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Navigable waters: The Conservatives sneer in the House while ignoring First Nations

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Last Friday in the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird answered a question from the NDP's Nathan Cullen by saying: "The member talked about the changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act. This was contained on page 282 of [last March's] budget."

Well, let's have a look at page 282 of that document, as Peggy Nash, the NDP's finance critic, invited the Government to do on Monday.

The subject on page 282 is, indeed, the "Transport Portfolio." 

But there is not a single word about navigable waters.

Instead, there are a few brief and very general words on how a number of federal transportation organizations plan to cut a total of $152 million over three years.

Those organizations include Via Rail, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and Marine Atlantic Inc., among others.

Neither on page 282, nor anywhere else, does last March's Budget document even hint at major changes in the works to Canada's longstanding Navigable Waters Act. 

Well-watered response

 Last Thursday, on the day this government tabled its second omnibus Budget Implementation Bill, C-45, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty taunted opposition members who objected to all the surprises in it, by saying: "There is nothing new. What is in the bill today is in the budget. If you have not read the budget, I say to my hon. friends on the other side, I do not know what you did all summer. You got paid. You had a good pension plan. So, do your work; do your job ..."

It was not an edifying performance from one of the most experienced politicians in the House. 

The Speaker had to remind the Finance Minister that he was to address the chair, not the members opposite directly. 

And some even speculated that the man in charge of Canada's finances may have been feeling the ill effects of a somewhat over-watered lunch. 

In any event, the Conservatives could not credibly claim that they had announced, hinted at or telegraphed planned changes to the Navigable Waters Act. 

As with so many of its radical changes to federal environmental laws, its seems the Government hopes that by burying such measures in the fine print of one or two massive bills it will avoid having to answer tough questions.  

Heavy burden on remote First Nations

 Among the groups extremely worried about the current stealth changes to navigable waters protection is the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Northern Alberta. 

This First Nation is concerned because it has the bad fortune to live in tar sands country, and finds itself fighting a series of rear guard actions with mammoth, multi-national corporations that have been despoiling its traditional lands and waters with impunity.

In a news release, the Chipewyan First Nation tells us that Shell Canada has proposed to "mine out" 21 kilometers of the Muskeg River, which the Chipewyans say, is a "river of cultural and biological significance."

The new navigable waters legislative change, buried in what is supposed to be a technical budget bill, "gives the tar sands industry a green light to destroy vital waterways still used by our people," says Eriel Deranger, communications coordinator for the First Nation.

As Band Chief Allan Adam sees it, the government is "creating more loop holes for industry to continue annihilating our lands."

Instead of addressing First Nations' (or anyone else's) concerns in the House, Government members engage in sterile gamesmanship.

When they are not accusing the opposition members of failing to do their homework, they are repeating their well-rehearsed mantra about the NDP's "job-killing carbon tax."

The Chipewyan people were not consulted as the government prepared this new water legislation. 

It seems that the interests and concerns of aboriginal Canadians are only of interest to many politicians when there are public relations points to be made. (Remember the much-ballyhooed "Crown-First Nations" encounter earlier this year?)

It is a very different story, on the other hand, when it comes to big business lobbyists. 

But that is a story for another day. 


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