The Assault on Canada’s Environmental Acts

This is a guest post by CYH Volunteer, Sarah Busch.


When the federal government first introduced Bill C-38 in March, otherwise known as the omnibus budget bill, people raised a few eyebrows. At a whopping 450 pages, and with nearly 70 federal laws being amended or repealed, concerns were raised on whether or not proposed changes in the bill could be properly debated by MPs. As more information came out on what Bill C-38 really meant, particularly for Canada’s environmental regulations, furious debate was sparked, and criticism ensued. Some of the critics included four former federal fisheries ministers (two of which are Conservative), scientists, and more than 500 corporations and environmental organizations that participated in Black Out Speak Out, a campaign to raise awareness on the weakening of environmental laws. During the bill’s reading in the House of Commons, federal opposition parties proposed more than 600 amendments to the budget bill in hopes to delay its passage, and to see it broken up into smaller bills. Despite protests and strong opposition, on June 29, 2012 the senate approved the omnibus bill, making changes official.

What changes are going to be made to our environmental laws, and what do they mean for us? Here’s a list of a few major changes we can expect to see:

i) The Fisheries Act states it is illegal to “harmfully alter, disturb, or destroy” fish habitat; this will be altered to:

“No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of commercial, recreational, or Aboriginal fishery, or to support such a fishery.”

Where serious harm is defined as being: “death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat.”

What does this all mean? According to West Coast Environmental Law, the new wording means that only fish considered “useful” by the government are granted legal protection, and temporary alteration or destruction of fish habitat is allowed unless it results in the death of “useful” fish. On top of this are the legal ambiguities introduced through the term “serious harm”.

ii) Alterations to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) will impose strict timelines on environmental assessments9; 365 days for standard assessments, 18 months for reviews conducted by the National Energy Board, and 24 months for assessments by a review panel. It will speed up decision-making on major resource projects, such as oil pipelines, and move responsibility for environmental assessments from the federal government onto provinces. In addition, it gives Ministers greater discretion to decide what projects will be reviewed and by whom.

iii) In December the federal government announced that Canada would be formally withdrawing from the Kyoto accord. Bill C-38 will repeal the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, which required annual preparation of a federal climate change plan, along with an annual report on the plan and its implementation.

iv) The Species at Risk Act will be amended such that companies will no longer need to renew permits every five years on projects that threaten critical habitat, and instead grants long-term exemption permits. It will also exempt the National Energy Board from having to impose conditions to protect critical habitat on projects that threaten it.

v) The Canadian Environmental Protection Act is legislation aimed at preventing pollution, and at protecting both human health and the environment from toxic substances. New changes mean that one year permits issued by the Minister for waste disposal at sea may now be renewed up to four times. Three and five year limits protecting species at risk from industrial harm will now be open-ended.

vi) The Department of Fisheries and Oceans saw budget cuts to research on environmental toxicology and marine pollution monitoring at the Institute for Ocean Sciences, and funding cuts resulted in closures of the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), Mersey Biodiversity Centre and the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). Institutions such as these have contributed widely to scientific knowledge on the environment; scientists at PEARL detected and analyzed the largest hole in the ozone layer found to date over the Arctic, those working in the ELA have been conducting research on acid rain and climate change since 1968, and Dr. Peter Ross of the Institute for Ocean Sciences (who recently lost his job due to budget cuts) was the lead author on a report that showed Canada’s killer whales are the most contaminated marine mammals on our planet.

Amongst all this, one thing seems clear: pocketbooks are being placed before environmental protection. When looking back on the 2011 federal election, what I find most interesting is that none of these changes were part of the Conservative party’s campaign platform. Had they been, perhaps the current government wouldn’t be here now. Could all this be related to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline? Maybe. However, I know I’m not alone when I say, these aren’t the changes I want for Canada. I recently wrote emails to several MPs and Ministers voicing my opposition to environmental legislative changes, and urge you to do the same. Even though these changes are now official, we can still stand up and speak out against “bad democracy” and the assault on Canada’s environmental acts. We owe it to ourselves, and to our environment.


Sarah is an avid hiker, ice cream connoisseur and lover of roller derby. She is completing her Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science at Simon Fraser University, and works in agricultural consulting.