No government has a mandate to destroy our natural world

We are now fighting a rear-guard action against losing all the laws we have.

For the last forty years or so, any paper on environmental policy could be forward-looking. The steady, if lamentably slow, process of developing environmental law and policy has been advancing since 1970 and the creation of Environment Canada.

Canada was slower than the United States. Under the Nixon presidency, the US passed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and laws governing environmental assessments.

It took Canada several decades more to develop less robust laws, with the heavy lifting done in the Mulroney era with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the creation of the National Round Table on Environment and Economy, and the launching of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

The CEAA ultimately came into effect once Jean Chr?tien had become prime minister, and it was Chr?tien who brought in the Environmental Commissioner, within the office of the Auditor General, as well as the Species at Risk Act.

I would love to write an article setting out where the country needs to go to advance better environmental law and policy. However, we are now fighting a rear-guard action against losing all the laws we have. Not only is the CEAA process under assault, but so too are the habitat protection provisions in the Fisheries Act.

The attacks on the environmental assessment process have been unrelenting. First, the Harper government weakened it in the 2010 omnibus budget bill. By attaching wholesale changes to environmental law to the budget bill, it was forced through, without benefit of hearings or public outrage.

Sadly, opposition parties at the time were more afraid of an inconvenient election than they were dedicated to preserving environmental law. The 2010 omnibus budget bill savaged the CEAA by taking energy projects out of its jurisdiction and weakening comprehensive study. The next move to hogtie environmental review was to cut CEAA’s budget by 40 per cent.

Last week, the House environment committee issued a pre-ordained set of recommendations to further destroy environmental review.

Under the CEAA, every five years there is a mandatory review of the Act. In 2000, the review took over a year; hearings were held across the country; the process ran from January 2000 to March 2001.

This time, the committee pulled the plug after hearing witnesses for nine days. That’s right—the previous government studied the law for 15 months, and the Conservatives didn’t give it 15 days.

Many witnesses, who had been informed they would be heard, were turned away. I thought at the time that the Prime Minister’s Office must have told the Conservatives who control the committee to deliver ASAP a report to gut the process. And they did.

I fear that the sweeping changes—removing the CEAA’s jurisdiction from any province with “equivalent” environmental assessments, removing the requirement to consider alternatives, ordering fixed timelines for reviews, giving the minister increased powers, “streamlining” First Nations consultations—all point toward more nails in the CEAA’s coffin.

A few days after the recommendations to emasculate the CEAA process, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield confirmed in the House that the Fisheries Act is also targeted for massive erosion.

The Fisheries Act, with its origins in the earliest days of Canada, is the strongest environmental law we have in Canada; now the minister appears set to remove the sections of the Act that prohibit the destruction of fish habitat.

We are also hearing that the protection of fish, a constitutional area of federal responsibility, is to be weakened. Only fish of “economic, cultural, or ecological value” will be protected. No one knows what that means.

We do know that none of this is coming from the scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It is not coming from the minister either. Just like the Environment committee report, this appalling change has PMO fingerprints all over it.

It is clear that Stephen Harper has one burning desire; one unalterable vision. It is of six million barrels of oil a day coming out of the oil sands. He wants it dug out, pumped out, or steamed out, and turned into a form of bitumen crude capable of flowing in a pipeline to get it to refineries, preferably outside of Canada.

The prime minister has promised a foreign power, none less than the government of China, that its state-owned oil enterprises with profits that flow to the state and its military, will have its pipeline built through northern British Columbia. He has promised that oil supertankers will chart the most treacherous waters on the planet, ignoring a tanker ban that has been in place since 1972.

All this has he promised. And what stands in his way? Fish habitat and the laws that protect it, as well as hundreds of streams and lakes between the oil sands and Kitimat, BC.

As well, he is apparently untroubled by the opposition of dozens of First Nations, nor by the fiduciary duty he holds to protect First Nations constitutionally-enshrined aboriginal rights. Nor does it enter his calculus that 80 per cent of British Columbians oppose opening the coast to tanker traffic.

After 35 years of working on environmental assessments, I am watching the current government weaken the process to less than what we had in 1970. No government has a mandate to undo environmental law. No government has a mandate to destroy our natural world.

Elizabeth May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada and the Member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands.

Originally printed in Embassy Magazine