Menu
02 Jul 2012

Oh Canada: The Government’s Broad Assault on Environment

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has been weakening Canada’s environmental regulations and slashing funds for oversight and research — all while promoting aggressive resource development. Critics warn these unprecedented actions pose a major threat to the nation’s vast natural heritage.
By ed struzik

Outsiders have long viewed Canada as a pristine wilderness destination replete with moose, mountains, and Mounties who always got their man. Recognizing the tourism value of that somewhat dull but wholesome image, successive Canadian governments — both Liberal and Conservative — were content to promote the stereotype in brochures, magazine advertisements, and TV commercials.

The lie of that was evident in the rampant clear-cutting of forests in British Columbia, the gargantuan oil sands developments in Alberta, the toxic mining practices in the Arctic, and the factory fishing that literally wiped out the Canadian cod industry by the 1990s. But this wholesome image endured because progress was made on several environmental fronts, such as creation of many new national parks, and because Canada remains sparsely populated with large swaths of unspoiled boreal forest and tundra.

But Canada’s pristine image — and more importantly its environment — is not likely to recover from what critics across the political spectrum say is an unprecedented assault by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on environmental regulation, oversight, and scientific research. Harper, who came to power in 2006 unapologetic for once describing the Kyoto climate accords as “essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” has steadily been weakening environmental enforcement, monitoring, and research, while at the same time boosting controversial tar sands development, backing major pipeline construction, and increasing energy industry subsidies.

Critics say that assault reached a crescendo in recent weeks with the passage in Parliament of an omnibus budget bill known as C-38, which guts or significantly weakens rules relating to fisheries protection, environmental assessment, endangered species, and national parks. Under this bill, the criteria that currently trigger environmental
The new legislation would gut or significantly weaken Canada’s environmental rules.
assessments, for example, have been eliminated, leaving such reviews more to the discretion of the Minister of the Environment and other political appointees. The Fisheries Act will no longer be focused on habitat protection; instead, it will restrict itself largely to the commercial aspects of resource harvesting. Ocean dumping rules will also be changed to allow the Minister of the Environment to make decisions on permitting. And Parks Canada will no longer have to conduct environmental audits or review management plans every ten years. In addition, budgets cuts will eliminate the jobs of hundreds of scientists working for various government departments that focus on the environment and wildlife.

The bill also formally ends Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and removes funding for the bipartisan National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment, which for a quarter-century has offered policy solutions on how to grow Canada’s environment in a sustainable way.

One would expect intense criticism of Harper’s policies from environmentalists. But in recent months, hundreds of scientists, at least one university president, and several former Cabinet ministers and politicians — including three from the Conservative Party — have weighed in with scathing attacks on the Harper government.

“We have had lengthy and varied political experience and collectively have served in cabinet in Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments alike,” former fisheries ministers Tom Siddon, David Anderson, John Fraser, and Herb Dhaliwal said in an open letter to Harper on June 1. “We believe we have a fair understanding of the views of Canadians. Moreover, we believe there is genuine public concern over the perceived threat this legislation poses to the health of Canada’s environment and in particular to the well being of its fisheries resources. We are especially alarmed about any possible diminution of the statutory protection of fish habitat, which we feel could result if the provisions of Bill C-38 are brought into force.”

The discontent, however, goes much deeper than that. In addition to Bill C-38, the Harper government has ended funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which had doled out
‘This government is not going to let anything get in the way of resource development,’ says one scientist.
more than $100 million in research funding over the past decade. It has withdrawn support for the Experimental Lakes Program in northwestern Ontario, which has used 58 lakes to conduct groundbreaking studies on phosphate, mercury, and bacterial contamination, as well as research on how climate change affects freshwater systems. And it has killed funding for a program that helps keep more than a dozen Arctic science research stations operational.

The elimination or severe reduction of funds for research into climate change and the Arctic has especially serious implications, given that the Canadian Arctic is warming faster than almost any other region on earth. Scientists say that Harper’s sharp cutbacks will mean a drastic shortage of funds to monitor huge environmental changes in the Arctic, including melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, a rapidly changing tundra environment, and widespread impacts on fauna and flora.

