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Mixed Messages: Harper Government Misrepresents Policy Reform in Meeting with First Nations

Documents obtained by Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act indicate that Environment Canada was telling the Assembly of First Nations one story and industry groups another in the run-up to the introduction of last year’s controversial Bill C-38, purposefully working to dispel First Nations’ fears regarding changes to the environmental reviews, even as it was seeking support from industry to make huge revisions to that process. 

A brief for a January 24th meeting with National Chief Shaun Atleo and a delegation of chiefs from across Canada encouraged the ministers in attendance, including Minister of Environment Peter Kent, to play up the government’s willingness to work with First Nations on environmental concerns and downplay fears of sweeping changes to legislation.

It stated, “Any changes to the government’s environmental assessment or project approvals regime that you may have heard of through the media are (i) speculative at this point as legislation has not been introduced to the House of Commons; (ii) will respect our duties toward Aboriginal peoples.”

This message is a stark contrast to the scenario brief for a February 2nd meeting between Environment Canada representative Michelle Rempel and Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) VP Bill Clapperton, which indicated the Ministry of Environment was already working toward the sweeping changes to the environmental assessment process.

The February brief expresses the desire for a streamlined “system to focus on projects with the greatest risk to the environment and to increase the predictability and timeliness of the entire review process, from the environmental assessment through to permitting.”

It concludes by pointing out that the “reforms, when introduced, may be very controversial. I hope we can count on your support.” Nowhere in the memo does it discuss the policy consultations ministers were instructed to promise the AFN just weeks earlier. 

The overall tone of the brief for the January 24 meeting is vague and non-committal. It gives a series of “responsive messages” for different touchy subjects, including national parks and national marine conservation areas, species at risk and caribou recovery.

When talking about climate change, officials were counselled to assure the chiefs that “Even in times of fiscal restraint, the environment remains a priority for the Government.”

When addressing the tar sands, they were told, “There is need for better information about the environment in the oil sands area.” 

There has been no confirmation as to whether Ministers expressed the recommended messages at the meetings in question. However, the documents expose the different strategies the federal government employs when interacting with business and with First Nations groups.

Mike De Souza writes that, “Postmedia News asked Environment Canada several times since last Tuesday to explain the conflicting messages from the documents, released through access to information legislation, but a spokesman said it needed to consult with other departments before providing a response.”

However, De Souza points to a letter that Atleo wrote to Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver after the introduction of the Responsible Resource Development (RRD) plan in April 2012 expressing his concern over the trampling of First Nations’ rights to consultation in environmental review processes.

Atleo argued that, “Thirty years after the Constitution recognized and affirmed Aboriginal and Treaty rights, it is an alarming development that Canada would take such steps that will potentially further undermine processes that already do not adequately address clear duties for consultation and accommodation and the clear principle set out in the United Nations Declaration for free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples.”

The sweeping changes addressed in the RRD plan were part of what led to the crumbling of the relationship between the federal government and the AFN over the last year and the advent of the Idle No More movement – a movement stressing the concern that recent changes to legislation may violate constitutionally-protected First Nations rights.

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