Senate committee hearings on proposed changes to Yukon’s environmental assessment regime are going well, Yukon Senator Dan Lang said this week.
“I think there is a common understanding that it is important that we modernize and update the legislation.”
Representatives from the Council of Yukon First Nations visited the Senate committee last week to voice their displeasure with a handful of the proposed amendments, which they say undermine their treaties with the government.
The First Nations have said they will consider legal action if the amendments proceed as drafted.
“I have to commend them,” said Lang. “They gave a very good presentation. They were very professional. I felt it did the Yukon proud.”
It’s too early to say if the committee will make changes to the bill in response to the First Nations’ request, he said.
“If there’s any changes in any aspect of the bill, obviously it happens at the end of the process because there’s other parties to be heard from. So I think it would be premature for me to comment at this stage.”
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act clearly spells out that, if any part of the act contradicts a First Nation’s final agreement, the final agreement will prevail, so that should not be a major concern, said Lang.
“I don’t think it can be any clearer.”
One of the amendments that the First Nations take issue with would allow the federal government to download its powers under the act to the territorial government.
That, according to the First Nation, creates a bilateral process that contravenes the tripartite spirit of the original agreement.
But both the territorial and federal governments have stated clearly on the record that they have no immediate interest in shifting any of their powers, said Lang.
The reason for the amendment would be to allow for that to happen, should they change their minds down the road, he said.
“It is not easy to get on the national agenda, legislatively,” said Lang.
“When these windows of opportunity are available, you have to seize them, and you have to pursue the, otherwise they will pass you by.”
While First Nations agreed to most of the amendments through a formal review process that began in 2008, some of the proposed changes came as a surprise, they told the committee.
First Nations, opposition parties and others have criticized the government for not consulting on those changes.
But consultation has been extensive, said Lang.
“This bill has had probably the most consultation of any bill that I know of that has come to the Senate. It’s had seven years of consultation.”
First Nations were allowed to review and discuss the draft bill before it was tabled in the Senate, a privilege that not even members of Parliament are usually afforded, said Lang.
“I’m not going to sit here and say everything was done totally right, but I can say that every good intention was there to do it right.”
The Senate committee has also heard from Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski, Yukon Energy president David Morrison and representatives of mining organizations and mining companies.
The hearings continue tomorrow, and representatives of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers are among those to make submissions.
“I really feel at this stage that it’s been a very worthwhile public exercise in respect to the hearings, and we’ve had very good testimony,” said Lang.
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