Photo: World leaders in Mexico to protect biodiversity. What will Canada have to say?

(Credit: Center for Whale Research)

By Jay Ritchlin

"We're back." Just over a year ago, freshly elected Justin Trudeau jubilantly broadcast his intention to revive Canada's reputation as a progressive, co-operative and inclusive nation to the international community. But is that how Canada will be represented at the Convention on Biological Diversity's 13th Conference of the Parties (COP 13) in Cancun, Mexico this month?

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The prime minister's mandate letter to the fisheries minister made it clear that keeping oceans healthy is a priority, with a specific promise to protect 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. But our country has been inconsistent in international negotiations. Now into the mandate's second year, it's time to start matching words with action.

When it comes to living up to its global reputation, things looked promising at last year's climate summit in Paris. There, Canada played a leadership role, pushing for agreement on limiting global warming targets to 1.5 C. After 10 years of blocking co-operation on climate change, Canada received well-deserved kudos for stepping forward in international negotiations. Domestic policy has yet to follow suit.

On the international human rights front, we're seeing a different side to Canada. A joint NGO report, "Canada is back, but still far behind", expresses concern for the ineffectual federal watchdog overseeing Canadian multinational corporations.

Which Canada will show up on the international stage when it comes time to conserving biodiversity? Just weeks away from talks in Cancun, the Trudeau government is still leaving us guessing. Will decisions supported there actually be implemented back home?

The Cancun talks on conserving ocean biodiversity will be critical. Many global fish stocks are collapsing due to overfishing, industrial development and the effects of climate change, including ocean acidification.

On the one hand, Canada is making bold statements on marine protected areas. When meeting with President Obama earlier this year, Prime Minister Trudeau was emphatic that Canada would meet international commitments to protect 10 per cent of marine ecosystems by 2020 and "take concrete steps to achieve and substantially surpass these national goals in the coming years."

On the other hand, at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii this past September — part of the lead-up to COP 13 in Cancun — Canada appeared stuck in a previous era. It advocated for weaker standards before supporting motions on protected areas and abstained from votes on increased marine protection that the vast majority of countries supported.

Back in Ottawa, Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff have been developing standards for marine protection independent of the international community. In draft form, they seem designed to allow Canada to justify sidestepping international standards.

Canada should be applauded for committing publicly to meeting the 10 per cent goal. But if in meeting that goal we create paper parks and count areas that don't protect biodiversity, that commitment means nothing.

Let's make sure our recently reinstated scientists and policy-makers are putting their full energy into making tangible, progressive biodiversity conservation designations, not sugar-coating and creating loopholes.

Watering down international decisions could undermine more than protections here in Canada. It could destabilize global biodiversity protection efforts. That's not Canada making a comeback. That's Canada going backwards.

With the likely rollback of U.S. support for environmentally progressive agreements and policy, it's more important than ever that Canada step forward as a leader in the international arena.

Canada has some of the richest biodiversity in the world and a global responsibility to protect it. Decision-makers should consider effects on endangered species such as southern resident killer whales before expanding oil pipelines and tanker traffic.

Canada's "we're back" direction is important. After losing our 2010 shot at earning a seat on the Security Council because of regressive stances on a variety of international issues, including climate change, it's time to move forward.

Hopes to get back in the game in time for the next UN Security Council election in 2020 perfectly match the timing for meeting international marine biodiversity commitments.

But if Canada continues to say one thing while doing another, it's only a short time until our international colleagues' patience wanes and Trudeau's hopeful proclamation rings hollow.

Reputations take time to rebuild. When the global community meets in Mexico to negotiate desperately needed protection for biodiversity, let's make sure Canada behaves in a way that prompts the world to say, "It's good to have you back."

Jay Ritchlin is the Director-General of Western Canada for the David Suzuki Foundation


December 7, 2016

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