How $1 billion can help decide what is good for Canada’s environment

By Supriya Tandan February 28, 201828 February 2018

How $1 billion can help decide what is good for Canada’s environment


Ministers Bill Morneau and Catherine McKenna are both attempting to address issues of equality and, yesterday, Budget 2018 outlined how a $1 billion dollar investment will be used to support the Bill C-69, which would replace the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

With Bill C-69, McKenna is hoping to change the way that Canadians weigh the merits of major projects against the impacts on, amongst other things, our environment, health and relations with Indigenous Peoples. Proponents, like the Pembina Institute have applauded the efforts while critics charge that the new Impact Assessment Act has a back-to-the-future feel. The new Act, they say, largely restores requirements that were in place before the Harper government, leaving the more ambitious goals up to political will.

Bill C-69 was the product of a comprehensive environmental review process, the culmination of which is the Building Common Ground Report that formed the basis of the new Impact Assessment Act. It would implement the recommendations of the panel, including more cooperation in the planning phase, recognition of the connections between the environment with other societal impacts and transparency initiatives. The new Act also promises to incorporate some aspirational recommendations around sustainability, addressing climate change and renewing relations with Indigenous peoples.

These aspirations are all fine. But the University of Calgary’s Martin Olszynski writes about the inability of the proposed Act to take a definitive stance on issues of sustainability and climate change:

The federal government will also have to consider a project’s contribution to sustainability (as defined in the Act), and whether it contributes to or hinders Canada’s ability to meet its climate change commitments. The key word in the preceding sentences, however, is “consider”: like all of its predecessors, the IAA refuses to draw an environmental (or other) bottom line. Instead, the IAA offers increased transparency in decision-making and mandatory reasons in many instances.

A Sara Mainville, of Olthuis Kleer Townshend Law, offers a similar view with respect to improving Indigenous relations:

First Nations wait impatiently for real measures to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  UNDRIP is not, as several Ministers have mentioned around the Federal Regulatory review, “a promise kept” by the Trudeau government.  Bill C-69 is clear evidence of this.  The absence of any mention of any article, principle or the Declaration itself in Bill C-69 is a clear signal that this Government is going to continue rely on the common law and the courts to recognize rights rather than facilitating these discussions in a “rights recognition” framework within legislation.

A reason for this is perhaps that legislators are still unsure on the right course of action on certain perceived, controversial issues. Or perhaps, they could not find an effective way to operationalize the concepts—hardly a new problem. As Finn Arler, a Professor at the Department of Development and Planning in the University of Aalborg University outlines in his book:

Many people are eager to find a way of dealing with environmental issues that does not force them to take a stand on questions of value…because value questions are seen as personal, difficult, and basically subjective matters. In this kind of setting “operationalization” is bound to become a critical term. Modern bureaucrats and state officials are looking for neutral and impersonal methods that make it possible to operationalize a concept like “sustainability”, leaving all questions of value to be dealt with in the personal realm. They want to find a solution that is impersonal and neutral with respect to all the conflicting personal values and conceptions of the good.

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