Last year, Canadians were battered by wildfires, heat waves and floods, but a new private member’s bill aims to help communities weather the climate crisis.
On Feb. 8, NDP MP Niki Ashton tabled a bill that would instruct the Canada Infrastructure Bank to prioritize projects that help the country adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change. It would also require the bank’s board to have at least three members recommended by Indigenous organizations to represent Inuit, Métis and First Nations people.
The bill could help communities invest in solutions to combat the wildfires, said Chief Roddy Owens of Pauingassi First Nation at a virtual press conference hosted by Ashton on Feb. 11. Last July, wildfires forced some members of Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nation in Manitoba to evacuate for over two months.
“This bill is about giving tools to communities to survive,” said Ashton, who represents the riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski.
If passed, the bill could facilitate important infrastructure projects like access roads to remote Indigenous communities. A recent study found a disproportionate number of wildfire evacuees in Canada were from First Nations communities, and determined communities and municipalities are best placed to decide what they need to fight climate change.
At the press conference, Chief Elvin Flett of St. Theresa Point First Nation in Manitoba spoke about potential projects that would benefit his community, including a “fully functioning recycling program and facility” and ensuring all homes have access to water and sewage treatment.
“We also need energy-efficient homes, alternative energy sources,” he said.
The Canada Infrastructure Bank is a Crown corporation that financially supports revenue-generating infrastructure projects that are "in the public interest" through public-private partnerships. Its growth plan includes investments in clean energy, broadband internet, energy-efficient retrofits, zero-emission buses and agricultural projects.
Ashton’s bill would remove language in the bank’s mandate that allows it to seek out private investment and instead encourage the federal government to fund public projects that will help Canadians manage the climate crisis.
“The most critical infrastructure needs in Canada aren't ones that have a profit attached to it, it's basic infrastructure that is needed for communities to go about their daily lives,” said Angella MacEwan, a senior economist with the Canadian Union of Public Employees and former NDP candidate for Ottawa Centre.
She said critical infrastructure should be publicly owned so it is designed to benefit the most people.
“That's where you get the biggest bang for your buck,” she added.
The bill does not earmark money for specific projects, it simply reorients the bank’s priorities so the $35 billion in its coffers would not be directed to for-profit projects with private partners.
“We're talking about water and wastewater, roads to communities, we're talking about getting off diesel, so clean energy,” said MacEwan. “The reason [those projects] haven't happened is because there's no profit there.”
If the Canada Infrastructure Bank could be the financing agent for different communities, it could get these critical projects off the ground, but right now, municipalities and First Nations communities can’t borrow on their own, she said.
“This is an important improvement for reconciliation to be realized,” said NDP MP Lori Idlout of Nunavut.
“All 25 of the communities that I represent in Nunavut run on diesel … Through this legislation, we could see many First Nations, Métis and Inuit applying to be self-reliant, so they can choose on their own what projects they will focus on in the communities that they represent.”