Packing so many attacks on nature into one bill, Harper bets, will confuse citizens. Here's what's at stake.
Ominous omnibus: 70 federal laws changes within one bill, so why is Harper limiting exposure and debate?
Usually when the Harper Conservatives bring in a new law, there is a big roll-out. The prime minister or one of his heavy-hitters goes to a prime location, usually not Parliament Hill. A factory or a mall or a friendly backyard. Tens of thousands are routinely spent on a "branding" of the new act. There are banners and public relations firms to design the whole package.
Unlike the laws I used to study in law school, laws with names that sound like statutes, Stephen Harper's proposed legislation must go through focus group testing for the most "election-ready" phrasing. For example, the omnibus crime bill which brought in mandatory minimum sentences and a plethora of moves decried by every criminologist and bar society was christened the "Safe Streets and Communities Act." And Bill C-36, an act of all of four paragraphs amending one sub-section of the Criminal Code in relation to sentencing people convicted of assault (to allow taking into account age of the victim) was given a fabulously overblown title -- "Protecting Canada's Seniors Act."
The launch almost always involves a media and MP opportunity to digest the laws in a "lock-up" -- an advance briefing usually including colour brochures and charts and graphs and, if not brass bands, at least a serious amount of noise.
Not so for Bill C-38, known as the omnibus budget bill. Sure, it did get the fabulous title: the "Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act." There all similarities to other pieces of legislation end.
There was no announcement. No press release for first reading. There was no lock-up. There were no schematic guides to understand the changes to the 70 laws undergoing a brutal overhaul. Like surgery without an anesthetic, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was repealed and a whole new act brought in. While the four-paragraph seniors bill, C-36, will get its own committee hearings and full debate in the House, the 420-page Bill C-38, the omnibus budget bill, will be fast-tracked through the Finance Committee.
To add injury to insult, Conservatives limited the number of days allowed for debate at second reading of C-38. Government House Leader Peter Van Loan puffed himself up to pronounce that this was a longer time for debate than other budget bills. Meanwhile the Opposition MPs are left to protest that no other budget bill in Canadian history had repealed, amended or overhauled 70 existing pieces of legislation.
Some laws are the stuff of future Conservative campaigning. They are over-sold and put in the front window. Then there is the orphaned and unloved bastard child of Harper's legislative agenda. It is hidden. It is not to be placed in the front window, nor proclaimed as it should be: "Vote for the Conservative Party, tough on nature!" The good news in this is that Stephen Harper knows that his base would hate a lot of what's in C-38. That's why he is hiding it -- in a way that hides it in plain sight for anyone who is willing to dig deep and read the fine print.
Here's what is in C-38 on the environment. (C-38 threatens more than environmental damage, but this should give you a sense of why I am determined to stop this bill.)
Canadian Environmental Assessment Act ditched. Repealed and replaced with a completely new act. "Environmental effects" under the new CEAA will be limited to effects on fish, aquatic species under the Species at Risk Act, migratory birds. A broader view of impacts is limited to federal lands, Aboriginal peoples, and changes to the environment "directly linked or necessarily incidental" to federal approval.
Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency seriously weakened. The agency will have 45 days after receiving an application to decide if an assessment is required. Environmental assessments are no longer required for projects involving federal money. The minister is given wide discretion to decide. New "substitution" rules allow Ottawa to download EAs to the provinces; "comprehensive" studies are eliminated. Cabinet will be able to over-rule decisions. A retroactive section sets the clock at July 2010 for existing projects.
Canadian Environmental Protection Act undercut. The present one-year limit to permits for disposing waste at sea can now be renewed four times. The three and five-year time limits protecting species at risk from industrial harm will now be open-ended.
Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act killed. This legislation, which required government accountability and results reporting on climate change policies, is being repealed.
Fisheries Act seriously weakened. Fish habitat provisions will be changed to protect only fish of "commercial, Aboriginal, and recreational" value and even those habitat protections are weakened. The new provisions create an incentive to drain a lake and kill all the fish, if not in a fishery, in order to fill a dry hole with mining tailings.
Navigable Waters Protection Act hampered. Pipelines and power lines will be exempt from the provisions of this act. Also, the National Energy Board absorbs the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) whenever a pipeline crosses navigable waters. The NWPA is amended to say a pipeline is not a "work" within that act.
Energy Board Act neutered. National Energy Board reviews will be limited to two years -- and then its decisions can be reversed by the cabinet, including the present Northern Gateway Pipeline review.
Species at Risk Act hamstrung. This is being amended to exempt the National Energy Board from having to impose conditions to protect critical habitat on projects it approves. Also, companies won't have to renew permits on projects threatening critical habitat.
Parks Canada Agency Act trimmed, staff cut. Reporting requirements are being reduced, including the annual report. Six hundred and thirty eight of the nearly 3,000 Parks Canada workers will be cut. Environmental monitoring and ecological restoration in the Gulf Islands National Park are being cut.
Canadian Oil and Gas Operations Act made more industry friendly. This will be changed to exempt pipelines from the Navigational Waters Act.
Coasting Trade Act made more offshore drilling friendly. This will be changed to promote seismic testing allowing increased off-shore drilling.
Nuclear Safety Control Act undermined. Environmental assessments will be moved to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which is a licensing body not an assessing body -- so there is a built-in conflict.
Canada Seeds Act inspections privatized. This is being revamped so the job of inspecting seed crops is transferred from Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors to "authorized service providers," the private sector.
Agriculture affected. Under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act, publicly-owned grasslands have acted as community pastures under federal management, leasing grazing rights to farmers so they could devote their good land to crops, not livestock. This will end. Also, the Centre for Plant Health in Sidney, B.C., an important site for quarantine and virus-testing on plant stock strategically located across the Salish Sea to protect B.C.'s primary agricultural regions, will be moved to the heart of B.C.'s fruit and wine industries.
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy killed. The NRTEE brought industry leaders, environmentalists, First Nations, labour, and policy makers together to provide non-partisan research and advice on federal policies. Its demise will leave a policy vacuum in relation to Canada's economic development.
More attacks on environmental groups funded. The charities sections now preclude gifts which may result in political activity. The $8 million new money to harass charities is unjustified.
Water programs cut. Environment Canada is cutting several water-related programs and others will be cut severely, including some aimed at promoting or monitoring water-use efficiency.
Wastewater survey cut. The Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey, the only national study of water consumption habits, is being cut after being in place since 1983.
Monitoring effluent cut. Environment Canada's Environmental Effects Monitoring Program, a systematic method for measuring the quality of effluent discharge, including from mines and pulp mills, will be cut by 20 per cent.
In spite of the fact that most Canadians have no idea how seriously Bill C-38 will affect their lives, the Senate is about to begin hearings so that Conservative senators can vote on it as soon as possible. This railroading version of democracy is tragic for Canada.
The Green Party of Canada is launching its C-38: Environment Devastation Act campaign to engage Canadians in having their C-38 concerns heard. Please visit our website for more information.