Aboriginals warn PM not to weaken environmental law
VICTORIA - Proposed changes to federal environmental law are an effort to cut aboriginal people out of talks around sensitive projects -- including one announced just this week -- and conflict will be the result, native leaders say.
The Aamjiwnaag First Nation of Sarnia, Ont., and about 20 other First Nations have written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper demanding he withdraw the amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
Ron Plain, an Aamjiwnaag member, said Thursday the proposed amendments -- part of the Conservatives' Jobs and Economic Growth Act -- could result in some sensitive projects proceeding without environmental assessments and proper consultations with aboriginals.
"It's looking for ways to not consult when it pertains to environmental assessments on major projects," Plain said Thursday in an interview.
"Without a federal environmental assessment, we won't be notified of anything of these federal projects. They will just go ahead."
Plain's letter to Harper says the proposed Environmental Assessment Act amendments give the federal minister complete discretion on setting the focus for assessments.
The letter reminds Harper that governments must engage in a meaningful consultation process with aboriginals that includes discussing potential impacts on their rights and interests.
"It is baffling why you would now seek to avoid conducting a fulsome planning process for projects enabled by your government," said the letter.
"Such a regulatory arrangement can only lead to additional conflict between project proponents and aboriginal peoples across Canada."
Annie Roy, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in Ottawa, said the amendments focus on three areas:
-- Strengthening the role of the federal assessment agency to conduct studies on major projects.
-- Giving the environment minister more authority to focus assessments on key areas of projects.
-- Making permanent 2009 temporary regulations that exempt routine public infrastructure projects from environmental assessment.
Plain said the courts have consistently sided with aboriginals when it comes to backing their rights to be consulted on projects that may impact their lives.
He said natives are prepared to fight Ottawa to maintain their rights when it comes to environmental projects.
"The government holds private industry's hand to the fire," he said. "Well, their hand needs to be held to that same fire."
He said the Sarnia area, and especially the Aamjiwnaag First Nation, is known for its extensive chemical pollution due to the area's many petrol-chemical refineries.
"My community was called the most polluted spot in North America by the National Geographic Society," he said.
Earlier this week, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell announced his province will proceed with the steps necessary to build a third massive hydroelectric dam in northeastern B.C.
Aboriginal groups in the region have said they have not been consulted on the so-called Site C project, which must yet go through an environmental assessment.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, suggested Harper's proposed amendments are aimed squarely at watering down the environmental process for projects like Site C.
"If mega projects such as ... Site C are approved, it will be at the great expense of the constitutionally protected rights of indigenous peoples and the precious environmental legacy that many British Columbians hope to share with future generations," Phillip said.
The proposed Site C dam, located near Fort St. John, will create an 83-kilometre-long reservoir and will flood almost 5,400 hectares of land.
The dam will generate enough electricity to power 460,000 homes for a century, and is slated for completion in 2020.
Last February, the B.C. government called for amendments to the federal government's Canadian Environmental Assessment Act "to create a unified federal-provincial review process that does away with redundancy and unnecessary costs."
Campbell said last winter there are currently more than $3 billion in provincially-approved projects "stranded in the mire of federal process and delay."