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General · 9th May 2012
Deb Cowper
A great editorial from the Ottawa Citizen on Canada's Bill C-38. Pokes at the government tactics behind it and the campaign to vilify Canada's environmental groups.....

Bill C-38, also called the Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act, is a heck of a thing. It’s an omnibus bill that purports to be a budget bill but isn’t. It’s a statutory juggernaut that introduces, amends, or repeals nearly 70 federal laws. It’s been presented to the House of Commons in a manner that may be without close precedent in Canadian parliamentary history.

It could be a whole lot of things, depending on who’s doing the shouting, but the things that Industry Minister Joe Oliver and Environment Minister Peter Kent and Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield have had to say about its purposes just don’t add up.

We’re supposed to believe that the elaborate and contradictory environmental-review “streamlining” components that make up much of C-38’s heft are necessary to the defence of ordinary job-wanting Canadians beset by those scheming, obstructionist, radical environmentalist ideologues who won’t be satisfied until Canada’s vast energy wealth is locked away in the ground and we’re all living in yurts.

If you want to see how easily that fable falls apart, ask yourself this one question. What influence has Canada’s all-powerful environmental movement really managed to exert upon the pace, the scope or the scale of Alberta’s oilsands development? The correct answer: pretty well none. So much for the boogeyman Joe Oliver is always banging on about.

Here’s another question. Is it really true that the habitat-protection provisions of the Fisheries Act are being jimmied so weirdly just so that Ontario cottagers can build their boat docks and Saskatchewan farmers can work around their bothersome duck ponds? That’s the spin on offer from Ashfield, the fisheries minister. He should give us a break.

To be fair, duplication and rigmarole do seem to have cluttered up federal environmental-assessment processes. Some housecleaning was evidently in order. But seriously, an objective reading of Bill C-38 could lead any reasonable person to suspect that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Canada to distinguish itself among advanced United Nations member states by abdicating the necessary government function of environmental assessment altogether.

There is already more than sufficient discretion available to cabinet ministers to waive or blunt the environmental protection provisions of all the laws drawn into C-38’s orbit, not least the bits that bother farmers and cottagers.

In 2004, long before he went on to become the greenest of Liberal party leaders, Stéphane Dion was the bold environment minister who exercised his discretion under the Species at Risk Act to write off an entire west coast sockeye salmon run. The Cultus Lake sockeye had dwindled from more than 80,000 spawning salmon to about 1,000 by the time the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) proposed that the Cultus run be listed under the law. Dion just said no.

There was no need for great chunks of legislation to be retrofitted into a 420-page omnibus budget bill that looks to have been intended to confound every effort by the House of Commons to scrutinize its contents intelligently. Dion just said no, because that’s what the legislation allows.

Ashfield says the changes he wants are necessary to limit the reach of the habitat protection rules to stocks that support commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries. That would whittle down the list of fish stocks covered by the Fisheries Act by an order of magnitude, right there. But as things stand, the rules “do not reflect the priorities of Canadians,” Ashfield says.

Whatever priorities allegedly prevail in Saskatchewan or Ontario, federal fish-habitat law is serious politics in British Columbia. An April 2011 Angus Reid poll found that 89 per cent of British Columbians wanted salmon habitat laws more strictly enforced, not less so, and 86 per cent said economic development should not come at the expense of salmon habitat.

Seven in 10 respondents agreed with this statement: “Wild salmon are as culturally important to the people of British Columbia as the French language is to the people of Quebec.”

It isn’t just Ashfield’s fishery-supporting stocks that British Columbians want protected, either. The “beauty of the region,” environmental health and tourism were ranked higher than the value of commercial fishing as reasons to protect salmon.

None of this shows up on Ashfield’s finely-tuned sense of “the priorities of Canadians” to which those mean environmentalists are so stubbornly opposed. As for the minister’s strange unease with the idea that fish might be finding their way into the nation’s ditches and irrigation canals, he should get some biologist he hasn’t laid off yet to give him a rough guess on how many of the hundreds of British Columbia’s distinct stocks of coho, chinook and chum salmon rely on ditches and drainage canals for spawning and rearing.

Perhaps one of his remaining habitat scientists might explain that those ditches were once pristine spawning streams, but ministers like him were never all that keen about enforcing the habitat-protection provisions of the Fisheries Act anyway.

Ashfield might also have a chat with his Conservative predecessors Tom Siddon and John Fraser, two decent fisheries ministers who understood that fish and farmers and loggers and cottagers can actually coexist so long as there’s a robust federal fisheries department that isn’t run by some guy from back east who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Prime Minister Harper appears convinced that the barrage of Bill C-38’s contents will not be improved by the usual scrutiny from the relevant parliamentary committees. His confidence is said to be evidence of that nasty “right-wing agenda” we sometimes hear about. Whatever.

It sure is a dumb way to run a government.

Terry Glavin is an award-winning author and journalist. His most recent book is Come From the Shadows: The Long and Loney Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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