Omnibus No More

Chris Selley points to one part of C-45, last year’s second budget implementation act.

Until C-45 passed, reserves wishing to lease off parts of their land to businesses had to obtain the consent, in a referendum, of 50%-plus-one members, with a quorum of 50%. If that failed, a second referendum could be launched, and the plan approved with a simple majority, no quorum. Now a single simple majority vote is all that’s needed. Some native leaders object to this amendment on principle. But many others support the changes as a way of streamlining a process that can take years, during which time reserves are at a huge disadvantage in attracting new businesses compared to surrounding communities that are subject to no such process. (Here’s a crazy idea: Why can’t reserves decide the process for themselves?) At the Aboriginal Affairs Committee on Nov. 19, representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Tax Commission, the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board and the National Aboriginal Lands Managers Association all expressed support for untangling land designations.

But the democratic process that led to these amendments came in for a pounding, both from otherwise supportive witnesses and opposition politicians. Andrew Beynon, the witness from the Aboriginal Affairs department, conceded that there had been no “extensive consultation process,” and that he had never before seen such a sensitive matter crammed into an omnibus bill. Suspicion is warranted any time a government tries to slip something by you in a giant document without asking your opinion.

Two First Nations from Alberta are seeking to challenge C-38 and C-45 in federal court on the grounds that they were not consulted, but their concerns seem to be primarily with the changes made to the Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act.

Structural reform to limit the ability of a government to table and pass omnibus legislation is probably necessary—if you take the opinion that such bills are a problem and that actual, codified reform is the only way to establish change—but I wonder whether we might reach a point at which the practice is more trouble than it is worth: that what is gained by a government in getting to do what it wants to do in a relatively expedient manner is surpassed by the consternation that results. Does the very idea of omnibus legislation become poisoned? Or can you eventually exhaust the public (and perhaps critics) into accepting that this is how business is done?