“The kindest thing I can say is that these people don’t know enough about science to know the value of what they are cutting and doing,” says David Schindler, co-founder of the Experimental Lakes Project and one of the world’s best-known freshwater scientists. “But I think it goes deeper than that. This government is not going to let anything get in the way of resource development.”

Syncrude oil extraction Alberta Canada
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
A tar sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta.
Many think that statement goes to the heart of the matter now that international controversy over the Alberta tar sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline — which would carry that oil across the U.S. to Texas refineries — have put the Canadian government on the defensive. How else, they say, do you account for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver writing an open letter last January claiming that “environmental and other radical groups” use “funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest” — an apparent allusion to international opposition to the Alberta tar sands and related pipeline projects. What else, they add, could be behind the government’s decision this spring to give the Canada Revenue Agency an extra $8 million to crack down on environmental charities?

Justifying the tax crackdown, Harper said recently, “If it’s the case that we’re spending on organizations that are doing things contrary to government policy, I think that is an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money and we’ll look to eliminate it.”

Tides Canada is one of the charities at the center of this particular controversy. When the Harper government recently accused it of funneling foreign money to advocacy groups that oppose the Keystone pipeline and the Gateway pipeline (which would carry tar sands oil to ports in British Columbia), the head of the organization took the unprecedented step of releasing a detailed account of its grant recipients and international donors.

As it turns out, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation — established by Intel co-founded Gordon Moore — is among its biggest U.S. donors. It gave Tides an $8 million grant to support marine planning and science in British Columbia and nearly $10 million for salmon conservation initiatives. Tides Canada also got $2.4 million from several American foundations that wanted the money to support a land-use agreement between aboriginal groups and the province of British Columbia.

Ross McMillan, president and CEO of Tides Canada, denies that his charity is involved in political activity. The decision to go public, he says, was designed to “send a clear message to our critics that we have nothing to hide
Harper has muzzled government scientists conducting research on everything from permafrost to polar bears.
in our work.”

Harper hasn’t helped his cause by muzzling government scientists who have been conducting research on everything from permafrost to polar bears. Timely access to these scientists has been the subject of several newspaper articles and editorials. Hoping to resolve the long-standing problem, the Canadian Science Writers Association sent a letter to the Prime Minister in February calling on him to “tear down the wall that separates scientists, journalists, and the public.”

In the letter they noted how government scientists such as David Tarasick and Kristina Miller were prohibited from speaking to journalists even though their separate studies on the ozone layer and declining salmon populations were published in the journals Nature and Science.

The letter made little impression on the government. When 2,500 scientists, aboriginal leaders, and decision makers attended the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal in April, Canadian scientists were reminded not to talk to the media even though the government of Canada was the primary sponsor of the conference.

In June, former Conservative Member of Parliament Bob Mills took the extraordinary step of holding a press conference with the Green Party criticizing the government for killing the National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment, established in 1988 by former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

“I’ve always said that if you’re smart, you surround yourself with really smart people,” said Mills. “And if you’re dumb, you surround yourself with a bunch of cheerleaders. We don’t need cheerleaders. What we need are smart people. And in the Round Table, a collection from all walks of life, all different political stripes, it didn’t matter — but they were pretty smart people.”

Insurance industry executive Angus Ross added, “I think that perhaps the Prime Minister has forgotten that the name of the round table is not the National Round Table on the Environment or the Economy. It’s the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.”

Environment Minister Peter Kent, a former journalist, claims that the Round Table had outlived its usefulness.

“When it was created a quarter of a century ago, there were very few sources of policy advice on the relationship between the environment and the economy,” he told the House of Commons recently. “That is not the case today. This $5 million can be better spent elsewhere to protect the environment and the economy.”

