Today, Harper’s Conservative government will take another giant step toward undermining Canadians’ ability to protect our environment when it presents the new federal budget. Disguised as a long overdue need to “streamline” and “modernize” a burdensome regulatory process, it is really an ideological attack on safeguards that keep Canada’s water clean and wildlife populations healthy, part of an underhanded strategy to accelerate the pace of tarsands development and get the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline built, whatever the social and environmental costs.
This rewriting of Canada’s environmental laws and regulations all started with our national parks. Consumed, like King Midas, with an obsessive-compulsive need to turn everything into gold, the Harper Conservatives have reimagined the Canada National Parks Act, turning our national parks — legally defined bastions of ecological integrity in a sea of increasing industrial development — into under-utilized “tourism products.” First, Parks Canada approved Brewster’s Glacier Discovery Walk, a gaudy, Disney-style monstrosity of glass and steel that promises to further mar the view along the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park. More recently, Parks Canada is attempting to rewrite Riding Mountain National Park’s management plan to allow for — are you ready? — a new ski hill and potential four-season resort.
Located in Manitoba, Riding Mountain’s Mount Agassiz ski area went out of business in 2000, and the park’s current management plan, approved in 2007, mandates that downhill skiing be forever retired. Although downhill skiing is a major feature of Canada’s Rocky Mountain national parks, Parks Canada has already determined that large, commercial ski areas are inconsistent with its legal obligation to maintain and restore ecological integrity; although existing facilities have been grandfathered, no new ski resorts are supposed to be considered in Canada’s national parks. But as we all know, rules are open to interpretation, and the revival of Riding Mountain’s Agassiz ski hill may pave the way for more of them anyway.
Then there’s Canada’s Fisheries Act. One of Canada’s strongest pieces of environmental legislation, it is, like a king salmon on the butcher block, about to be gutted from throat to anus, making it easier for government regulators to approve mines and pipelines. The current act makes it illegal to damage fish habitat, but the proposed changes replace any reference to “habitat” with vague wording that will be conveniently difficult to enforce.
Given that a recent expert panel for the Royal Society of Canada concluded that Canada is already failing to meet its national and international commitments to sustain and protect marine biodiversity, it’s not surprising that two former Tory fisheries’ ministers and more than 600 scientists — including 18 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada and more than 30 endowed research chairs — have opposed the changes. But Keith Ashfield, Harper’s stalwart fisheries minister, is concerned that such policies “do not reflect the values of Canadians.”
Polling indicates that Canadians very much care about the environment and want it protected, so I’m curious about who it is that values the evisceration of our environmental laws. Turns out that it’s the mining industry, which has complained that protecting fish habitat gets in the way of making money. Not surprising, really, considering the shameful international reputation of Canada’s mining industry, which has poisoned rivers and destroyed fish habitat all over the world.
But it is CEAA, which determines whether and how major industrial projects are assessed to see if they are in the public interest, that is the granddaddy of all our environmental laws. CEAA is already considered much too weak to ensure that industrial development, including the tarsands, is “sustainable,” but Harper’s Conservatives hope to render it totally useless. When I asked Richard Lindgren, counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, what he thought of the proposed amendments, he said “they would collectively set back federal [environmental assessment] law by at least 40 years. The recommendations are primarily aimed at speeding up approvals for mega-projects, rather than implementing the actual reforms necessary to ensure that CEAA does the job envisioned by Parliament,” which is to ensure sustainability, enhance environmental protection and facilitate public participation.
It’s obvious that Harper and his neoliberal minions in cabinet have other plans for Canada’s suite of environmental laws. Like Ronald Reagan in the United States in the 1970s, Harper will not rest until our environmental safety net has been ripped asunder and corporations have free rein to rape and pillage their way across our home and native land on their way to record profits. It is this, more than anything, that does not reflect the values of the Canadians I know. Even my parents, once oblivious to Harper’s underhanded attacks on the environment, have seen through the rhetoric and sprung into action. Let’s hope enough Canadians do likewise, lest we learn the hard way the lessons of The Lorax.
Jeff Gailus’ next book, Little Black Lies: Corporate and Political Spin in the Global War for the Tar Sands, will be published by Rocky Mountain Books this fall.