Parliamentary Newsletter -- Winter 2007
In early March, I sent a copy of my Parliamentary Newsletter to every household in the NWT. Hope you got your copy! If not, here are the articles it contained.
A Senator’s Life
People in the North often ask me what it’s like to be a Senator. I think it is a bit of a mystery as you seldom hear about the work of the Senate in papers on or TV unless there is a problem. Rather than describe things in general terms, I thought I’d pick a specific week and describe in detail the things I did. I chose November 5 to 11 because it was more or less average for workload and also showed the real variety in the things I do.
I started the week in Ottawa. I’d been there since October 16th and was glad I would be able to return home to Fort Simpson at week’s end. First, though, I had a trip to Nova Scotia to deal with. The Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples is in the final stages of completing its study on Aboriginal economic development and we had a short fact-finding trip to Nova Scotia to see first hand the situation there. On Sunday, I flew down to Halifax with staff, including my policy advisor, Hayden Trenholm. I encourage him to get out of Ottawa as often as possible so he can see what real life is like away from Parliament Hill. In Halifax we were joined by other Senators from the committee, including Senator Gerry St. Germain from BC and Sandra Lovelace Nicholas from New Brunswick. BC Senator Larry Campbell was supposed to join us but he got stranded in Saskatoon by a snowstorm!
Sunday night was clear and crisp with a beautiful full moon over Halifax harbour but the next day turned cloudy and cold. We started our day at 8 a.m. with a meeting with the editors of the Halifax Chronicle Herald – the biggest daily paper – where Senator St. Germain and I described the committee’s work and our preliminary findings. Next, Senators and staff spent an hour with officials from the province of Nova Scotia to hear about how they are working with Mi’kmaq communities on economic development. Then it was a quick bus ride over to Cole Harbour to visit one of the reserves of the Millbrook First Nation where we were able to see the General Dynamics Canada SSF building now under construction (Maritime Helicopter Project) and a 56 unit residential project. An hour’s drive up the highway brought us to the main Millbrook reserve on the edge of Truro to meet with Chief Lawrence Paul, his Council and staff. The Millbrook Power Centre includes stores, restaurants and hotels that take advantage of the 44,000 vehicles that pass by on the TransCanada every day. The First Nation also has a gaming centre, a museum and, surprisingly, a fish farm where they raise Arctic Char! A 10 metre statue of Glooscap – a legendary Mi’kmaq figure – stands by the edge of the highway and overlooks the community with a very pleased look on his face. After three and a half hours it was time to head back through the snow to Halifax for our 5 p.m. flight to Ottawa.
Tuesday morning started with a brisk walk from my condo apartment in Hull across the river to Parliament Hill where the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples was meeting at 9 p.m. In addition to economic development, the Committee is also studying the specific claims process. Specific claims arise when there was a breach of Canada’s fiduciary responsibility with respect to Indian lands or assets. Simply put, there are cases where First Nations didn’t get all the land to which they were entitled or had land taken away in an improper fashion. In some cases there was outright fraud by Indian agents. Many of these claims go back tens or hundreds of years and the process for solving them is very slow and often unjust. Our committee is trying to find ways to fix the system – which is a lot harder than it sounds! At this meeting, we heard from representatives of the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island and Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. We met with them for nearly two hours to get a thorough understanding of their perspective on this complex issue.
Later that morning I met with an Aboriginal group from British Columbia who had recently negotiated an agreement with Canada and British Columbia to transfer authority over education to a group of BC First Nations. Since then, the government has introduced a Bill in Parliament which will eventually be examined by the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee before it becomes law.
At noon I attended the weekly Liberal Senate Caucus where all the Liberal Senators meet over lunch to discuss the important issues before us. We discuss the Bills the Senate is dealing with as well as strategy for question period. Everything is of course confidential so I can’t say much about the discussion, except to say that, as usual the debate was lively and informed.
Generally the Senate sits every week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons and this week was no exception. The bells begin ringing at 1:45p.m. to call us to the Chamber where the sitting begins formally at 2 when the Speaker is lead into the Chamber by the Usher of the Black Rod. The Senate is quite a formal and sedate place. Even question period is generally very polite – unlike what you may have seen on television. Perhaps it is because we are a bit older or less partisan or perhaps it is because our sittings are not televised, but deliberations in the Senate tend to be rational and quite good humoured.
The most high profile item on the agenda on November 7 was Bill C-2, the Accountability Act which was being debated at third reading. Like most days, however, we discussed a wide range of legislation and issues, including four that directly related to Aboriginal Peoples. This is one of the things I like about the Senate – our focus is often on the interests of Aboriginal people, minorities and regions, much more so than “the other place” as we call the House of Commons.
