Don’t sacrifice protection in the name of efficiency

According to leaked documents, the feds want to drop the ‘habitat’ reference to ‘modernize’ environmental legislation

Ottawa is casting a cold eye at the Fisheries Act with the idea of doing some word tweaking to make it user friendly for private industry. Those words: Habitat protection. Yet those words are the cornerstone of the entire the Act.

According to leaked documents, the feds want to drop the ‘habitat’ reference to ‘modernize’ the legislation and speed up approvals for projects, especially for those businesses in resource extraction.

Opposition parties are furious. It only took a nanosecond for the NDP and the Green parties to connect the dots and translate this little bit of wordsmithing into paving the way for the proposed Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipelines to be approved. Not to mention a host of other resource proposals stacked up and waiting approval.

The Northern Gateway Pipelines proposes to build pipelines across 1,177 kilometres from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. Each day, up to 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen would flow west to the port city while, along a parallel pipeline, 193,000 barrels of condensate would flow back to Alberta to dilute the next batch of oil. But along the way, these pipelines will cross hundreds of rivers and streams, all of which fall under the protection policies of the Fisheries Act.

The Fisheries Act is federal legislation dating back to Confederation. It was established to manage and protect Canada’s fisheries resources and applies to all fishing zones, territorial areas and inland waters. It is binding to federal, provincial and territorial governments. As a piece of federal legislation, it supersedes provincial legislation when the two conflict.

Its critical component is Section 35 and subsection 35(1) focuses on the prohibition of harmful alternation, disruption or destruction (HADD) of fish habitat. This means that any project at any level that results in anything resembling HADD is a contravention of the subsection.

While, in his defence, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield indicated he wanted to bring common sense to the interpretation of what habitat protection means, there’s real danger in tampering with wording that can lead to the dismantling of the meaning and intent of an entire piece of legislation. When you start picking away at threads, an entire fabric can unravel.

Even Tom Sidden, who was Minister of Fisheries and Oceans from 1985-1990 during the Mulroney years, inheriting the job in the wake of the Tunagate affair, has spoken out against any tampering of the Act’s wording and is urging PM Harper to leave the Act the way it is. But Harper has never been known as an environmental guy.

Elizabeth May, Green Party leader, has been quoted as seeing this as a death blow to one of the strongest pieces of federal legislation.

It doesn’t stop at the Fisheries Act. The feds have the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) in their sights. Last week 20 recommendations were introduced in the House of Commons by a committee of MPs reviewing the Act. Their mandate was to find ways to speed up assessment processes and find ways to reduce overlap between provincial and federal assessments. The downside, of course, is that reviews could become hasty, inaccurate, or downright destructive in their outcomes.

Consider the picture, then, as to the alternative outcome had the changes been in place when Taseko Mines proposed turning Fish Lake into a tailings dump for its mine, a project approved by the B.C. Liberals but ultimately rejected by the Harper government following its environmental assessment. Last week’s Recommendation #8 states that a project is exempt from being assessed under the CEAA when an environmental assessment is required under provincial legislation.

The feds might want to tighten up efficiency, but never at the expense of choking the two Acts to death.