Bill C-38: A not so green Canada

After almost 24 hours of non-stop voting, omnibus budget bill C-38 has been passed by Parliament despite over 800 amendments proposed by the opposition.  Outcry against this bill has come from more than just opposition politicians – scientists, environmental groups, and even previous Conservative ministers for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Tom Siddon, David Anderson, John Fraser, and Herb Dhaliwal) have criticized this bill for its proposed changes to environmental legislation and the undemocratic nature of the entire process.

Proposed changes in the bill will have substantial impacts to Canada’s environmental legislation, including two important acts: the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act. In addition, funding for the world-renowned aquatic research centre, the Experimental Lakes Area, will be cut.  Although criticism of bill C-38 spans far beyond environmental topics, this article will focus on the impacts to water in BC from changes to 1) the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2) the Fisheries Act, and 3) the Experimental Lakes Area.

Changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act

The current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act will be replaced with a completely new act, where only impacts to fish, aquatic species listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), and migratory birds are considered.  Under the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, “any person or body having an interest in the outcome of the environmental assessment” may take part in the review process of a project with environmental impacts.  This definition will be changed such that stakeholders on the review panel are limited to persons “directly affected by the carrying out of the designated project” or persons with “relevant information or expertise.”

What does this mean for BC residents? As an individual, you may be excluded from dialogue regarding development projects under review unless you’re deemed to have relevant information or expertise.  It also means that many wetlands that we’ve worked so hard to restore won’t have the protection of the federal government unless SARA listed species are present. And that’s not many… of the 1511 species listed by the BC Conservation Data Centre, only 15% are legally protected by SARA. What’s more, SARA only protects species on Federal Crown land, which is only 1% of land in BC. That means that in BC, we have a 0.15% protection rate of endangered, threatened, and special concern species.  But that’s a bit of a tangent. If you’d like to read learn more about the problems with SARA, the David Suzuki Foundation has a good summary.

Changes to the Fisheries Act

Things are arguably even worse when you look at changes to the Fisheries Act in bill C-38. Only fish with “commercial, Aboriginal, and recreational” value will be protected under the new Act, excluding fishes like sculpins and dace, which have important ecological value, but aren’t too tasty.  Not only that, but the Act will be weakened substantially through the use of vague terminology: activities that cause “serious harm” to fish will be prohibited.  So what constitutes serious harm? In the new Bill, it’s defined as the “death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat.” So will polluting rivers with cancer causing toxins that deform fish and stunt their growth be acceptable?… as long as they don’t die?   Limits to reproductive output and population size are not a concern under this new legislation.  Furthermore, we don’t know to what time frame the word permanent actually refers. Is an alteration permanent if it persists for 5 years, or 100 years? This is not clear.

As a group with focused efforts on conservation, BCWF is, to say the least, extremely concerned about what this bill means for its members and for the environment of BC. In an open letter to Keith Ashfield (Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Bill Bosch (president of BCWF) states that the proposed changes in bill C-38 may “eliminat(e) a true national standard for protection of habitat as population and industry expand in the future.” He further criticizes the amendments as “lack(ing) transparency for process or the resulting decision making… further clouding and weakening a formerly powerful and effective section of the Fisheries Act.” Although strong legislation for the protection of fish-bearing waters, the previous Fisheries Act did not protect other types of wetlands.  Now the Act will be watered down further such that only wetlands valuable for recreational/commercial fisheries will be protected.  Protection is moving in the wrong direction with weaker legislation that could facilitate more  unchecked development of our pristine wilderness in BC. The biggest development of course is the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, proposed to go through central BC.  Given that in 2010, pipeline failures occurred an average of two times a day, amounting to 9350 litres of spilt oil, we’re talking about a huge risk to BC wetlands and forests.  This month alone, three major oil spills in Alberta have leaked about a million litres of crude oil.  If that’s not an indicator of the risk BC faces, I don’t know what is. Projects of this nature are a major concern for the vulnerable and fragile wetland ecosystems of BC.  

Funding Cut for the Experimental Lakes Area

Funding for major science institutions is being cut as well, the most prominent being the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in northwestern Ontario. The ELA “is a unique Canadian facility for ground breaking freshwater research and the only one of its kind in the world. An outdoor laboratory where whole-ecosystem research on environmental problems are carried out, the ELA provides the world with vital information about fresh water.”  Research out of ELA has stimulated international policy on many environmental issues, including phosphorous in detergents that lead to algal blooms and sulfur-causing acid rain.   But according to bill C-38, the $600,000 annual operating budget for the ELA is just too much, and funding is being cut after 44 years of outstanding research.  Ministry officials state that these funding cuts were made because ELA research does not fit within the current government’s mandate, which is shifting gears to acid rain research in western Canada.  Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesman, Dave Gillis, says that universities are more suited to running the facility, hoping that one of these private institutions will step up to the plate. But long-term research requires stable funding sources that universities can’t really provide, especially now that the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada called a moratorium on its Major Resources Support Program (a government program that funded big research facilities like Bamfield Marine Science Centre on Vancouver Island). In short, the government will no longer support the ELA and suggests that universities take on the task, but with inadequate funding sources for these projects, the facility will likely close. Considering that the ELA is currently researching the effects of mercury on freshwater ecosystems, (a major issue of concern in the oil sands right now), the facility couldn’t close at a worse time.

What do we stand to lose in BC if the ELA closes? That’s a really hard question to answer because we don’t know what discoveries the ELA could make about impacts of mercury contamination or climate change in the future.  What we do know is that scientific knowledge out of the ELA in the past helped in the protection of freshwater lakes and streams across Canada, and around the world.  Given that trend, I’d say we stand to lose a lot from the closure of ELA.  BC is a place of water – we have 20,000 square kilometres of freshwater in lakes, rivers, and wetlands and a coast that spans over 26,000 kilometres. Indeed, Canada has more freshwater and more coastline than any other nation in the world.  Shouldn’t we have the ability to monitor and protect our most precious resource – water? With the ELA gone, we lose that ability almost entirely.

Bill C-38 and the Environment in Canada

The proposed changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, and to the funding of the ELA that are made in bill C-38 are shortsighted and will likely have detrimental effects on everything we hold dear as Canadians.  Our resources – water, fish, and yes, oil – are at risk more than ever!  We urge you to learn about these issues, talk to friends and family, write to your MPs and senators, and stand up for your rights and your resources as Canadians.

And this Canada Day, wear green!

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