Surprise letter from Mi'kmaw chiefs derails N.S. minister's attempt to fast-track federal bill

Natural Resources and Renewables Minister Tory Rushton travelled to Ottawa to speak in favour of Bill C-49. Rushton said if there are concerns from the Assembly of Mi'kmaw Chiefs about the bill, further discussions will have to take place. (CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's plea to speed up passage of federal legislation impacting offshore wind projects suffered a blow Thursday when a Senate committee said it had received a letter from Mi'kmaw chiefs raising concerns about how quickly the bill is moving toward becoming law.

Tory Rushton, Nova Scotia's minister of natural resources and renewables, told the Senate's standing committee on energy, the environment and natural resources that Mi'kmaq are "partners" and "supporters" of the province's "transition to clean energy."

But Sen. Mary Jane McCallum of Manitoba informed Rushton during his testimony that the committee had received a letter from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs outlining multiple concerns over Bill C-49, including that the required consultation process had not been followed.

"Mi'kmaw leadership were not aware of the bill, could not assess it, provide feedback or meaningfully participate in something that will significantly impact them and their territory," said the letter, which McCallum read during the meeting.

"Given the significance and magnitude of this bill and its far-reaching consequences for the assessment of offshore renewable energy projects, we have serious concerns at the prospect of it being unduly rushed through committee."

Bill C-49 amends separate offshore accords between Canada and Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. It would allow joint provincial-federal offshore petroleum boards to oversee development of offshore wind projects.

Minister blindsided by concerns

Rushton, who travelled to Ottawa with a small delegation that included representatives from the Mi'kmaw communities of Membertou and Potlotek, said it was the first he'd heard of any problems with the bill.

"I've had conversations with chiefs as of late this week, but that was never raised to myself," Rushton told the committee. "That's the first I'm hearing of that letter, to be very honest."

He said further conversations would "absolutely" need to be held to address any concerns from Mi'kmaw chiefs in Nova Scotia.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs confirmed Thursday it wrote the committee and outlined concerns, but no one was available to discuss the contents of the letter.

CBC News obtained a copy of the letter, which was signed by Chief Sidney Peters, co-chair of the assembly.

Peters wrote the assembly wants additional time to analyze the bill and "its potential implications for our constitutionally protected rights and the waters of Mi'kma'ki."

The letter goes on to say the assembly will follow up on its concerns with the committee.

"It is our hope that there will be an opportunity to discuss and address these concerns with the Senate committee, and that this letter marks the beginning of a more involved and meaningful nation-to-nation dialogue between the assembly and the Senate," the letter concludes.

The chair of the Senate committee, Paul Massicotte, told members Thursday they would hear from the chiefs in early September before proceeding with examination of the bill.

"They're going to get a full hearing because we're going to have a meeting just for that purpose," said Massicotte.

Delay could come at a cost, warns Rushton

Rushton later told CBC News although he was surprised to hear concerns from the chiefs, he didn't see that as a blow to his efforts to speed up passage of Bill C-49.

"This is new information that's been put in front of me and I think my history has proven [that] whenever an issue's put at hand, I'll deal with it," he said from the airport in Ottawa.

The Houston government had been hoping to introduce mirror legislation in early fall.

Rushton said that would have to wait until the federal bill is passed, but he cautioned any delay could jeopardize "huge investment this fiscal year from many investors that are looking for a regulatory regime put into place."

"It's very important for this legislation to pass as soon as possible," Rushton said.