By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–The head of Canada’s largest and most influential First Nations organization is demanding Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver meet with chiefs before implementing the Conservative government’s “unlawful and unconstitutional” planned changes to the environmental reviews of industrial projects.
In a strongly worded letter to Oliver, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo says Ottawa’s plan to streamline environmental reviews runs afoul of Canada’s duty to consult First Nations on projects and legislative changes that impact Aboriginal and Treaty rights.
Atleo’s letter comes mere months after January’s Crown-First Nations gathering in Ottawa where Prime Minister Stephen Harper proclaimed ushered in a “new day” in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people.
At stake but not mentioned in Atleo’s letter is Enbridge’s massive Northern Gateway Pipeline project which is broadly opposed by First Nations. The project, however, is backed by the Conservative government which says piping Alberta bitumen to the British Columbia coast to satiate China’s oil-thirsty economic machinery is in Canada’s national interest.
“Thirty years after the Constitution recognized and affirmed Aboriginal and Treaty rights, it is an alarming development that Canada would take such steps that will potentially further undermine processes that already do not adequately address clear duties for consultation and accommodation,” wrote Atleo, in the letter, dated the April 20, 2012. “We encourage Canada to immediately engage with First Nations to address this uncertainty, to confirm the constitutional duty and being in earnest creating processes that uphold the honour of the Crown.”
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled repeatedly that the Canadian government has a duty to consult with First Nations on legislation and industrial projects that impact their territory, culture, Aboriginal and treaty rights.
“It is abundantly clear that the Crown is bound by the Constitution to uphold its duty to consult and accommodate the Aboriginal and Treaty rights of First Nations, which means it cannot unilaterally reduce these duties through changes to existing legislation,” wrote Atleo in the letter, obtained by APTN National News.
The Conservative government announced in its latest federal budget that it would be introducing legislation to streamline the environment review process for industrial projects, setting hard timelines for approvals and turning over responsibility for some reviews to the provinces. The planned changes are geared toward ensuring approval of Enbridge’s multi-billion dollar pipeline, according to many analysts.
As part of the package, the Conservatives also plan to streamline consultations with First Nations, assigning one Crown agency to deal with consultation on each project. The government plans to integrating consultation into environmental reviews and announced it was contributing about $13 million toward this initiative.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, whose department announced the changes to “Aboriginal consultations” and has taken the lead publicly on the file, now says it is up to Aboriginal Minister John Duncan to deal with the issue.
“I am not the one primarily responsible, it is obviously my colleague (Aboriginal Affairs Minister) John Duncan,” said Oliver, Wednesday. “I think (Duncan) has been working very hard to deeper the consultation and this legislation will do that.”
Oliver said he hadn’t read Atleo’s letter, but tried and failed to reach the national chief to discuss the issue.
“Consultation is absolutely fundamental to our obligation. We have been consulting, we will continue to consult,” said Oliver. “We want to bring the communities in earlier in the process with respect to each project and ensure consultation is more meaningful.”
Atleo’s letter, however, listed a number of areas where the Conservative government ignored the rights of First Nations, including in plans to integrate Aboriginal consultation into the environmental approval process.
“Integration of Aboriginal consultations fails to recognize the distinct legal rights of First Nations and the differential impacts that may be experienced by different Aboriginal groups,” wrote Atleo.
Atleo wrote that the Conservative government’s plan to give the National Energy Board the ability to approve projects even before initiating consultation with First Nations is causing serious concern.
“Such a practice would constitute a breach of the federal duty (to consult), would be an affront to First Nations who will be impacted by such decisions and ultimately would be unlawful and unconstitutional,” wrote Atleo.
The Conservative’s promised $13 million to improve Aboriginal consultations would do little more than create more bureaucracy, according to Atleo.
“We have since learned that this funding may in fact in large part be dedicated to increasing Canada’s capacity to manage consultations and not be available directly to First Nations,” he wrote.
Atleo’s letter also criticized the government’s planned changes to the Fisheries Act, which would reduce the number of instances requiring Ottawa to intervene on projects that impact fish habitat.
“Proposed changes announce as part of the plan may indeed have broad impacts on drinking water, fish habitat and environmental health and may reduce the ability to restrict on-reserve activity related to water,” wrote Atleo.
The stakes are too high for Ottawa to ignore the positions of First Nations anymore, wrote Atleo.
“These are critical matters to the survival, rights and interests of First Nations and are lawful obligations that must not and cannot be denied,” he wrote.
Duncan’s office could not immediatly provide comment.