MORE FROM YALE e360

U.S. Fossil Fuel Boom
Dims Glow of Clean Energy

U.S. Fossil Fuel Boom<br /> Dims Glow of Clean Energy
A surge in gas and oil drilling in the U.S. is helping drive the economic recovery and is enhancing energy security. But as the situation in Ohio shows, Keith Schneider writes, cheaper energy prices and the focus on fossil fuels has been bad news for the renewable energy industry.
READ MORE
Melissa Gorrie, a staff lawyer for the environmental law group Ecojustice, marvels at the persistence with which the Harper government is pressing ahead with its assault on the environment. She knows because she and her colleagues have successfully gone to the Federal Court of Canada several times to get the government to use emergency measures under the Species at Risk Act to protect declining caribou and sage grouse populations.

With each victory, the government has found a way not to act on the court order. Much of the stalling comes from procedural wrangling and disagreements about what constitutes an “imminent threat.” In the case of caribou, when all else failed the government came up with a draft recovery plan that satisfies none of the complainants nor any of the scientists who have been studying caribou for the past quarter-century.

“My colleagues and I have been talking about this quite a lot lately,” said Gorrie. “It’s either a vendetta and a total assault on the anything environmental or a total disinterest in the issue. Whatever it is, I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like this in Canada.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for three decades. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about a potential uranium mining boom in Nunavut and about a controversial plan to kill wolves in Alberta.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

SHARE: Tweet | Digg | Del.icio.us | Reddit | Mixx | Facebook | Stumble Upon

COMMENTS


'Gutting' is the word no matter what the talking heads say.

Posted by charles macinnis on 02 Jul 2012


The Harper government has embraced, and intensified, the kind of thinking that American conservatives have toward the environment. He believes his success in securing a majority in the last federal election gives him a mandate to impose "Tea Party"-like thinking in all areas of Canadian decision-making. In fact, he was elected because Canadians voted with their wallets, hoping to maintain the robust character of the Canadian economy — which, under the Tories, was the world's strongest through the years of the "Great Recession". His over-all policies are opposed by two-thirds of Canadians, and just a year after the election polls show him to be the least supported of the country's four party leaders. He seems to sincerely believe that anyone or any group that disagrees with his party's policies is not an opponent but rather an enemy. That kind of Nixonian thinking will not pass the test of time with Canadians, who as a people are more centrist and, in my opinion, more rational than Americans who embrace this kind of thinking. As a retired Canadian journalist, I am watching this drama with the kind of morbid fascination usually generated by watching an inevitable train wreck.

Posted by Steve Krueger on 05 Jul 2012


Canada still IS a relatively pristine wilderness.

This piece looks to me like a political harangue, with 'facts' all provided by normal people calling on their personal science(s) to support their biases and their budgets. There are other, quite scientiific views on the Canadian environment — Yale ought to call on some of them. Some of the key revelations of bias here are the charges of ignorance and profit motive against any differing opinion.

Posted by George Nagle BSF MF PhD on 05 Jul 2012


In response to Dr. Nagle, it's a myth that Canada has lots of pristine wilderness. Try flying over northern Alberta or north eastern BC to see the impact that the energy industry has had in terms of roads, seismic lines, well sites, pipelines, transmission corridors, etc. Try flying over the interior of BC to see the impact of decades of clearcut logging. Fly over the prairies to see the complete absence of intact, native grasslands, replaced by crops. Industry is still gobbling up those "pristine" lands that remain. And the federal government is making it much easier for it to do so without any accountability for the large-scale environmental impacts that result.

Not all wilderness is created equal. Some is much more productive and more important for biodiversity and ecosystem function. So the question is not whether a lot of pristine wilderness remains in Canada, but how much remains that is the most important habitat for most species. This generally is the valley bottoms, which are the favourite target for road building, settlement, railroads and other activities that compromise habitat and animals' use of it.

Most thinking Canadians are appalled by the federal government’s actions.

Posted by Wendy Francis on 05 Jul 2012


I sail the coast of B.C. in the summers and the evidence of forest mismanagement is pervasive and obvious and has been for decades. I worked as a forester in S.E. Alaska in the 1970s and the steep unstable slopes and size of clearcuts currently being logged in B.C. were prohibited in Alaska in the early 70s. It is common for fisheries habitats to sustain severe damage due to logging still today. Why does it happen? The coast is remote and many of those who live there are dependent on the extractive industry for their survival. The rape and pillage of Canadian forests make the Americans look like Pikers. No lie.

