Premier Brian Pallister says the public needs to understand how important it is to respect Manitoba’s "gold standard" process of approving large-scale natural resource projects – such as the proposed Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin outlet channels.
However, the premier appears to be having trouble following the very process he’s trumpeting – at least when it comes to the proposed $540-million outlet project.
Despite months of complaining that his government has done everything in its power to consult with First Nations communities that may be affected by the flood-mitigation project (a federal requirement before the project can proceed), many Indigenous leaders say they have still not been consulted by the province. Mr. Pallister has repeatedly blamed that on federal officials, accusing them of "moving the goal posts" on the approval procedure by adding conditions to the process.
"Despite the fact we’ve had approaching 600 meetings with Indigenous groups over the last three years, the federal regulations and regulatory authority have come back and said that we need more consultations," the premier said in November.
But as recently as just two weeks ago, several First Nations leaders maintained they have still had little or no consultations with the province. Where they have taken place, they’ve often consisted of little more than a phone call or a few letters, some Indigenous leaders say.
"We need to continue to let Manitobans know we haven’t been treated as partners," Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization said earlier this month. "We’re looked at as an afterthought."
Several Free Press reports last year revealed the Pallister government had not consulted with a number of First Nations that were on a list of communities that were supposed to be contacted. While Mr. Pallister continues to claim his government has consulted extensively, there’s mounting evidence that shows otherwise.
The premier continued this week to accuse Ottawa of adding more conditions to the approval process. However, he gave only one example of what those extra conditions were, saying the federal government has expanded the list of Indigenous communities that must be consulted.
Consultations are an important part of any major project that affects Indigenous communities. The Supreme Court of Canada has made it clear that meaningful consultations are required by law to ensure the concerns and input of Indigenous communities are heard, particularly with respect to how a project may affect their livelihoods.
In the case of the Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin outlets, First Nations have expressed concerns about how the project may impact fish stocks and water levels. Those concerns have yet to be fully heard by the province.
To complicate matters further, Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said this week that "formal" consultations with Indigenous communities have still not taken place. There have been "engagements," but no formal talks, he said. The province is negotiating with Ottawa to determine what criteria should be used to hold formal consultations.
Regardless of the legal requirements to consult, effective consultations can’t occur without a sincere commitment by government to listen to those affected by the project and to find solutions, where possible, to address their concerns.
Despite Mr. Pallister’s repeated claims that his government has engaged in consultations with Indigenous communities, it appears a sincere desire to listen is still missing from the equation.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
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