The Trudeau government has taken a first step toward repealing parts of Bill S-6, which made controversial changes to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act when it was passed last year.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett tabled Bill C-17 in the House of Commons this week, which would scrap the four amendments in Bill S-6 that have caused several Yukon First Nations to file a lawsuit.
Those four provisions imposed timelines on assessments and allowed permit renewals and amendments without new assessments. They also allowed the federal minister to give binding policy direction to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, and to delegate authority to a territorial minister.
“Ensuring sustainable resource development that respects indigenous rights is a key component of restoring public trust in environmental assessments,” Bennett said in a statement on Wednesday.
Bill S-6 was passed by the Harper government in June 2015, but the federal Liberals made an election campaign promise to repeal the offending amendments.
Now, they appear to be making good on that commitment.
“I think this will sort of reinstate the confidence with First Nations that they’re being taken seriously as an equal partner in the development of and implementation of environmental assessment legislation,” said Yukon’s Liberal MP, Larry Bagnell.
He also pointed out that it’s unusual to see federal legislation specifically targeting the Yukon.
“Yukoners are having a say now,” he said.
Bagnell said the government can call the bill for debate at any point, but it’s unlikely that will happen before the fall sitting. Still, he said it’s possible the controversial amendments could be repealed before Christmas, as it’s unlikely the bill will garner much debate.
“I think a majority of members of Parliament won’t even know what it is,” he said.
Chief Carl Sidney of the Teslin Tlingit Council said the tabling of Bill C-17 is a good sign.
“Basically the Liberal government promised that they’re going to have a working relationship with First Nations,” he said. “And this is a good indication that they’re walking the talk.”
In October, the Teslin Tlingit Council, the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations and the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation filed a lawsuit in Yukon Supreme Court to fight the amendments in Bill S-6, after months of threatening to do so.
Sidney said that court case is still pending, but the hearing has been delayed until December, giving the federal government time to follow through on its promise.
Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski declined to comment on the new bill, though he said in a statement that the Yukon government is “committed to working with the Government of Canada and First Nations on the YESAA legislation and its implementation.”
Pasloski has largely avoided wading into the fray around Bill S-6 since it became law, arguing that it’s federal legislation. After the federal election last fall, he claimed his government would “not be a barrier” if the new Liberal government did repeal the four provisions.
But during a campaign visit to Whitehorse last fall, former prime minister Stephen Harper said it was the territorial government that requested the changes to the assessment act laid out in Bill S-6.
The Yukon government has also spoken out against YESAB more recently, after oil-and-gas exploration company Northern Cross filed for a judicial review of the board’s decision to refer its Eagle Plain drilling project to a higher level of assessment.
“Generally, I feel that the YESAB process has kind of wavered and is creating problems for businesses in the Yukon,” said Economic Development Minister Stacey Hassard in March.
But to date, the Yukon government has not suggested that any more changes are needed to the YESAA legislation.
For his part, Sidney claimed the YESAB process is working well as it is. He said the assessments cost companies money upfront, but they’re designed to prevent messy, expensive clean-ups down the road.
“It ain’t going to cost you in the end, if you do the job properly,” he said. “Of course, it’s a very good process, as long as people follow it.”
Meanwhile, three of YESAB’s seven board appointments expired this week, while two others remain empty.
Wendy Randall was re-appointed as chair and a member of the executive committee on Wednesday. Dale Eftoda has also been appointed to the executive committee, replacing Ken McKinnon. The three other appointments are expected shortly.
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