Canada’s Endangered Environmental Laws

Peace and Environment News, January–March 2013
by Mike Buckthought

On December 14, the Senate passed another omnibus bill, Bill C-45. The omnibus bills C-38 and C-45 have seriously weakened Canada’s key environmental laws. By bundling so many amendments in two massive bills, the Harper government avoided any meaningful debate in the House of Commons. The omnibus bills made far-reaching changes to environmental legislation, including the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

  • Bill C-38 repealed the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, which was passed in 2007 to ensure that Canada would implement a climate plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On December 12, 2011, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Bill C-45 made substantial changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA). It is now known as the Navigation Protection Act. The bodies of water that are covered by the legislation are listed in Schedule 2 of the bill. The list includes 97 lakes, 55 rivers, six canals and the oceans. The vast majority of Canada’s lakes and rivers are not protected by the weakened legislation.
  • Bill C-38 gutted the Fisheries Act, by removing protection for fish habitat and allowing the Fisheries Minister to authorize water pollution. The Minister is given extensive powers to introduce regulations “authorizing the deposit of deleterious substances.” These regulations may specify the toxic substances to be released, and the bodies of water that may be harmed. If one lake is not large enough to hold the toxic tailings from a mine, it is always possible for the Minister to designate “places falling within a class of waters or places.” The quantities and concentrations of toxic substances may be specified by the regulations.
  • Bill C-38 repealed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). This was one of Canada’s key environmental laws. Under the CEAA, environmental assessments evaluated the long-term health and environmental impacts of proposed projects. Harmful impacts were identified, and alternatives could be recommended. Three levels of assessments could be conducted: screenings, comprehensive studies or review panels.
  • The CEAA was replaced by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 (CEAA 2012). Federal environmental assessments are no longer required if there is a provincial process in place. At first glance, this appears to be a way to avoid duplication. In reality, it will clear the way for the approval of harmful industrial projects. The less stringent provincial reviews will not consider the complete range of environmental impacts.
  • There will be a dramatic drop in the number of environmental assessments. Under the old legislation, assessments were triggered if certain pre-conditions were met. Under the new legislation, most projects will no longer require a federal assessment. Assessments will be required if a project is included in a designated project list. The list was hastily established using “recycled” regulations, without any opportunities for public comment.
  • CEAA 2012 provides short time limits for the completion of an environmental assessment. An assessment must be completed within 365 days, or 24 months if it is referred to a review panel. The imposition of mandatory time limits threatens the environmental assessment process. With a compressed timeline, there will be fewer opportunities for the public to be involved. There will also be limited opportunities for researchers to collect the scientific data needed to adequately assess a project.
  • Public participation in some environmental reviews may be limited, because of new requirements that participants must be “directly affected” by a project. This could limit opposition to energy projects, especially in remote areas that are sparsely populated. With this restriction in place, someone who happens to live in Ottawa or Vancouver might not be allowed to comment on a proposed pipeline in northern British Columbia.
  • Bill C-45 created the Bridge to Strengthen Trade Act. No environmental assessment will be required for the new international bridge linking Windsor and Detroit. The project is also exempt from any obligations under the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act and the Navigation Protection Act.

To learn more about recent changes to Canada’s environmental laws, visit West Coast Environmental Law (, Save Canada’s Environmental Laws ( or Ecojustice (

Mike Buckthought writes about environmental issues.

Published in the Peace and Environment News, Volume 28, Number 1, January–March 2013, page 8.

A Funeral for Canadian Science

Peace and Environment News, September–October 2012
by Mike Buckthought

Death of Evidence rally, Ottawa, July 10, 2012. Photo by Richard Webster.

Death of Evidence rally, Ottawa, July 10, 2012. Photo by Richard Webster.

On July 10, 2012, hundreds of Canadian researchers and concerned citizens marched to Parliament Hill to protest the government’s unprecedented war on science. Protesters wore lab coats, or dressed in black to mourn the “death of evidence.”

At the front of a mock funeral procession, a black-robed Grim Reaper carried a scythe, symbolizing the budget cuts that have killed many research projects. Following behind the Grim Reaper, pallbearers carried a coal black coffin.

Many protesters carried placards with messages mourning the loss of important environmental research programs. People highlighted the federal government’s decision to cut funding for the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). “It doesn’t matter how much water you have if it’s all polluted. Save ELA,” read one placard.

The ELA is just one example of a research program that has been cut. Recent government decisions have seriously undermined our ability to develop sound environmental policies based on scientific evidence. “Canadians want science-based policy, not ideology,” said one placard.

