In 2009 the Conservative government’s omnibus budget bill gutted the Environmental Assessment Act to reduce the number and types of development projects whose approvals would be subject to an environmental assessment. Conservative budget bills C-38 and C-45 were a continuation of the dismantling of Canada’s long established environmental laws.
The stealth and ruthlessness by which the Conservative government is abandoning its responsibilities on the environment sends a very clear message – the health and safety of land, water, and air or of Canadian citizens are not a priority. As far as this government is concerned, no pesky rules are going to get in the way of enabling big business to exploit the common wealth of our non-renewable mineral and hydrocarbon resources. Even more worrying is the increasing level of power the Conservatives have steadily been transferring to the Minister to make final decisions on projects such as pipelines irrespective of any environmental assessment.
Enacted in 1882, the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) was designed to protect the rights of Canadians to navigate waterways without interference from bridges, dams, pipelines, logging operations, and other developments. By replacing the NWPA with the Navigation Protection Act (NPA), Bill C-45 erases any connection between navigation and the environment. As Ecojustice stated in its thorough review, “the law will no longer protect navigable waters – it will only protect navigation.” Under the new Act, proponents of industrial and infrastructure projects may have unfettered access to disrupt and impact waterways with little regard for environmental or navigation rights.
By dismantling the NWPA, the federal government has abandoned jurisdiction over most water bodies. Just 97 lakes and 62 rivers now retain some protection. Interestingly, of the 97 lakes retaining some protection, 87 per cent are in Conservative held ridings. In the BC Southern Interior, the Okanagan, Slocan, Kettle and Grandby rivers are no longer protected and neither are lakes such as Osoyoos, Christina, or Nancy Green.
According to Amnesty International, the government’s changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act have profound implications for the rights of indigenous peoples as set out in treaties, affirmed in the constitution, and protected by international human rights standards.
The Conservative government’s abandonment of federal jurisdiction over most water bodies also means that:
· Important water bodies that provide safe drinking water, support fish resources, enable navigation for subsistence or recreation purposes, or have heritage values have little protection from development.
·Canada is now at risk as we may be unable to fulfill our international obligations under the Boundary Waters Treaty.
·Opportunities for public participation in decisions about water bodies are severely diminished and will in most cases, be at the discretion of the Minister.
A ‘secret’ May 2011 Environment Canada presentation on contamination of the Athabasca River released through access to information legislation, revealed significant harm being done to the ecosystem from tar sands operations. Highlighted were threats to wildlife and downstream communities from high levels of hydrocarbons and heavy metals, decreasing water levels and river flow, harm to fish, and alarmingly high levels of greenhouse gas emissions which the report estimated will rise 900 per cent by 2020 from 1990 levels. Despite being made aware of the level of ecosystem destruction by this report the Conservative government still promotes the tar sands industry as a responsible and sustainable resource development. I shudder to think what they will say and do now that the laws which provided at least some protection over waterways for the common interest have effectively been neutered.
-Alex Atamanenko, MP
B.C. Southern Interior