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Nineteen months after announcing they would cost-share a massive $540 million lake flood-mitigation project, Ottawa and the Pallister government are still working out details of the formal consultation process with Indigenous communities.
However, instead of continuing to complain about how long the process is taking, the provincial Progressive Conservatives are now saying "a good working relationship has been established" between the two levels of government.
Premier Brian Pallister has often expressed frustration at the slow pace of the federal environmental approval process, claimed that the province has set a "gold standard" for consulting Indigenous groups and accused Ottawa of "moving the goalposts" as Manitoba has tried to satisfy federal regulators.
On Monday, Indigenous and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke and Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler struck a more conciliatory tone, admitting that the province is not yet in compliance with federal law on the environmental assessment process, but working to get there.
They claimed to have engaged all 39 Indigenous communities and groups that could be impacted by the project, which will see outlet channels built to drain both Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. But they said there is more work to do.
"We want to reaffirm that the consultation process is not yet complete," Schuler told an afternoon news conference.
"There's been some confusion and some discussion about this project and the process required to get it built and what stage that we are in that process. So we're here today to provide clarity to all Manitobans, particularly in impacted communities," he said.
Schuler credited a positive meeting last month in Winnipeg between Pallister and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for moving the project forward.
"Manitoba and Ottawa are having very healthy and concrete conversations... and we're very pleased that the project is now moving forward, whereas we felt previously it wasn't," he said.
However, he could not provide any timelines and admitted, under questioning, that the two senior levels of government are still negotiating exactly what constitutes "consultation" with Indigenous communities.
The province says it has already spent $650,000 on engagement and consultation with affected communities. It says it has held 139 meetings with Indigenous groups, and it claims to have 1,083 records of communication, including phone calls, emails and letters, with the same communities.
Once Ottawa approves the province's environmental impact statement, the project will advance to the technical review stage and the next — more formal — phase of consultation will begin, the province says.
Clarke said the province is committed to "meaningful and respectful consultation" with affected Indigenous communities.
"We believe in a co-operative approach that is inclusive, respectful and that engages all impacted communities so that they can have their say," she said.
A few weeks ago, First Nations leaders in the Interlake said it's been impossible to consult with the provincial government on the large flood-mitigation project.
Lake Manitoba First Nation Chief Cornell McLean, who chairs the six-member Interlake Reserves Tribal Council, said Indigenous communites have asked repeatedly to meet with the provincial government on the issue, blaming the premier for the lack of formal talks.
On Monday, McLean, commenting on the government's communications claims, said what's needed are face-to-face meetings — not emails and phone calls.
"Our communities have not been consulted," he said.
At the news conference, Clarke cited a December meeting with the premier that McLean participated in (along with other Southern Chiefs Organization members) as an example of the province's consultation efforts.
However, McLean said the meeting was not specifically about the project and many topics were discussed.
"She didn’t say boo at that meeting (except to introduce herself), he said of Clarke. "The premier didn’t allow his ministers to talk at all. He did all the talking during that meeting."
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