CANADIAN PRESS – OTTAWA: 14MAR2012 — The federal NDP says it has obtained leaked documents showing the Conservatives are poised to strip the Fisheries Act of habitat-protection provisions — a change that would dramatically reduce Ottawa’s power to oversee fresh water.
The federal government took no steps Tuesday to deny the claim.
The contents of the documents, but not the documents themselves, were widely distributed to media on Tuesday.
The material suggests there are plans to revise the Fisheries Act so that Ottawa would be responsible for fish, but not for their surrounding habitat.
"This is a serious situation and will put Canada back to where we were in the pre-1976 period where Canada had no laws to protect fish habitat and no way to monitor the great industrial expansion that occurred in Canada with the consequential loss of major fish habitat all across Canada," said biologist Otto Langer.
Langer is a former senior official in Fisheries and Oceans who says he was given the draft by insiders at the department.
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield did not deny that changes were in the works. In the House of Commons, he said no final decision has been made.
His spokesperson added that fisheries policies are "outdated and unfocused in terms of balancing environmental and economic realities."
As it stands now, any project that would interfere with fish habitat — be it in waterways, marshes, gravel beds and the banks and vegetation along waterways — is subject to an environmental assessment.
Industry has been pressuring the federal government for years to modernize the Fisheries Act.
But the proposals contained in the leaked documents go too far, said NDP critics.
"By this measure that they’re putting in place, it essentially means that it will (be) close to impossible to ever trigger a federal assessment again," said Linda Duncan, highlighting oil sands and pipeline projects.
The NDP and Langer say they believe the Conservatives were planning to slip the change into the budget omnibus bill later this month, much like they did with changes to environmental assessment two years ago.
"The Harper government will attempt to sneak this neutering of the Fisheries Act through Parliament within the next two weeks by tacking it on to the end of the upcoming budget omnibus bill," predicted Langer.
Now the Conservative-dominated environment committee, in its statutory review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, has shown them how.
Its 20 recommendations include the imposition of timelines, giving the federal minister more power to decide whether hearings should go ahead, and giving provinces more room to assess projects on their own.
"The recommendations focus on pragmatism; that is, ensuring Canada’s natural heritage is protected while improving the efficiency of the bureaucratic processes that surround environmental assessment in our country," said Michelle Rempel, the parliamentary secretary for environment.
She cited one example of a company saying bureaucratic delays cost between $15 billion and $20 billion in economic activity.
But opposition members and environmentalists are up in arms, saying the blueprint would set Canada back decades in terms of protecting the environment from the ravages of industry.
They say the committee hearings were a sham that only serve to give Harper cover for gutting federal environmental oversight.
"By faster, she (Rempel) means streamlined. And by streamlined, she means not at all. She means ticking off some boxes," said Megan Leslie, the NDP’s environment critic.
The NDP and the Liberals issued dissenting reports, refusing to support the recommendations of the majority Conservatives on the committee.
Leslie said the committee report disregards much of the expert testimony that was heard, and sets the stage for the federal government to take a minimal role in environmental assessments, leaving the provinces to their own patchwork of oversight.
"This is disastrous for environmental review," agreed Green party Leader Elizabeth May.
Oliver and Harper ramped up their talk of streamlining environmental assessment earlier this year as hearings into the Northern Gateway got underway. About 4,000 people are expected to make presentations over the next 18 months, prompting Oliver to issue a public letter denouncing the process.
He has promised to introduce legislation within the next year.
Together with the changes to the Fisheries Act, Ottawa will have free reign to favour business over the environment, critics said.