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What Canada’s new government means for the environment

22 October, 2015

The Liberal Party’s main campaign promises on environmental legal protection

October 19th was a day few could have predicted. After what was reported to be Canada’s longest federal election campaign since 1872 and one that saw the highest voter turnout in 20 years, Canadians now have an incoming majority Liberal government, one that campaigned largely on a promise of change.

One of those sought-after changes was greater environmental protection. While the Liberals’ platform on the environment did not contain everything we would have liked, when West Coast published our platform comparison on key environmental law reforms we were pleased to see that they had made many important commitments to better protecting Canada’s nature and democracy. Many of them were contained in their New Plan for Canada’s Environment and Economy, but a number appeared in various other places, sometimes making it difficult to track them all down.

To help you understand where the new Canadian government stands on the environment, here we compile the Liberal Party’s main promises (and lack thereof) on issues that are near and dear to our hearts (and perhaps yours too), such as environmental law reform, climate, oil pipelines and tankers, marine protected areas and more democratic environmental decision-making. Due to length, we do not touch on each and every environment-related promise, but we’ve tried to catch the main ones.

The context

As we have frequently written (see here and here, for example) and as our new report describes, since 2012, Canada has seen a dramatic weakening of legal protection for our environment, including the gutting of fish and fish habitat protection, the removal of key legal protections from over 99% of our lakes and rivers, the repeal of Canada’s only law requiring the government to make a mandatory plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the shutting of the public out of environmental decision-making and the weakening of our environmental assessment processes.

Tens of thousands of Canadians spoke out against the rollbacks, including scientists, conservation groups, and even four former federal fisheries ministers. The government rammed the changes through intact, perhaps hoping that by the 2015 election, voters would have forgotten or forgiven the shredding of their environmental safety net.

But they hadn’t. While some claimed that the environment was largely ignored during the election, a poll showed that the environment was the second-most important issue to Canadians after the economy. If the party platforms are any indicator, the parties seemed to understand that greater environmental protection matters deeply to voters, with the Green, Liberal and NDP parties all making a number of commitments to better protect Canada’s nature and democracy (the Conservatives did not commit to any environmental law reforms, but did promise funding to help protect BC’s wild salmon and the east coast lobster fishery).

Environmental law reform

In 2014, ten of Canada’s leading non-profit environmental organizations* (including West Coast) came together and identified a series of shared national environmental objectives, which were shared with all parties. Key among those was the recommendation to “[r]ebuild and strengthen Canada’s environmental laws in an open, collaborative manner, informed by best available science and indigenous knowledge, to safeguard our land, air, water and species” as well as “recognize environmental rights.”

This recommendation focuses on undoing the rollbacks to Canada’s main environmental laws and strengthening key statutes, such as laws governing the assessment of potentially harmful projects and activities, and laws protecting fish, at-risk-species and Canada’s navigable waters. The Liberal Platform addresses many of these recommendations, as follows.

Environmental assessment

  • Establish a new, comprehensive, timely, and fair environmental assessment process that restores robust oversight, ensures decisions are evidence-based, allows the public to meaningfully participate and includes an analysis of upstream impacts and the greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Ensure the Crown is fully executing its constitutional duty to consult and respect Aboriginal Peoples on project reviews and assessments.

Protection of all fish and fish habitat

  • Conduct a wholesale review of changes to the Fisheries Act to re-establish lost protections and incorporate more modern safeguards.

Protection of all of Canada’s lakes, rivers and marine waters

  • Conduct a wholesale review of the elimination of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, to re-establish lost protections and incorporate more modern safeguards.
  • Increase the amount of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected from 1.3 percent to 5 percent by 2017, and 10 percent by 2020.
  • Work with the provinces, Indigenous Peoples, and stakeholders to co-manage our oceans and develop marine resource and management plans. (This bodes well for BC’s coast, where innovative Marine Planning Partnership ocean zoning plans have been completed. Complementary federal action on marine co-management will better protect the healthy oceans we all rely on.)

Protection of Canada’s species at risk

  • Better protect Canada’s endangered species, responding faster to scientific advice on listing species, meeting mandatory timelines for responding to Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommendations, and completing robust species at risk recovery plans.


Expansion of Canada’s park system

  • Rapidly develop a road map to meet Canada’s international commitment to protect 17 percent of our land and inland waters by 2020.

