It’s difficult to overstate the negative impact of the current Conservative government on federal environmental policy. You could make a strong argument that this government is the worst in the history of Canadian environmental policy. There are multiple lines of evidence that there has been:
- gutting of environmental laws and regulatory reviews of major industrial projects in Canada; and
- an erosion of scientific information available regarding Canadian environmental policy.
Gutting of environmental laws and regulatory reviews:
In 2012, the Harper government passed Bill C-38, a 450 page bill that made sweeping changes to environmental protection in Canada. Some of those changes include:
- Canadian Environmental Protection Act – Disposing waste at sea was changed to allow four renewals to the one-year limit period.
- Fisheries Act – Fish habitat provisions will be changed to protect only fish of “commercial, Aboriginal, and recreational” value and even those habitat protections are weakened. The new provisions create an incentive to drain a lake and kill all the fish, if not in a fishery, in order to fill a dry hole with mining tailings.
- The Department of Fisheries – The contaminants program was closed, dismissing Dr. Peter Ross and 55 of his colleagues across Canada. Dr. Peter Ross was Canada’s only marine mammal toxicologist. Along with his team, they spent 15 years studying “the increasing levels of toxins in oceans and in animals like the killer whale.”
- National Energy Board Act – NEB reviews will be limited to two years and its decisions can be reversed by the Cabinet, including decisions on the proposed Energy East pipeline.
- Species at Risk Act – This was amended to exempt the National Energy Board from having to impose conditions to protect critical habitat on projects it approves. Also, companies do not have to renew permits on projects threatening critical habitat.
- Species at Risk Act – This was amended to remove the time limitations on permits and agreements allowing activities that affect species at risk or their habitat (previously restricted to three and five years, respectively).
- Canada Seeds Act – This was revamped so the job of inspecting seed crops is no longer performed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Instead, it has been transferred to “authorized service providers” (i.e., the private sector).
- National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy – This was closed down by Bill C-38. The NRTEE brought industry leaders, environmentalists, First Nations, labour, and policy makers together to provide non-partisan research and advice on federal policies. Its demise will leave a policy vacuum in relation to Canada`s economic development.
- Wastewater Survey – The Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey was cut after being in place since 1983. It was the only national study of water consumption habits.
- More Attacks on Environmental Groups – The Canada Revenue Agency budget was increased by 8 million dollars and departmental resources were shifted to audit environmental organizations, despite the lack of evidence that these charities were violating tax laws. This move was done to disrupt the work of groups that disagree with the government’s actions and discourage public dissent. Canada’s largest national newspaper has referred to these audits as a ‘witch hunt’ in order to silence and intimidate tar sands and pipeline critics.
- Navigable Waters Protection Act – This Act was gutted by Bill C-38. This is one of the oldest regulatory statutes enacted by the Parliament of Canada. It requires approval for any works that may affect navigation on navigable waters in Canada. The old Act protected every body of water you could float a canoe in and required ministerial approval for any structure that went over, under or through a waterway. Under the new Navigation Protection Act, the Ottawa River is one of only 62 rivers, 97 lakes and 3 oceans that will be protected. The new Navigation Protection Act was also amended to say a pipeline is not a “work” within that Act.
Erosion of scientific information:
Over the past nine years, a systematic erosion of access to information has silenced any public discussion about our country’s action (or lack thereof) on environmental issues. Firing scientists and restricting their ability to report data that is not in accordance with current governmental positions, limiting public oversight of industrial projects and engagement in review processes, attacking individuals and groups that dissent from the government’s current position on environmental issues are all examples of putting ideology before democratic process.
- In 2007, new protocols were implemented at Environment Canada requiring senior federal scientists to seek permission from the government prior to giving interviews. This often required them to get approval from supervisors of written responses to the questions submitted by journalists before any interview.
- In January 2008, the Office of the National Science Adviser was phased out. This office previously acted as the voice and representative of the scientific community to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers.
- Since 2009, the federal government has fired over 2,000 scientists. Scientific research that is in the public interest is being cut, taxpayer-funded research is being withheld from the public, and scientists are being restricted from speaking to the media by new federal policies.
- In 2010, National Resources Canada began restricting scientists from freely speaking to the media and instead requiring governmental permission to do so.
- In January 2011, an open letter in the Globe and Mail written by Joe Oliver, Federal Minister of Natural Resources (currently Minister of Finance), labelled individuals in opposition to pipelines as ‘radical extremists’ that are trying to ‘destroy Canada’s economy’ and ‘kill good projects,’ and claimed that environmental groups threaten to ‘hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.’
- In December 2011, Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Accord with absolutely no public discussion or opportunity for debate in the House of Commons.
- In 2013, the Harper government made changes to The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, restricting scientists from publishing research, even international collaborative research, unless it was in accordance with governmental policy.
- A June 2013 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that90 per cent of federal scientists “feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media” about their work – and one third have been actively prevented from doing so.
When taken together with the federal government’s public endorsement of tar sands expansion and oil pipeline infrastructure, along with longstanding inaction on climate change and failure to enact much-needed clean energy legislation, it becomes clear that this federal government has doubled down on promoting the interests of the fossil fuel industry at a time when the science on the need for climate action could not be more clear.
Further, this government’s rhetoric around dissent by environmental groups has negatively impacted the tenor of public discussions around critical environmental issues. Paired with the unprecedented CRA audits of environmental charities, this federal government has cast a chill on engagement and dissent on a wide range of environmental files.
These lines of evidence, paired with observations of the platforms and positions of the other three major federal parties, have led Ecology Ottawa to the conclusion that any of the opposition parties would do a better job on environmental policy than this current government. While we look forward to the day when all parties are trying to outdo one another on environmental policy, we’re not there yet. In the short term, promoting environmental leadership means electing MPs from parties other than this federal government.