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Expert criticizes proposed changes to N.W.T. Environmental Rights Act as 'watered down'

An environmental law expert says proposed changes to the N.W.T. government's Environmental Rights Act fall short of protecting a person's right to a healthy environment.

Committee holds hearings on 3 environmental laws

Representatives from non-governmental organizations, Indigenous leaders and the public attend a hearing on incoming environmental legislation. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

The Northwest Territories government's proposed changes to the Environmental Rights Act are too "watered down" to protect a person's right to a healthy environment, says one expert.

"It's an ineffective way of recognizing the right," said University of Ottawa professor Lynda Collins, who works with the school's Centre of Environmental Law & Sustainability.

Collins called into public hearings Wednesday evening, hosted by the standing committee on economic development and environment, on proposed amendments to the Environmental Rights Act, which could become law before fall.

She criticized a clause in the proposed act that states that any "adult resident in the Northwest Territories who believes, on reasonable grounds, that an act or omission has occurred that has caused or is likely to cause significant harm to the environment" may ask the environmental minister to launch an investigation.

The legislation will be ineffective if it does not clearly define "significant harm," she said.

The proposed amendments also enshrine the right to a healthy environment, but Collins said this is meaningless unless the term "healthy environment" is defined.

A healthy environment is "ecologically sustainable" and includes clean air, safe food and drinking water, a non-toxic environment, a stable climate and biodiversity, said Collins.

Alternatives North representative Nancy Vail says incoming changes to the Environmental Rights Act will exclude youth from participating in a key provision of the act. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Collins also asked the committee to lose the requirement to swear a statement before a commissioner to launch an investigation. She said the provision will make it harder for people in remote communities to request investigations. 

Nancy Vail of Alternatives North said youth should be allowed to ask the minister to launch investigations too, because they are increasingly becoming leaders in environmentalist initiatives.

The committee also heard public feedback on two other pieces of proposed legislation dealing with forests and protected areas.

Expedite protected areas review, says Lutselk'e delegation

Lawyer Larry Innes and negotiator Steven Nitah tell the N.W.T. government's standing committee on economic development and environment that delays to the Protected Areas Act could put their work to establish Thaidene Nene at risk. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Steven Nitah, negotiator for Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation, told the  committee it should prioritize its review of the Protected Areas Act so all MLAs can vote on proposed changes before the fall.

Lawyer Larry Innes warned the window to push the bill to completion is closing, and the delays will compromise the long-standing efforts of Lutselk'e to establish Thaidene Nene. If the act is passed, Thaidene Nene is set to become a hybrid national park and territorial protected area.

Public hearings on the three bills are spilling over into a second hearing, with presentations from the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board and Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya. Last month, Dene Nation warned the proposed Forest Act could infringe on treaty rights.

 The hearing is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m.

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