Climate and energy

Greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets

Notably, and unlike the NDP and Green Party platforms, the Liberal platform did not contain a strong national greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and national carbon pricing.  Rather, the party made commitments to develop GHG emissions reduction targets in the future, in collaboration with the provinces. However, the lack of concrete commitments in their platform should not be taken as meaning that a Liberal government will not provide real climate leadership, but simply that the approach that the government has chosen is not the one that we recommended.  The Liberal government will need to demonstrate that its approach can deliver real greenhouse gas reductions, particularly in provinces that have been laggards in this arena.

The Liberals promised to:

  • Work with the provinces and territories to set targets that recognize the need for Canada to do its part to prevent greater than two degrees Celsius warming. In another place this was stated as: will provide national leadership and join with the provinces and territories to take action on climate change, put a price on carbon, and reduce carbon pollution.”
  • Have Justin Trudeau attend the Paris Conference, and invite the premiers to do the same.
  • Hold a Premier’s conference within 90 days of the Paris Conference to work to establish a pan-Canadian framework for combatting climate change.
  • Ensure that the provinces and territories have adequate tools to design their own policies to meet these commitments, including their own carbon pricing policies.
  • Enter into comprehensive emissions reduction agreement with provinces and territories, which would provide targeted federal funding to help them achieve [provincial climate] goals.

Renewable energy economy

In addition, however, the Liberal platform did include a number of commitments aimed at transitioning Canada to a renewable energy economy, including commitments to:

  • “[P]hase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry,” initially by allowing the “use of the Canadian Exploration Expenses tax deduction only in cases of unsuccessful exploration,” redirecting the savings to investment in “new and clean energy.”
  • Invest $100 million more per year in organizations that have been successful at supporting the emergence of clean technology firms in Canada.
  • Establish the Canada Green Investment Bond to support both large- and community-scale renewable energy projects.
  • Consult on ways to enhance the scientific research and experimental development tax credit – in conjunction with other tax measures – to generate more clean technology investment.


Pipelines and Tankers

Given West Coast’s extensive work opposing pipelines and tankers, we paid careful attention to the Liberal Party promises (and lack thereof) regarding oil and our coasts.

  • Formalize a moratorium on oil tanker traffic along British Columbia’s north coast.
  • Reverse the approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project (although there are valid questions of our new government’s legal authority to do so  under current laws).
  • Modernize and rebuild trust in the National Energy Board, ensuring it has broad regional representation and sufficient expertise in fields such as environmental science, community development, and Indigenous traditional knowledge.

The Liberal platform did not promise to oppose other oil pipelines and tankers projects like Kinder Morgan or Energy East, but rather committed to establishing a new, independent, evidence-based process for reviewing such proposal.

Finally, we remain skeptical about a Liberal platform commitment to “modernize and rebuild trust in the National Energy Board.” An attempt to shift the NEB from its traditional role of promoting the expansion of the oil and gas industry will be an uphill battle.  As a society we need a fundamental overhaul, creating an institution that could actually help Canada transition away from oil and gas development and to a sustainable energy future. 

Unmuzzling charitable voices and the “advocacy chill

In addition to our work on environmental priorities, West Coast was one of seventeen environmental organizations that recently canvased the parties on their response to recent government audits of environmental and other charities for undertaking “political activities.”  The Liberals committed to preventing the use of tax laws against charities that were speaking out about public issues related to their mandate.  Specifically, the Liberal platform promises regarding the Canada Revenue Agency states:

We will allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment, and will modernize the rules governing the charitable and not-for-profit sectors.

This will include clarifying the rules governing “political activity,” with an understanding that charities make an important contribution to public debate and public policy. A new legislative framework to strengthen the sector will emerge from this process.

Going Forward

The Liberal Party’s environmental platform promises were neither perfect nor complete, but they do contain a heartening number of the requests that environmental and other groups made to the parties and our previous government. If fulfilled, they will indeed mark a new environmental era for Canada. We have a long history of working with governments of all political stripes to build stronger environmental laws, and we look forward to working with the new Canadian government for a more sustainable future. 

By Anna Johnston and Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel


*Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace Canada, Nature Canada, Pembina Institute, Sierra Club Canada, World Wildlife Fund and West Coast Environmental Law.

Note: For information about the platforms of the other parties, see our platform comparison on key environmental law reform priorities.