The procession continued down Wellington Street, a river of white and black leading to Parliament Hill. Along the way, people chanted “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.” A rally on the Hill featured speakers from the scientific community and non-governmental organizations such as the Council of Canadians.

“We are all here today to commemorate the untimely death of evidence in Canada. After a long battle with the current federal government, evidence has suffered its final blow,” said rally organizer Katie Gibbs.

“Between the sweeping cuts to federal science programs, the legislation changes that we saw in Bill C‑38, and the muzzling of scientists, the injuries to evidence have just been overwhelming.”

The speakers delivered “eulogies” criticizing recent actions of the federal government.

“The risks of living in a fantasy world at this point in history are very grave,” said Dr. Arme Moores, professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University.

Moores said the government appears to be “retreating from reality” at a time when there are serious threats to our water, food and the environment. “When countries engage in fantasy, it’s called state propaganda,” he said.

Another speaker criticized the government’s attempts to silence scientists, and recent changes to the Fisheries Act.

“The federal government has weakened national fisheries and environmental legislation, trivialized the relevance of scientific advice, and eliminated government scientific research of fundamental importance to the health of Canadians,” said Jeff Hutchings, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University.

“Freedom of expression is no longer a right enjoyed by Canadian government scientists,” he said. “When you inhibit the communication of science, you inhibit science. When you inhibit science, you inhibit the acquisition of knowledge.”

At a time when many species are threatened by climate change, industrial pollution and loss of habitat, it is essential to support environmental research. The death of evidence leads to the death of species.

Canadians will not be content to live in a country that turns its back on scientific research. Such an approach is dangerous, at a time when our survival is threatened by global warming. In future years, the Death of Evidence rally will no doubt be seen as a turning point. After years of budget cuts and the silencing of scientists, people are ready to speak out.

For photos, videos and background information about cuts to environmental research in Canada, visit the Death of Evidence website:

Mike Buckthought is a writer and environmental researcher based in Ottawa.

Published in the Peace and Environment News, Volume 27, Number 4, September–October 2012, page 1.

Cuts to Environmental Research

Peace and Environment News, September–October 2012
by Mike Buckthought

Death of Evidence rally, Ottawa, July 10, 2012. Photo by Richard Webster.

Death of Evidence rally, Ottawa, July 10, 2012. Photo by Richard Webster.

Following the July 10 “Death of Evidence” rally in Ottawa, the scientific journal Nature featured an editorial commenting on the Harper government’s cuts to research. “The sight last week of 2,000 scientists marching on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill highlighted a level of unease in the Canadian scientific community that is unprecedented in living memory,” the journal noted.

Over the past six years, we have seen an unprecedented attack on scientific research, with many cuts focused on environmental programs:

  • Budget cuts have hit Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, and other government departments.
  • The world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area will be closed. It is a unique research facility in Northwestern Ontario that has operated since 1968.
  • The federal government is axing funding for Canada’s Research Tools and Instruments Grants Program (RTI). This key program funds purchases of research equipment. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is holding one last competition, with reduced funding compared to previous years.
  • The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre is losing $400,000 annual funding from NSERC. Thousands of scientists from around the world use the station, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
  • The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) ceased year-round operations in April 2012. This was a unique research station in Eureka, Nunavut, that played a key role in monitoring the depletion of ozone over the Arctic. The ozone layer shields us from ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer.
  • The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) published reports on climate change, energy efficiency, air pollution and other important issues. Its funding was eliminated in the recent federal budget.
  • Since 1961, the Kluane Lake Research Station has allowed researchers to study Yukon’s glaciers. Improving our knowledge of glaciers leads to better climate modelling. The station’s federal funding was axed. Without additional funding, the centre will be forced to close.
  • Layoffs at Fisheries and Oceans will limit the department’s ability to assess the environmental impacts of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. According to documents obtained by the Canadian Press, the department was not able to complete an environmental risk assessment for the nearly 1,000 streams and rivers that would be crossed by a pipeline. The department “has not conducted a complete review of all proposed crossings,” however “this work will continue.”
  • Environment Canada researchers are required to follow a restrictive media relations protocol. Scientists wait for approvals from bureaucrats that do not understand the research. Because of the cumbersome approvals process, journalists miss their deadlines and do not report on groundbreaking research. Some scientists have been directed not to talk to the media about their research.

Mike Buckthought writes about environmental issues.

Published in the Peace and Environment News, Volume 27, Number 4, September–October 2012, page 6.