Libby speaks out on the NWT Devolution Act

House of Commons


December 5, 2013

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House today to participate in the debate on Bill C-15.

I want to say at the outset that my voice is a bit rough today. The NDP had a great party last night, with live music and great sociability. It went into the wee hours. I think everybody is feeling a bit rough this morning, but it was a good time to get together. Here we are back in the House this morning, ready to debate whatever is before us, so I am very pleased to speak to the bill.

I want to commend my colleague, the member for Newton—North Delta, who spoke just before me. She and I are both from metro Vancouver, so we represent ridings in Canada that are very urban. We face urban issues around affordability of housing, citizenship and immigration, poverty, transportation, infrastructure, and so on. We have a lot in common in terms of our ridings and the fact that we are both part of the metro Vancouver region.

However, I want to say that even though we are members of Parliament from the urban area, we have a sense of connection with our colleagues who represent ridings in the North, and certainly our colleague from the Western Arctic, who is the main critic on the bill we are debating today. When we visit other ridings and other communities with our colleagues, it is quite fascinating to learn about the experiences, the history, the culture, and the life conditions in those communities.

On the one hand, there are really vast differences, but on the other hand, there are incredible similarities. Every time I have visited the Northwest Territories, whether it has been Yellowknife or smaller communities, I have always been struck by how different the scene is from my community in Vancouver East, which is very densely populated. There are 120,000 people living there. We have communities like the Downtown Eastside and historic neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Gastown. In the Northwest Territories, we are looking at communities that are hundreds and thousands of miles apart, communities that are very self-sufficient because they have to be. They have to deal with the very harsh elements in the North, yet when I get to know people and talk with our member from Western Arctic, we find that we are dealing with similar issues.

I know, for example, that one of the issues my colleague from Western Arctic has tackled in a very passionate way is the living costs in the Northwest Territories, an issue that I think is very relevant to the bill we are debating today.

In fact, he produced a 53-page report in November, just last month. In that report, he lays out, with great analysis and factual information, the concern of increasing income inequality in the Northwest Territories. That is an issue I face in my riding as well. Income inequality is growing between the haves and the have-nots.

He identifies that one of the key factors in the high cost of living in the Northwest Territories is the high price of food, particularly in smaller communities.

When I visited Yellowknife, I was very curious about this issue, so I went to the supermarket in Yellowknife, checking out the prices for milk, eggs, cheese, and vegetables and trying to compare them with my own community in East Vancouver. I was really surprised that there really was not that much difference. I remember saying to my colleague, the member for Western Arctic, “The prices are not too bad. Everything is available”. Then he said to me, “Wait until you get to the smaller communities. You’ll see an incredible difference”.

In fact, in his report, he documents that a family of four in Yellowknife would be paying about $11,000 for food, but the cost of the same basket of food in a smaller community further north could increase by 13% to 210%. That really gives us an idea of what people are facing in the north. For example, the member for Western Arctic points out in his report that the same basket of food that costs $11,000 in Yellowknife would cost a family in Colville Lake more than $21,000.

It gives us an appreciation of how difficult it is, particularly for people who live on a low income. There are some people making good money in the resource industry, but there are people who are struggling to make ends meet. I know the member has frequently, in the House on behalf of his constituents, raised issues of, for example, the nutrition north food program and his concern that it is actually making food prices higher not lower. He has raised these issues frequently in the House. He has also raised issues around the cleanup of Giant Mine in Yellowknife, as recently as just a couple of weeks ago here in the House of Commons.

I would echo the words of my colleague from Newton—North Delta who spoke about the member for Western Arctic and his passion for representing northern interests and the interests of his constituents. When he presented his comments about Bill C-15, the bill that we are debating today, we were very interested to know what his thoughts were. Therefore, my comments today are very much based on the expertise, experience and knowledge of the member for Western Arctic who was elected in 2006. He was the mayor in Fort Smith, a small community in the Northwest Territories, from 1988 to 1997, so this is an individual who is very grounded in the local community. I have seen the member in action and how people know him and interact with him. His take on the bill and the expression of how we feel about the bill come from a place of immense knowledge and experience, and that is something that we very much rely on and trust.

As my earlier colleagues have said, we do support the bill in principle. That’s what we are here debating today, second reading, which is the bill in principle. We have to examine the bill and determine whether the principles of the bill are enough that we think it should go forward to committee. Certainly for us in the NDP, the official opposition, we believe that the bill has made progress in terms of devolution from the federal government to the Northwest Territories.

Therefore, it should be supported in principle. However, when it gets to committee there are numerous issues that would need to be looked at.

To look at the bill historically, we know that over the decades there has been a transfer of powers from Ottawa to individual territories, and that is a good and very important thing. In fact, the last major devolution of powers to the Northwest Territories was in the late 1980s, so it is not that long ago when jurisdiction over education, health care, transport and renewable resources such as forestry and wildlife were transferred.

The current process would transfer administration and control of public lands, resources and rights in respect to the waters of the Northwest Territories. That is obviously a major advance because the Northwest Territories is a very special place in our country. It is a place that is fragile. It is a place that has a history of people being close to the land, of people respecting the land and the environment, and understanding that the extraction of natural resources must be done in a way that is sustainable and protects future generations. Therefore, the bill before us, Bill C-15, which would move into the area of the devolution process dealing with natural resources, is obviously a key milestone for the people of the Northwest Territories, and the Government of the Northwest Territories has been supportive of this.

It is quite interesting to note that until this devolvement goes through, the Northwest Territories does not receive any revenues from resource development, and in fact it has to still rely on federal transfer payments and taxes to deliver public programs and services. That is something that really is outdated. We need to ensure that the Northwest Territories and its government, which is duly elected by the people of the Northwest Territories, has control over not only things such as health, education, transport and renewable resources, but also over natural resources.

