By David McRobert (with input from Douglas Macdonald, School of the Environment, University of Toronto; and Miriam Diamond, Department of Geography, University of Toronto
On July 6th, 2012, The Globe and Mail published an op-ed article I co-authored with Miriam Diamond and Doug Macdonald, professors at the University of Toronto about the revisions to the Fisheries Act contained in Bill C-38. (The full text appears below.) Shortly afterwards, an anonymous letter arrived telling us that on June 27, 2012, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) terminated the jobs of all fish habitat officers in DFO’s 48 local habitat offices. This is part of the third round of cuts to DFO, in line with the budget Bill C-38. As the letter writer said, “regardless of the law, with no enforcement, fish habitat destruction becomes the de facto rule of law.”
Other sources from DFO and recently retired staff have advised us that staff in Central and Arctic Region of DFO were told in late June 2012 that their Department’s overall regional staffing will be reduced from pre-2012 budget levels of 155 to 85 by April 1, 2014 at the latest. Only four DFO Habitat offices will remain open serving a territory larger than Europe — Yellowknife, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Burlington. All the DFO satellite offices, which includes 8 offices in Ontario alone (including Peterborough), will close.
These revelations have stark implications in view of the claims that that the revised Fisheries Act will have tougher penalty provisions and additional reporting requirements. The question must be asked: to whom will the corporations who contravene the new stronger provisions report? Stephen Harper, Peter Kent, Jim Flaherty and Joe Oliver? Are the new provisions “symbolic legislation”, intended to persuade the public that something is indeed being done when the truth is that the new law is all “smoke and mirrors”, befitting the performances of a late 19th stage conjurer and intended to assuage, mislead and deliberately deceive the media, lawyers, the public and investors?
As a follow-up to its recent and ongoing coverage on fisheries issues raised by Bill C-38 (which we applaud), The Globe and Mail published another recent lengthy article (July 21) on the profound regulatory challenges related to fisheries management in the Arctic posed by climate change (“Climate change opens up Arctic fisheries – but should Canada cut bait?”). This was a timely and well-constructed article by Peter Christie. I urge you to read Christie’s juxtaposition of the staggering challenges associated with undertaking adequate Arctic fisheries management in the face of the sparse data that has been collected in the three decades since the Inuvialuit began a limited Arctic char harvesting program in the early 1980s under the terms of its Comprehensive Lands Claims Agreement covering the Western Arctic and the vast Beaufort Sea.
In 2011, as Christie reports, the Inuvialuit pushed for and secured an agreement with the federal government to effectively declare large parts of the Beaufort Sea off-limits to commercial fishing in the near term. Burton Ayles of the Joint Fisheries Management Committee that oversees the Western Arctic fisheries notes that the “Inuvialuit saw examples around the world of collapses of commercial fisheries because of overfishing” and decided to push for greater controls.
Then, as if to muddy the proverbial waters, I received an e-mail newsletter from a large Toronto law firm earlier this week which confidently proclaims that all is well, and that Canada’s Fisheries will thrive under the new law and the adapted DFO administrative systems.
If you believe that the Arctic fisheries, as well as others in Canada, will receive greater protection under this new legal regime, I have an exciting piece of real estate to sell you on an ice sheet near Hershel Island north of Baffin Island and near Greenland. Only $25 million. Loads of potential. (But I can’t promise it will exist in five years.)
Based on my work at the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and at the Ministry of the Environment, I tend to believe that federal regulation of resources and the environment is more uniform and consistent than local and provincial regulation, providing that officials in federal departments are provided with adequate resources and support from their political masters.
The question we believe that should be debated is this: is the Harper government trading oversight of a critically important Canadian resource so that it can increase the resources available for our ever-expanding prison system?
What follows below is our Globe op-ed published on July 6, 2012.
