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Canada gutting its international reputation along with its environmental laws

November 12, 2013

The following is an opinion piece written by West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer, Anna Johnston, which was published on November 11th in the Hill Times.  It is reprinted here with permission. 

VANCOUVER, B.C.—When I embarked on my career, my father imparted on me this piece of wisdom: “Do what you say you will do, when you say you will do it.”

A lesson, as it turns out, that Canada’s leaders still need to learn.

Canada has recently come under scrutiny by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an inter-jurisdictional body responsible for monitoring compliance with the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. The commission has received hundreds of public comments regarding Canada’s apparent contraventions of this NAFTA side agreement. We now face hard questions about whether Canada has set itself on the path to becoming the kind of “pollution haven” the agreement was designed to prevent.

Last month, I joined policy makers, government officials, lawyers, academics, and professionals from across the continent at a session held by the commission in Washington, D.C. The hot-button issue? How Canada’s weakening of its environmental laws is flouting its legal obligations under the environmental side agreement.

Time and time again, I heard concerns over Canada’s sliding environmental track record and lack of political will to uphold its obligations under the agreement. As one participant from south of the border asked me, “What the hell is going on in your country?”

So how did Prime Minister Stephen Harper lead Canada, which was once seen as an international environmental leader, towards being a NAFTA pollution haven?

Last year, the federal government replaced Canada’s environmental assessment legislation with a new, weaker law that eliminated close to 3,000 environmental assessments across the country. In the same stroke, it repealed the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, Canada’s only law setting targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases.

It introduced amendments to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which if brought into force, will eliminate legal protection of navigation on 99 per cent of Canada’s lakes and rivers. Additional amendments to the Fisheries Act will severely curtail the protection of fish habitat and eliminate protection of fish that are not part of, or otherwise support, an existing fishery.

Public opposition to the amendments was overwhelming. Over 600 organizations, representing millions of Canadians and including scientists, aboriginal and community groups, fishing associations, conservation groups and former fisheries ministers have decried the amendments as environmentally irresponsible and undemocratic. Commissioner Bruce Cohen, appointed to inquire into the decline of the sockeye salmon on the Fraser River, concluded that the Fisheries Act amendments would impact important DFO fish habitat protection measures.

Then, last month, the federal government again made headlines for what will amount to further violations of Canada’s international commitments.

First, Environment Canada released a report admitting that Canada is expected to miss its greenhouse gas emissions reductions target under the Copenhagen Accord by half. Second, the government announced it would no longer automatically require environmental assessments of certain projects related to in-situ oil sands mining, such as groundwater extraction and heavy oil and oil sands processing facilities. An energy and water-intensive method of oil extraction, in-situ produces even more GHGs than open pit mining.

Documents obtained under access to information legislation reveal that these changes have been made in response to pressure from oil and gas industry groups. While the federal government has framed them as regulatory “streamlining,” the amendments actually amount to a shredding of environmental safeguards for short-term corporate interests.

Canada signed the environmental side agreement to address concerns that free trade would give the NAFTA partners an incentive to weaken environmental protection. It commits Canada to maintaining and improving its environmental laws, properly enforcing those laws, furthering scientific research in respect of environmental matters and ensuring that environmental regulatory proceedings are fair, open and equitable.

International covenants are not just measures of a country’s intentions, but of its national integrity. Weak enforcement provisions in the NAAEC may ultimately give Canada a free pass legally, but it has not protected our international reputation.

To uphold its responsibility to Canadians and its international partners, Canada must stop eroding environmental safeguards for the sake of industrial pocketbooks. It must ensure that resource development contributes to long-term community and environmental sustainability, starting by pulling the plug on risky amendments to the Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act. In short, Canada must keep its international commitments and enhance environmental protection through strong environmental laws.

Because as many parents would tell you, there is no honour in making promises you don’t intend to keep.

Anna Johnston, Staff Lawyer