“My grandmother always said to me, ‘If we destroy the land, we’re gonna destroy ourselves’,” said Jackie Thomas. “You can’t drink money. Or oil. It’s pretty basic.”
As chief of Saik’uz First Nation in northern B.C., Thomas is on the frontlines of an escalating battle over the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, currently under environmental review.
But she and other Aboriginal leaders are increasingly turning their sights on the federal government’s Budget Implementation Bill, Bill C-38. The sprawling 431-page omnibus bill – unprecedented in its scope – includes provisions to change the Fisheries Act, limit environmental assessments on industrial projects, and shutter several Aboriginal-specific programs.
“I think they’re actually being dishonest with the Canadian people, which is too bad,” Thomas said, when asked about the act. “To me, it’s a nod to industry, so they don’t have to provide as many environmental safeguards.
“It’s just going to rubber stamp the environmental assessment process– it’s very risky for our environment. I still hunt and fish; I still gather – like a lot of our people. If we don’t have that, then what are we going to do?”
The budget bill is officially titled the “Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act.” As its details come under scrutiny–including the closure of the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Centre for First Nations Governance, and the National Aboriginal Health Organization–many are expressing outrage, not only at the cuts themselves, but the way they are packaged; hidden amidst hundreds of unrelated legislative changes.
“This so-called omnibus bill creates a lot of concerns for First Nations,” Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told Windspeaker. “We’re concerned that changes in regulatory regimes – efforts to ‘streamline’ – would overstep our rights. The non-recognition of treaty rights is a deep concern.
“That is on top of the actual budget concerns–the changes to the Fisheries Act are deeply, deeply concerning. Government should be directly engaging with First Nations, such as amendments to Fisheries. The idea of removing protection for fish has a direct impact on our rights.”
The changes include rewording the Fisheries Act, removing a section banning activities which “harmfully alter, disturb or destroy” fish habitat. In its stead, the legislation is amended to only ban harm to the fish themselves: “No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery.” According to the bill, such “serious harm” would only include killing or maiming fish themselves, or permanent destruction of their habitat.
Environment Minister Peter Kent said the Conservative government will, in fact, increase its consultations with First Nations through the changes–with an additional $1.5 million in funding–and that streamlining the laws will not endanger fish habitat.
“Through Bill C-38, through the responsible resource development legislation, we have ensured that we not only do what has been done so well in the past with regard to Aboriginal consultation, but that we engage earlier and that we fulfill our statutory obligations,” he told the House of Commons on May 15. “There is a significant increase to the amount of funding provided for Aboriginal consultation.”
Kent also denied that changes to the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) will reduce the involvement of Aboriginal communities.
“Any First Nations, whether treaty bands, or Métis, or Inuit, that are in close proximity and will be affected by a proposed project will be engaged and involved fully in the consultations,” he added.
But Atleo questioned how the government’s consultation would be improved simply by increasing funding for it. He said that the internationally recognized principle of “free, prior and informed consent” must be applied before industrial projects are approved.
“This bill says it will improve consultations,” Atleo said. “But we don’t know what the evidence is to back that up. How will they improve consultations?
“Every single time I talk to First Nations, water quality and access to food are some of the most fundamental aspects that have to do with people’s safety and security in their own territories.
(Bill C-38) puts our First Nations in a deeply reactive position. It can only result in conflict if our rights are not being respected, if the right to free, prior and informed consent is not there.”
Neither the Ministries of Finance, nor Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, could be reached for comment.