My name is Michael Miltenberger. I was the MLA from Thebacha from 1995-2015 and minister of Environment for nine years starting in 2005.
I have read the article in Yellowknifer titled Wildlife Act ‘pushed down the throat of Indigenous people,’ says Lutsel K’e band member (Jan. 6). Many would agree that was the case prior to 2005 but that changed and here is how.
In 2005, leaders of the governments of the NWT gathered in Inuvik to find a way forward on the stalled rewriting of the NWT Wildlife Act. Hopes were not high.
The NWT had been promising a rewrite of the Wildlife Act since the mid-1990s. The existing act dated from the 1950s and did not recognize land claims or Indigenous rights. Changing it was a priority of the Indigenous governments. But the NWT government had been treating them as stakeholders, not as independent authorities and rights-holders, essentially excluding them from a substantive role in drafting a new act. The Indigenous governments were having none of it. They refused to take part in the process unless they had a meaningful role from start to finish. This was their red line.
One of my first items of business as minister of ENR in 2005 was to challenge the legal status quo which said only public government could draft legislation. I persuaded the minister of Justice and cabinet that it was time for us to break new ground in how we do business with Indigenous governments.
In Inuvik, the mood in the room was wary, coloured by more than 10 years of rancour and frustration with the drafting process. I talked of the problems of the past and the need to move forward together. I made the offer for a co-drafting process. Chairs scraped as the leaders sat up and leaned forward. They asked questions. Is there a catch? Is the NWT government serious? Will they cover our costs? Are we in from the beginning of the process? The answer, I said, is that we are deadly serious, there is no catch, we will cover the costs, and we will start from the beginning together.
We would start with the drafting of the NWT Species at Risk Act, an important, but smaller bill which allowed us to work out the bugs of the co-drafting process, then move on to the Wildlife Act. The change in mood was palpable. The relief and eagerness to finally get moving was visible as we chatted after the meeting.
A Co-drafting Working Group (CWG) was struck that prepared and agreed on a draft bill. For the first time anywhere, there were many hands of other governments on the pen drafting a public government bill. There were seats at the table for all the governments, including the NWT, on an equal basis. But while most were keen, not all were interested in or trusting of the opportunity. The CWG decided that it was important to move forward with a critical mass. If a government chose not to take part, their seat would remain for them to occupy at any time should they change their mind.
Representatives from Indigenous governments and the GNWT worked for nearly 10 years to create collective and ground-breaking co-drafted legislation — something that had never before been done in Canada, or since. The co-drafting process expanded the definition of consensus in two ways: consensus between the NWT government and Indigenous governments on the co-drafting process itself, and consensus among all on the substance of critical legislation. The resulting two laws are truly unique pieces of Northern legislation that incorporate traditional knowledge and practices as part of the laws to protect the wildlife of this territory.
The Species at Risk Act and the Wildlife Act were passed in 2009 and 2013, respectively. The process to achieve these bills, and the bills themselves, were ground-breaking and innovative. Co-drafting was especially effective when compared to the old-school processes that cost millions and got us nothing but deepening anger and distrust. We showed what can be done when governments bring their respective jurisdictions to the table with an open mind, a willingness to work together and mutual acknowledgement that the status quo isn’t working and that no one government can go it alone on critical issues like wildlife, water and forestry.