Posted by E. Westman on 06 Jul 2012


Two concepts that governments needs to come to grip with quickly are:

1. We live on a borderless planet and manmade national borders mean nothing to other than human species, pollution and air water and soil.

2. Cumulative impacts are hidden effects that need to be recognized as fundamental to intergenerational equity.

Conservative governments appear to be incapable of including such concepts into their worldview.

We wait in dread in Australia as a conservative Opposition such as the Canadian Harper government threatens to gain power at the next election.

How is it that such short term thinking can get itself elected into power?

The article (Yale 360) on Japan standing at the crossroads of nuclear or greenpower is an interesting one. Governments may be at a point where one nation's decision to make the change - may flick the switch to working with the natural world.

Our Future is the Natural World.

Posted by janet h on 07 Jul 2012


Canada's reputation as environmental haven is myth. Long they have allowed the killing of up to 350,000 baby harp seals (in front of the frantic mothers I might add) a year for the luxury fur industry, a brutal, inhumane practice. The Canadian prime minister even making a public show if devouring seal meat. So cruel is he practice that even Russia has outlawed the kill. But not stubborn Canada.

Problem is as the population rises it's likely over nations will stop protecting their wild places and wild life. The destroyers among us are apparently stronger.

Posted by Byron on 07 Jul 2012


Thank you for this analysis on Canada. Our current PM has been accurately described by the Economist as a bully. On the environment, his government is also Orwellian. After pulling out of Kyoto, lumping environmentalists with terrorirsts, suggesting many environmental charities may be de-registered, shuttering the Round Table, and substantially changing many eco laws, the Harper Government is now positioning itself as the champion of resource development. Not our water, fish, trees, or air. Not for long-term economic stability. Just development. It is quite clear who the terrorist is.

Posted by Paula Fitzpatrick on 09 Jul 2012


Charles Macinnis wrote: "The Harper government has embraced, and intensified, the kind of thinking that American conservatives have toward the environment."

The hypocrisy of then calling environmentalists "under foreign influence!"

Doesn't anyone remember when Karl Rove came up to advise the Harper Government on how to steal an election?

Pot calling the kettle black!

Posted by Jan Steinman on 09 Jul 2012


There you go again - conservatives are at the root of all evils in the natural environment. This is patent 'scientific' nonsense. For example -the 'devastation', or 'rape & pillage' of clearcuts in most of our canadian forests IS A MYTH. it closely mimics the 10K year-old processes (since the BIG glacier retreated) of forest growth to maturity, and transition into over-maturity, insect and disease attack, followed by lightning strikes, and 5-10 million acre wildfires. Most clearcuts are smaller, and more dispersed. I wonder if the coastal observers saw any second growth from their decks - heavy logging has been going on for 150 years+ on our coasts. Perhaps one could paraphrase ... "the favorite target(s) of road building, settlement, railroads, and other (human) activities " often DO "compromise habitat" ... they also support our technological, improving society and green activists.
Posted by george nagle on 13 Jul 2012


Some of these comments are nuts! Really, you think we humans have improved on nature?Clear cuts, glaciers retreating? mimic 10,000 yr old what? Science that is not! That's just plain old nuts.

Canada has no means of protecting it's last true wild places. There laws and courts lack the backbone and there enforcement is a joke (kinda like how they dish out 3 yr sentences for murder!)

I think it would help to educate Canada about what Wilderness is: no roads, no wheels, no motorized anything, no logging (EVER) no nothing. Native!, intact ecosystems....and you know what, it manages its self just fine! Go figure, nature knows what it's doing.! Been here long before us and will be here long after us.

Classic example of Canada's version of a National park: Banff, they created it some 10 years after Yellowstone (1888?) as a destination for tourists (not for preservation) 4 years later they cut two-thirds of the park out and give it to logging and mining!? then 20 years later they give back 1,600 sq mi. to the park!