Normally on Tuesday evening the Senate Energy and Environment Committee meets but this day it was cancelled because Minister Ambrose wasn’t able to attend at the last minute. I was glad because I had a number of visitors from the North that afternoon and I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. Five residents of Colville Lake led by Chief Richard Kochon and former Chief Hyacinthe Kochon came to my office to discuss economic and environment issues. We had a good discussion over tea for an hour or so. They were very interested in promoting economic development in their area while still ensuring the environment was protected. They are under a lot of pressure from both industry and environmental groups and wanted my advice on how to balance the two for the best interests of their community. The meeting was carried out both in English and Slavey so it was just like being in the North.
The day finished pleasantly with dinner at the Parliamentary restaurant with Karen. Our guests were Susan Marie from the NWT and Chief Jerry Asp from British Columbia, who were in town to discuss an economic development project with Senators and MPs.
Wednesday mornings are set aside for party caucus meetings. I attend the Northern and Western Caucus at 9 followed by national caucus at 10. All Liberal Senators and Liberals meet together – the other parties hold their caucuses at the same time. Everything in Ottawa is about political parties so the importance of these meetings cannot be overstated. Caucus is an opportunity to provide input and get information on upcoming issues and to get to know my fellow Parliamentarians better. From time to time I speak out on northern and Aboriginal issues. It’s a valuable way to make sure the party leaders are well aware of our concerns. Of course, when the Liberals were in government I was able to speak directly to the Prime Minister during caucus.
Senate that day was mostly taken up with the Accountability Act though there was also a debate about literacy issues. I’ve been following the discussion quite closely and will contribute a northern perspective to the debate before the Senate adjourns in December. I was in and out of the Chamber that afternoon as I had a meeting with representatives of the Christian Embassy as well as a briefing on the AFN’s “Make Aboriginal Poverty History” campaign. Then at 6, there was another meeting of the Aboriginal Peoples Committee for more hearings on specific claims. National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations was our first witness, followed by representatives of the Blood Tribe in Alberta. We finished up about 9 p.m.
Thursday morning came much too early and started with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting with supporters of Michael Ignatieff’s leadership campaign. This was followed at 8 by a meeting of the Energy and Environment committee. The Committee is reviewing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and, as part of that, is doing a case study on the effects of mercury pollution. We heard some very good testimony from a panel of doctors on the impact of mercury on human health. This is a particularly serious problem in the North where mercury levels in some fish and sea animals is dangerously high and is having effects on women and their children.
Before heading off to a meeting with a delegation from the country of Mongolia, I was able to attend mass. Mass is held for Parliamentarians most Thursdays and I always try to go. It is important to keep your priorities straight!
I am treasurer of the Canada-Mongolia friendship group – one of many international Parliamentary associations active on the Hill. We meet from time to time with visiting delegations to learn of common issues between our countries. I’ve never been to Mongolia myself but hope to go someday. Thursday in the Chamber was dominated by debate on the Accountability Act which received third reading – with over 100 Senate amendments – that day. Shortly after the Senate adjourned, it was off to the airport where Karen and I caught a flight to Edmonton. Next morning we headed to Yellowknife where we helped teach a marriage preparation course that weekend. We finally got home again on Monday after four weeks away from Fort Simpson.
Northwest Territories to Ottawa
I was privileged to host three extraordinary teenagers from Nahanni Butte who came to Ottawa on November 20, 2006, to receive the Animal Action Award which was presented by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Kyra Tanche, Kayla Betsaka and Breagh Ingarfield started the Nahanni Butte Animal Shelter initiative 2 years ago, because they recognized the dog overpopulation issues in their community and took the initiative to improve the lives of these animals by building an animal shelter, learning companion animal first aid and basic health care as well as advocating humane education in their community. Their achievements have been featured on CBC's "On the Road Again". They were accompanied by their teacher, Cindy Buterbaugh.
During the last week of January 2007, the Canadian Boreal Initiative organized a Mackenzie Week on the Parliament Hill to build support for northern environment protection. First Nations delegations were in Ottawa to meet with Members of Parliament and government representatives.
On January 30, I had the pleasure of hosting a delegation from Deline and Fort Good Hope. I am very supportive of their specific approach as it relates to the NWT Protected Area Strategy, which allows land with important cultural or environmental value to be protected through territorial legislation.
Eli Nasogaluak, John Sabourin and Randy Sibbeston, three carvers from the NWT, won the First Prize at the 2007 Ottawa Winterlude Snow Carving Competition, on February 10. The sculpture entitled “Take Time to Dance” represents, as they wrote on their presentation flag, how we all need to take time out of our busy schedule and enjoy the good things in life. Our shovels are down as a spontaneous gesture, as we seize the moment of joy and friendship. We embrace our natural and environmental awareness and dance the “Shovel Shuffle” as represented by the “funny man” dancing with the polar bear. I know all of the representatives from across the country enjoyed completing their sculptures. It was amazing and exciting to watch the various figures arise from the big cubes of snow. Everyone should be proud of our winning team. See pictures here.