Fredericton – The Harper government has fundamentally changed the way the federal government involves itself in environmental oversight; essentially downloading responsibility to provinces and the courts.
Bill C-45, passed last December, and Bill C-38, passed last June, radically undermines the protection of Canada’s rivers, lakes and streams, removes protections for fish habitat and repeals thousands of environmental assessments.
Krysten Tully of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, sums it up: “The Navigable Waters Protection Act no longer protects water. The Fisheries Act no longer protects fish. The Environmental Assessment Act no longer requires environmental assessments be done before important decisions are made.”
Critics say the two omnibus bills tear down legislation that took decades, if not more than a century to build up. The Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act are the oldest and strongest pieces of environmental legislation in Canada with the latter dating back to the Canadian Constitution in 1882.
“These changes are an obvious trade-off between water and land protection to appease dirty oil and gas companies who are pressuring the federal government for relaxed regulations,” said Garry Guild, a Fredericton-based retired professional who says he never protested anything until fracking for shale gas came on his radar.
Indeed, the amended or repealed legislation was actually requested by the oil and gas industry. In a letter recently obtained by Greenpeace Canada through an access-to-information request, the industry named six federal pieces of legislation that they felt should be reformed, cited as being “outdated” for focusing on “preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.”
Speculation among the conservation community is that what was left out this round, namely overhauls to the Migratory Birds Convention Act and Species at Risk Act, are coming soon.
The Harper government contends that the changes to the environmental laws are to reduce red tape on the legislative processes. Industry insists red-tape is too costly. Costs of extreme resource extraction are much greater now that the easy-to-reach conventional oil, gas, and minerals are gone.
Industries like tar sands pipelines, shale gas fracking and open-pit mining are beginning to infringe on places where people live. As developments get “drawn out” by environmental reviews, the likelier they are to be brought to the public’s attention and encounter public opposition, potentially delaying approvals. To the proponents of these projects, environmental laws, which in recent years have only become hoops to jump through, only add increasing costs to what is perceived to be likely approved in the end.
William Amos, an environmental lawyer and Director of the Ecojustice Clinic at the University of Ottawa says that what is being proposed goes far beyond streamlining federal regulation.
“Canada’s paddlers, anglers, cottagers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts may be surprised to learn that their right to navigate favourite waterways will now need to be fought in the courts, at their own expense,” says Amos.
“Under the new Navigation Protection Act, development in or across 99.5% of rivers and lakes in cross Canada require no permit from Transport Canada. This has effectively gotten Transport Canada out of the business of enforcing Canadians’ centuries’ old right to navigate,” he added.
In New Brunswick, every single river, lake and stream, except for the lower portion of the Saint John River downstream of Mactaquac Dam, has been left off of the list under the new Navigation Protection Act. New Brunswick’s iconic Mighty Miramichi and Wild Restigouche now receive no federal oversight, nor do Grand Lake and the important smaller waterways like the Nashwaak, the Kedgwick and the Pollett that support salmon spawning, canoe tripping and amazing vistas — and millions of dollars annually in revenues to the province.
While residents in many economically depressed regions in New Brunswick feel inclined to support extraction projects in the hope that they will create jobs and spin-off benefits, many also see diminishing returns to themselves and their communities, not to mention environmental destruction that the new technologies and the need for bigger and bigger projects pose.
In New Brunswick, we have witnessed both the promises and the backlash to shale gas exploration, uranium mining, the dousing of public lands with herbicides to convert our diverse forest into sterile plantations and other proposals that promised economic prosperity.
One too many pokes-in-the-eye have brought Canadians from all walks of life together; Idle No More has united Canadians over a common love and concern for the future of our shared waters.
“Harper has gone too far. We are uniting across this province, natives and non-natives, in a battle to save our precious water,” said Guild, who can be found raising his voice and a sign at the Idle No More actions in Fredericton.
For more information on changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act visit: http://www.ecojustice.ca/files/nwpa_legal_backgrounder_october-2012/at_download/file
Stephanie Merrill is with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.