they're at least good.

The second reason that I am persuaded that these problems are not insurmountable is the fact that there is provision for a five- year review and that devolution is an evolutionary process, that it isn't over and that the powers of the minister can be reconsidered and that the specific option exists in legislation for that to occur.

I will finish my comments simply by being positive about this important piece of legislation, thanking the members of the committee, thanking all of those who negotiated over so many years on both sides for their tremendous effort; expressing my hope and anticipation that the kinds of concerns that have been raised by those who have concerns at least have provision for revision and for being corrected. I will be supporting and voting for this bill with a good deal of pride.

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