Liberals to hand Indigenous Canadians more power on environmental assessments

The Liberal government is planning to overhaul its environmental-assessment regime for major development projects to give more decision-making power to Indigenous Canadians, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said.

At an event in Montreal Wednesday, the minister released a report from an federally appointed expert panel that was headed by former federal environment commissioner Johanne Gélinas, now a partner with Quebec accounting firm Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton.

The panel said public confidence in the resource-project-approval process can only be restored through reforms that emphasize “sustainability” and public engagement, including with Indigenous people.

“We believe that public trust can lead to more efficient and timely reviews,” said the report, which the minister released on Wednesday.

“It may also support getting resources to market.”

In an interview, Ms. McKenna said the government will consult with industry, environmental groups and Indigenous communities on the proposed reforms before drafting legislation that will be introduced early in 2018.

“What are we trying to do? We’re trying to ensure good projects get built,” the minister said.

But she said Ottawa is determined to give Indigenous Canadians a greater role in decision making.

Echoing concerns in the environmental community, the Liberals have long argued the previous Conservative government skewed the process to favour of quick project approvals over valid environmental objections and Indigenous opposition.

As a result, Ms. McKenna said, the system became politicized and subject to endless court challenges.

Resource companies are often frustrated by the length of time it takes to complete the approval process, arguing delays can derail projects.

“At the end of the day, we need to have a system that has the trust of the public; that provides certainty of the process for business; that makes sure we respect our obligations to Indigenous peoples and that they benefit from projects; and that we ensure good projects go ahead,” she said.

Geoff Smith, vice-president for government relations and aboriginal affairs at the Mining Association of Canada, said in an interview that Canada’s mining industry welcomes the commitment to overhaul the existing system. He said the current environmental assessment process – adopted by the Conservatives in 2012 – is “fragmented, overlapping and unco-ordinated.”

The broken system makes it more difficult to attract new investment, he said.

The industry has worked with indigenous communities on projects and supports in principle a greater role for them in making decisions, Mr. Smith said.

Companies will need to digest the panel’s report and then consult with government to ensure legislation and regulations produce an approach that is both efficient and credible, he added.

The government is working on a broad policy of reconciliation with First Nations and other aboriginal communities and, as part of that effort, is looking to give them a greater voice in project assessments and in the monitoring of companies’ compliance with environmental undertakings.

Such a commitment could also result in projects getting bogged down in a new layer of bureaucratic wrangling. Ms. McKenna said responsible project developers already involve indigenous communities in early-stage planning.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is responsible for reviewing proposed projects, such as liquefied natural-gas export terminals on British Columbia’s coast and a number of proposed mines across the country.

The National Energy Board is responsible for assessing the impact of interprovincial pipelines, and a separate panel appointed by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr is due to report on NEB reforms in early May.

Ms. Gélinas’s panel recommends one federal agency should be responsible for all environmental assessments and that Ottawa should take the lead on any project that touches federal responsibilities, including obligations to First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

It proposes companies should be required to submit development plans for review long before final details have been completed, that Indigenous communities have decision-making roles, and the proposals be assessed “based on the project’s contribution to sustainability.”

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