Draft legislation revamping the protection and use of NWT forests has been punted past the next election as it is not considered fit to become law.
The territorial government made the announcement on Thursday in the fifth paragraph of a news release, beneath an update on another bill.
The territory said Bill 44, the Forest Act, “requires substantial changes and will be re-introduced early in the life of the 19th Assembly.”
Some Dene leaders had earlier declared themselves “unanimously opposed” to the bill’s contents, alleging the NWT government had failed to conduct sufficient consultation.
In March, the Tłı̨chǫ Government said it had “some serious concerns” with the bill’s text.
Pushing the draft legislation past October’s election buys time for the bill to be reworked to all parties’ satisfaction and relieves pressure on territorial politicians, who are already dealing with a comparative mountain of legislation – around a dozen bills of substance are in the queue to become law before the election.
However, delaying Bill 44 also leaves it susceptible to the whim of whichever government takes office following the election.
‘This must be pulled’
The Forest Act was designed to amalgamate two existing acts and update them.
The territory argued the existing acts were outdated and didn’t do a good job of dealing with forest-related issues like biomass, or some aspects of how wildfires and fire bans are handled.
The proposed legislation also included provisions to give forest sustainability greater weight, instead of simply focusing on the economic potential of goods like timber.
“The proposed Forest Act will bring NWT legislation in line with the many values and pressures on the forest, redefine NWT forests as an ecosystem, and reconsider the types of authorizations and their need for regulation,” a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told Cabin Radio in March.
However, the Dene Nation issued a statement fiercely objecting to the means by which the Forest Act’s draft terms had been reached.
A statement in March said the territory was “ignoring the strong and unanimous protests of all governments of the Dene Nation.”
The Tłı̨chǫ Government, in an unusual move, subsequently issued a statement of its own in which it both disagreed with the Dene Nation – saying the Tłı̨chǫ felt adequately consulted – while maintaining reservations about the bill’s wording.
The territorial government, for its part, said it had worked closely with more than a dozen Indigenous partners to produce the draft legislation.
A group of environmental non-profits, providing feedback on the text, commended the territory on what it called a “very innovative” co-drafting process – but said the bill appeared rushed and at times incoherent.
The group, including Alternatives North and Ecology North, said it was “told that the Forest Act was behind in terms of drafting [and was] quite surprised to see it brought forward,” adding there were “substantial concerns” with the text.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government expressed concern at how the act would work with its own jurisdiction over trees, plants, and forest management, as set out in the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement.
While the Dene Nation did not provide specific examples of its concerns, Akaitcho representative Ed Sangris was quoted by the Dene Nation as saying: “This bill must be pulled. There isn’t support for it.”
The territory’s renewable resources boards said, in written feedback, the process of developing the act had seen “inadequate treatment of co-management” and a “less-than-ideal” approach to consultation.
Finally, MLAs on the standing committee which must review such draft legislation had complained that the timeline to review the unpopular act – and get it into acceptable shape to become law – was near-impossible, with an election looming and so many other bills needing the same treatment.
Department will ‘re-engage’
On Thursday, the territorial government admitted “it was readily apparent that there are still many concerns with this bill, and those concerns would be better addressed at the working-group stage with Indigenous partners.”
Robert C McLeod, the environment minister, said in prepared remarks that his department would “re-engage” with Indigenous and other partners “to develop a final product that meets the needs of Indigenous governments and industry.”
“It is important to note that delaying the Forest Act to the next Assembly will have no effect on existing forestry agreements or activities,” McLeod added.
By the time the bill returns to this stage, McLeod will no longer be leading the department.
He has announced his intent to step down at the forthcoming election.