Bill C-15 does address that. Under the bill the Government of the Northwest Territories would keep 50% of the revenues collected from resource development on public land up to a certain maximum, and then the Government of Canada would retain the remainder. This tells us that it really does not go far enough at this point. It is not a total devolution. Nevertheless, it is a milestone and based on the consultation that has been done, we think it is something that is worthy of support.

It is a complex agreement. It will require the amendment of 42 different pieces of legislation. That is a lot to take on. In fact, my colleague who spoke earlier pointed out that the member for Western Arctic has advocated and is suggesting that the bill should be split because there are concerns about the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act. There are some major components in the bill that require very critical examination at committee. It would be a proper course of action to have the bill split.

Having said that, we have a very familiar pattern with the Conservative government where it likes to load everything up into omnibus bills and come up with these huge reports that one has to wade through. That is done deliberately. The Conservatives do not want transparency and proper scrutiny. How many times have we seen time allocation on bills?

Here today, we are debating this bill, a very important bill to the people of the Northwest Territories, yet other parties are absent from the debate. I find that quite incredible. The NDP is carrying forward the debate because New Democrats think it is important. We think it needs to be debated and aired in public and some of the issues addressed in public, before it is sent to committee. That is what we are here for. That is our primary job, to debate legislation in the House of Commons, to examine it and to hold the government to account. Bill C-15 would amend 42 other pieces of legislation. There may have been consultation and the government may feel there has been adequate scrutiny, but the House of Commons is elected to do due diligence. That is what we are doing here today.

One of our key concerns is that as a result of the devolution agreement, the amendments would replace the current structure of the regional land and water boards that have been created through the land claim final agreements. It was a very major process that was undertaken a number of years ago. This new devolution agreement would supersede that and replace the regional land and water boards with one single board. Immediately, that should raise some concerns because when there are regional land and water boards that means there is local representation on those boards. It means there are people who understand local issues in a vast territory. The idea that we could now rely on a single board that would be able to scrutinize what is going on is a tall order. This is something the member for Western Arctic has expressed concern about and something we would like to see addressed in the committee.

The amendments also reserve to the federal minister the approval of all land and water usage in the Northwest Territories, which would circumvent the powers transferred to the Government of the Northwest Territories through the devolution process. There is a bit of a contradiction there. We have devolution, yet the federal minister is still maintaining approval of all land and water usage. There is obviously a lot more to be done.

We hope that when the bill is sent to committee and the NDP brings forward amendments that those amendments would actually be considered on their merit.

I would like to take a couple of minutes to speak about that. I am on the health committee and I know that when we have had bills come forward, even private members’ bills that were fairly straightforward, every single time that we sought amendments to improve the bill, not for some political exercise but to simply improve the bill, they have been voted down. Again, in talking to my colleagues, I know that this is basically what happens at every single committee. The Conservative members can act in a very arrogant way. It does not matter what amendment is put forward; it is shut down.

A bill such as this has far-reaching powers for future generations in terms of the way the Northwest Territories government can operate on behalf of its people. With the bill, particularly because it amends 42 different pieces of legislation, the process at committee of hearing witnesses and considering amendments will be especially important.

To my colleagues across the way, I really hope that when the bill gets to committee, they will actually consider amendments in the light that the bill could be improved. There are concerns that have been expressed, particularly from first nations. Through the parliamentary process, the democratic process and the committee process, and through hearing witnesses and expert testimony, I hope that some of the concerns in the bill can be addressed.

I hope that there is a commitment that the Conservatives will do this in good faith, and that we do not just see a repeat of what we have become so used to. It is really so disrespectful of the parliamentary process to dismiss whatever amendments are put forward.

In terms of the support for the bill, because it has gone through a process in the Northwest Territories, there are people who certainly support devolution. In fact, I would quote Robert

Alexie, president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, who said:


We don’t have to fear devolution. It’s a new beginning….

I would also quote Robert McLeod, who is the Premier of the Northwest Territories. He said:


This Assembly has a vision of a strong, prosperous and sustainable territory. Devolution is the path to that future. Responsibility for our lands and resources is the key to unlocking the economic potential that will provide opportunities to all our residents.

The Premier of the Northwest Territories made that statement in June of this year as the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories approved the agreement.

We also have the president of the Chamber of Commerce, who pointed out that it is a very “historic agreement and one which will provide the Northwest Territories with the long-awaited and rightful ability to manage and control public lands”.

However, there are still voices that need to be heard of the people who have concerns about the agreement. For example, Jake Heron, from the Métis Nation, in speaking about the consultation process, said:


It’s very frustrating when you are at the table and you think you’re involved, only to find out that your interests are not being considered seriously.

As this agreement was being negotiated, obviously there were concerns being expressed. We have the same from an MLA in the Northwest Territories, Mr. Bromley, who said:


The federal government’s proposal to collapse the regional land and water boards into one big board is disturbing, unnecessary and possibly unconstitutional. …a single board does nothing to meet the real problem, failure of implementation.

There are clearly concerns out there.

In the time that I have remaining, I would like to underscore the NDP’s support for the bill in principle at second reading. We are committed to working in good faith at the committee level to hear from people in the Northwest Territories and from experts who were part of this process. We are committed to making sure that this agreement is what it should be, that it is something that the people of the Northwest Territories can live with into the future and will address their concerns and allow them the measure of self-determination that we in the NDP all believe in.

Whether it is Quebec, the Northwest Territories or the first nations, we believe that people have the right to their own determination. Fundamentally, that is what this bill is about. Therefore, we will support it. However, we will work hard to ensure the bill lives up to those expectations.