How Ottawa fumbled the fisheries file
Douglas Macdonald, David McRobert and Miriam Diamond
The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, July 06 2012, 2:00 AM EDT
Stephen Harper prides himself on being an astute political manager. However, the recent amendments to the Fisheries Act, contained in Bill C-38, the 2012 Budget Implementation Act, are the work of a political amateur. They will not help him get new pipelines built and they do not help his re-election prospects, since they have mobilized significant opposition, including from within the Conservative Party, and the manner of their passage lacks all legitimacy. Why has this seasoned veteran acted like such a rookie on the fisheries file?
The Fisheries Act amendments will undermine a stable, predictable regulatory regime, one that for more than 35 years balanced economic and environmental objectives and was based on sound science. That stability has been replaced by regulatory uncertainty for two reasons – first, because the law creates defences for polluters, making implementation less predictable, and secondly, because it significantly expands the scope for discretionary decisions by the Minister and staff of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) as they make regulatory approvals. This lessening of stability and predictability for the fisheries regulatory system is the last thing investors want – which works against the Harper government objective of attracting new energy-infrastructure investment.
This law is not based on science, because it attempts to limit protection of habitat to fisheries that are of value to humans – something our fisheries scientists tell us cannot be done. For nearly 37 years, the Fisheries Act was recognized and praised as a shining example of a law based on scientific understanding of the interconnected nature of aquatic ecosystems. Since a key decision by the British Columbia Court of Appeal in 1979, ecological interconnectedness has been upheld by successive appellate and lower courts across Canada. Regulators, industries, aboriginal communities and others all understood that in law and policy, it was impossible to differentiate between the habitats of fish species useful to humans and those not useful to humans. That has now been swept aside by the Harper government’s disdain for fact presented by experts. The recommendations of Jeffrey Hutchings, president of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, and of David Schindler, representing 625 Canadian fisheries scientists, have all been ignored.
The amendments represent bad politics because they have been passed into law with neither consultation nor compromise. In the 1970s and 1980s, DFO and Environment Canada, the two agencies responsible for enforcing the Fisheries Act, pioneered innovative stakeholder involvement to hammer out agreements on new amendments, standards and policies among industry, environmentalists and other parties. The compromises did not always please everyone, but because all stakeholders had an opportunity to express their views, most participants were willing to live with the outcome.
This time, however, the federal government decided unilaterally, consistent with the advice of its industry-dominated Major Projects Management Office, to forgo consultation that might have led to compromise and increased legitimacy. Instead, the public first learned about the proposed amendments in March, 2012, when a retired DFO scientist shared a leaked document. The lack of consultation, the lack of compromise (no changes were ever made to the proposed amendments), and the parliamentary process of bundling amendments to 69 laws into one budget bill means stakeholders will certainly not accept this outcome. The expected opposition from scientists and environmentalists has been bolstered by very public and previously unheard-of protests by former Conservative fisheries ministers. The Bill C-38 Fisheries Act amendments will remain in the public eye until Canadians next go to the polls in 2015.
Why did the Harper government make such basic political errors? Perhaps it actually believes its own rhetoric – that a “balance” between environment and economy is best achieved by tipping the scales and weakening effective environmental laws. Or perhaps the Harper government earned a reputation for shrewd political management simply because its previous minority status forced it to compromise. Perhaps we are now seeing the true Harper government – disdainful not only of the environment, but also of both science and consultative, participatory democracy.
Douglas Macdonald, School of the Environment, University of Toronto; David McRobert, environmental lawyer, Peterborough, Ont.; and Miriam Diamond, department of geography, University of Toronto
251 comments (two reproduced below)
Sorted by Scores:
2:08 AM on July 6, 2012
Very well said. As one who consults in all matters that deal with the Fisheries Act, I can verify that clients are now more fearful and hesitant than ever about the increased uncertainty that these changes bring. More decisions that were once addressed at the field level will end up in the courts or in the hands of lawyers. Harper -a dangerous amateur indeed.
2:53 AM on July 6, 2012
“Perhaps we are now seeing the true Harper government – disdainful not only of the environment, but also of both science and consultative, participatory democracy.”
Is this not the pattern that has emerged?
A war on the environment and democracy.