How the Conservatives stole environmental protection in broad daylight

The single biggest assault on environmental law was tabled last Thursday morning in the House – to nary a whimper. No front page headlines. No media interviews for Opposition parties for the major networks. True, we will likely hear more outrage as people wade through the 428 page Budget Implementation Bill, C-38. But, for now, the Harper Conservatives have stolen environmental protection in plain sight.

It was a classic case of media manipulation. Starting with the early January Joe Oliver open letter, then the House of Commons Environment Committee report (hurried after pulling the plug on hearings on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act after 9 days). The mandatory 5-year review of the legislation was expected to take months, but the deadline of having a justification for an assault on Environmental Assessment in time for the budget required a fast report (written in secret). The dance of the seven veils continued with the March 29th budget, highlighting the “streamlining of reviews” and then Joe Oliver’s Earth Week Press Conference to explain what was planned.

Environmental groups and Opposition parties (rightly) expressed outrage at every stage. Media and others thought the main changes would have to do with fixed time-lines for EAs and the plan to allow provinces to take over environmental reviews. By the time the Harper Conservatives slipped the fine print into the 428 page Budget Implementation Bill, C-38, everyone was geared to ask about timelines in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act . Why not have shorter hearings? Why not modernize the Act?

Meanwhile the Fisheries Act had never been mentioned at all in the budget on March 29. The only Fisheries reference in the budget was a few lines saying DFO will “restructure its operations, consolidate internal services and leverage technologies to realize efficiencies and achieve savings.” Nothing in the budget talked about overhauling the definition of fish habitat.

On Tuesday, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield announced that changes were coming in the Fisheries Act, with a new focus on commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fisheries, instead of all fish — as has been the case for generations.

More outrage, but with a lot of confusion. The answers appeared to contradict themselves. Wait for the fine print, we were told.

So, Bill C-38 came in without any detailed lock-up or briefing. It landed softly for First Reading on Thursday morning and I started reading. It is much more devastating than I had imagined.

It had never been mentioned that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was to be repealed; and that an entirely new act of 67 pages would be tucked in to the Budget Act. No longer will there be predictable “triggers” for federal reviews. And if there ever is another federal review, it will only examine “environmental effects” of a very limited nature — fish and migratory birds; that’s it.

The Harper Conservatives have tried to construct the narrowest possible view of federal Constitutional responsibilities for the environment, and ceded all else to the provinces. The words, covering all the environmental effects to be reviewed in any future EA – “within the legislative authority of Parliament” – never appeared in the previous Act. The same words appear in section 4, the Purposes of the Act, “to protect the components of the environment that are within the legislative authority of Parliament from significant environmental effects caused by a designated project.”

None of this was described in advance. It creates a new bizarre environmental assessment law.

The ways in which the Fisheries Act would include the transfer of decision-making and management to the provinces were not explained in advance. Nor were the restriction of requirements for authorization to destroy habitat for those commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fisheries. It had not been mentioned that the Species at Risk Act would be amended to give the National Energy Board (NEB) power to approve the destruction of the habitat of endangered species – or killing rare species through the building of pipelines. Nor that the NEB would get power to over-ride the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

It is a wholesale re-writing of all areas of federal jurisdiction over the natural environment.

And it will go through a Finance Committee hearing. No hearings or amendments to be proposed by the committees that have any knowledge of these areas. C-38 is to be passed by late June.

Theft of the environment in plain sight goes along with abuse of Parliamentary process and of democracy itself.

Originally published in iPolitics.