Photo: Upcoming federal budget is not the place to change environmental law

Protecting our environment and supporting a thriving economy are important, and mutually dependent, goals. (Credit: Jeremy Hiebert via Flickr)

By Jeffery Young, Aquatic Biologist

It looks like the federal government is poised to make fundamental changes to the legal fabric that protects the clean air, water, food and biodiversity we depend on. Instead of an informed, transparent process for altering environmental laws, it looks like changes might be tagged onto the federal budget.

Recent news has focused on proposed changes to the Fisheries Act, with environmentalists, hunters and anglers, scientists, and former conservative ministers raising concerns. But it's equally plausible that other environmental laws could be on the block, such as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Species At Risk Act, and the Migratory Birds Convention Act.

When it comes to changing something as important as our environmental laws it's critical that we gather the best ecological science, engage experts with knowledge in the law, and bring together the people affected to work on a solution. This approach, based in transparency and evidence — ecological, economic and social — is far more likely to result in a decision that really does, "reflect the priorities of Canadians," as Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield suggests.

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Our democratic process relies on empowering representatives to reflect our interests and values, but without evidence as the basis of debate we're left with ideological positioning and needless conflict. The federal government has not only the responsibility to use an inclusive, science-based approach to decision-making, but the opportunity gained by applying the wisdom of our accumulated knowledge and the participation of others to achieve something better, for the economy and the environment.

Whether it's a doctor determining treatment for a patient, an engineer designing an airplane, or a judge ruling on a case, evidence is gathered and a clear decision made based on a rationale grounded in credible information.

Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, has claimed that environmental reviews triggered by the Fisheries Act create, "...a huge disincentive to investment that can cost Canadians good, well-paying jobs and jeopardize the economic viability of major projects." He further suggests that Canada's economy is at risk unless action is taken.

These are important allegations, but where is the evidence to back them up and what is the process to ensure we make changes that actually solve the right problems? Many of our industries depend directly on a healthy environment, including fisheries, forestry, tourism and farming. They too are part of Canada's economy and should be considered in such a decision. Minister Oliver's narrow perspective on "major projects" and lack of consultation raises concerns about whether or not the interests of all Canadians are being fully considered.

Dr. Jeff Hutchings, the lead scientist behind a recent letter on the issue, indicates that not even the government's own scientists have been engaged, "There is no evidence to suggest that the proposed revision to the Fisheries Act was based on an appropriate level of consultation with, and advice received from, DFO's science sector." Engaging scientists on environmental laws is important. They can help ensure the laws are based in science, are clear to interpret, and protect critical ecosystem components like water quality and biodiversity within their limits.

Protecting our environment and supporting a thriving economy are important, and mutually dependent, goals. Canada could do a better job at both. Regardless of how effective existing environmental laws are, without a transparent, science-based process to review and potentially change them we will not get the best result. Further, without transparency and a clear basis in available facts, there is a lack of accountability to the outcome and citizens are more likely to feel disengaged from their government.

If you're interested in expressing your thoughts on potential changes to the Fisheries Act, check out our friends at the Georgia Strait Alliance.

March 22, 2012

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Apr 20, 2012
10:45 AM

At a time when the world is in a state of destruction, The Canadian Government is hell been on destroying what is left of Canada’s environment in the name of the GDP an out dated dysfunctional practices that is skewed on so many levels, one has to ask himself if this government mentality competent when they deliberately put the safety of Canadians and future Canadians at risk.

Mar 26, 2012
10:25 PM

This seems to be a very passive article considering the consequences of the government actions to change the laws, so the corporates can run wild over the environment for the almighty dollar. Please post the consequences of these actions on the environment. lets start with the pipeline the disgusting tar sands to Kitimat.

Mar 26, 2012
7:51 PM

This government is going in the wrong direction.

Mar 26, 2012
11:31 AM

It doesn't look like our conservative government is at all about doing the democratic thing or the right thing for the environment.

As Dr Boyd points out they are not above using sneaky little tricks that reduce the transparency of their potentially harmful activities.

Democratic governments are pretty much just seen as obstacles to be controlled by economic imperialists and corporatist s. These groups are not motivated by political ideals but rather game the political systems and the public to get what they want, as much of the resources and surpluses developed by labor as possible. The only philosophies and principles they follow are those justifying greed.

Mar 22, 2012
3:47 PM

I've also written about the dirty trick the Harper Conservatives are using to sabotage Canadian environmental laws here: There needs to be a national backlash against these proposed changes!

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