They are just on a different planet when it comes to this stuff, but so is the rest of the world. U.S. Wilderness protection is so other worldly, it makes me proud ever day to know I'm a part of that country and my children will walk in the wild (native) lands that I walked and get that same feeling of being a small part of a much bigger natural world.

Really sad that Canada will never be able to get to the 12 percent protected land that they signed on to years ago. Sad for Canada and sad for the flora and fauna that will surely be killed. But, Iowa has corn, Canada has treecorn and that, apparently is the way they want it.

Posted by A James on 08 Aug 2012


Clear cuts, glaciers retreating? Mimic 10,000-year-old what? Science that is not! That's just plain old nuts. You not understanding just shows your ignorance. Do you think clear-cutting practices of today are the same as a 100 years ago - Not !

From logging to salmon & trout hatcheries in Ontario, many lands & rivers are in much better
shape today & for their future due to rehabilitation & educating of the most eco-friendly ways to co-incide with nature.

Leaving forests that don't get to naturally re-generate from lightning strikes (Nature's way of
recycling the forests so they don't become des ease ridden, insect damaged or dominant type) by man preventing forest fires. Research has discovered that with what was meant as good intentions is acting worse then having managed clearcutting allowing different phases of new growth in with old actually creates a healthier habitat for the trees & forest habitat Canadian fisheries along the Great Lakes rivers have restored & introduced fish to a self-sustainable existence & is on-going.

Planting of the "million tree commitment" fields & along these rivers securing erosion & the 100 year plan of returning of areas to their look 100 years ago with respect to trees, tall grasses & wild flowers at the same time educating about invasive species In Ontario water is closely monitored for abuse or misuse & strictly regulated on amounts that can be removed from aquifers per recharge rate.

Something you Americans are selling out to China & any bottle company that comes along. After you have run out of fresh drinking water you will be begging for pipelines from our Northern Lakes.

We have the Great Lakes Water Act on all but Michigan & look what your doing all on your own to that lake & it's surrounding Wetlands. Their are plenty of documentaries & videos on YouTube to educate yourself. Worry about your own countries environmental issues before you run your mouth off at other countries that you know nothing about.

Posted by WiggySr on 27 Aug 2012



 

RELATED ARTICLES


Mining Showdown in Andes Over Unique Páramo Lands
High-altitude neotropical ecosystems known as páramos are increasingly at risk in Colombia and elsewhere in South America as major mining companies seek to exploit rich deposits of gold and other minerals. Such projects, scientists warn, could have serious impacts on critical water supplies.
READ MORE

On Ravaged Tar Sands Lands, Big Challenges for Reclamation
The mining of Canada’s tar sands has destroyed large areas of sensitive wetlands in Alberta. Oil sands companies have vowed to reclaim this land, but little restoration has occurred so far and many scientists say it is virtually impossible to rebuild these complex ecosystems.
READ MORE

As Fracking Booms, Growing Concerns About Wastewater
With hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas continuing to proliferate across the U.S., scientists and environmental activists are raising questions about whether millions of gallons of contaminated drilling fluids could be threatening water supplies and human health.
READ MORE

In Developing World, A Push to Bring E-Waste Out of Shadows
For decades, hazardous electronic waste from around the world has been processed in unsafe backyard recycling operations in Asia and Africa. Now, a small but growing movement is seeking to provide these informal collectors with incentives to sell e-waste to advanced recycling facilities.
READ MORE

As Uses of Biochar Expand, Climate Benefits Still Uncertain
Research shows that biochar made from plant fodder and even chicken manure can be used to scrub mercury from power plant emissions and clean up polluted soil. The big question is whether biochar can be produced on a sufficiently large scale to slow or reverse global warming.
READ MORE


SEARCH


Donate to Yale Environment 360


ABOUT

Menu

SUPPORT E360

Menu

TOPICS

Menu

DEPARTMENTS

Menu

HOME PAGE

Menu