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Twelve pillars of a “next generation” of Canadian environmental assessment

August 23, 2016

The jury is out: Canada needs a visionary new approach to assessing proposals that could impact the environment. We have written previously about how Canada’s environmental assessment (EA) regime is broken (here and here, for example). The government recognized this fact in June 2016 when it announced an independent review of federal environmental assessment processes.

Photo: All2gethernow

The four-person expert panel appointed to conduct the review has until January 31, 2017 to do widespread consultations and submit a report to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change with its recommendations on how to build a stronger, more credible EA framework for Canada. It’s a tall order in a short amount of time.

Thankfully, much thinking has already been done on what a “next generation” of environmental assessment looks like. This August, West Coast published the proceedings of the Federal Environmental Assessment Reform Summit it hosted in Ottawa in May 2016. Attended by over 30 experts from across the country, the Summit explored leading-edge solutions to key issues facing environmental assessment in Canada.  These included how to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in environmental assessment, how to coordinate assessments conducted by federal and provincial governments, and how to implement a meaningful climate test in federal EA.

Summit participants reached consensus on a number of points. One core recommendation is that the government needs to repeal the controversial Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 and build a visionary new law, policies and guidelines to govern environmental assessments according to leading-edge thinking. As for what that visionary new framework should look like, I compiled the key principles that Summit participants reached consensus on into twelve integrated “pillars” of environmental assessment.

They are:

1. Sustainability as a core objective: All assessments ensure the long term health of the environment and social values.  Equitable distribution of risks, impacts and benefits.

2. Integrated, tiered assessments starting at the strategic and regional level: Participatory and sustainability-based assessments at the regional, strategic and project levels, and each of those levels inform the other.

3. Cumulative effects assessments done regionally: Cumulative effects assessment is regional, focuses on environmental health, and looks to the past, present and future.

4. Collaboration and harmonization: Jurisdictions harmonize their assessments to the highest standard, collaborating on processes and decisions wherever possible.

5. Co-governance with Indigenous Nations: Collaborative assessment and decision-making processes are based on nation-to-nation relationships, reconciliation and the obligation to secure the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples.

6. Climate assessments to achieve Canada’s climate goals: A climate test ensures that projects keep Canada on track to meeting its climate change commitments and targets.

7. Credibility, transparency and accountability throughout: Legislation sets out criteria, rules and factors to guide assessments and discourage politicized decisions. An independent body conducts assessments and the public has the right to appeal decisions.

8. Participation for the people: Meaningful public participation is early, ongoing, accessible and dynamic. It occurs at all levels of assessment and has the ability to influence outcomes.

9. Transparent and accessible information flows: All relevant information is easily accessible to the public, shared between different levels of assessment and remains available for future use.

10. Ensuring sustainability after the assessment: After projects are approved, the law requires robust follow-up, monitoring, adaptive management, compliance and enforcement.

11. Consideration of the best option from among a range of alternatives: Assessments consider alternative scenarios, including the “no” alternative.

12. Emphasis on learning: The assessment regime fosters opportunities for learning, to ensure more informed and better decisions now and into the future.

Photo: Camp ASCCA

What’s next?

A lot of hard work in a short amount of time, but probably some good fun, especially if you’re an EA geek. There are many opportunities during the review for the Panel to tap into the wealth of experience and wisdom of experts, Indigenous peoples and the general public on how to build an environmental assessment framework that works for nature and communities.

There will be opportunities for public participation: one of the Panel’s first tasks is to come up with a Public Engagement Strategy for soliciting and encouraging public input into federal environmental assessment processes, and an Indigenous Engagement Strategy for engaging and consulting with Indigenous peoples. Public consultations will likely occur all through the fall, so stay tuned for information about opportunities near you- both online and in person.

Under the EA Review Panel’s Terms of Reference, the Minister has also appointed a Multi-Interest Advisory Committee to provide assistance to the Panel.  This Advisory Committee is comprised of “environmental” representatives (“environmental” includes experts such as academics and lawyers – including myself), industry, Indigenous organizations and key government departments and agencies. The Committee will meet once or twice a month during the review to discuss EA reform and provide recommendations to the Panel.

I also expect that the Environmental Planning and Assessment Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Network that I co-Chair will be deeply involved throughout the review. The Caucus has over 60 members from across Canada and has been working on federal environmental assessment laws, regulations, policy and public engagement for over 30 years. Since the Prime Minister charged the Minister of Environment and Climate change with reviewing Canada’s EA processes, the Caucus has been enjoying a renewed relationship with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which has indicated a desire to engage the Caucus in the review.

The time is now: with meaningful public participation, collaboration with Indigenous governments and these twelve pillars as a basis, Canada has an opportunity to build a legacy law, a next-generation environmental assessment act that safeguards communities, the environment and democracy.

By Anna Johnson, Staff Counsel


Check out our Media Release on the twelve pillars of a next-generation environmental assessment process

Read the Executive Summary of the EA Reform Summit Proceedings

Learn more about the Summit at