Omnibus bill only the latest move in profound changes for environment, natives

OTTAWA - Government calls it making way for business. Outraged foes call it the slicing and dicing of environmental protection and any remaining trust with aboriginal peoples.

OTTAWA – Government calls it making way for business. Outraged foes call it the slicing and dicing of environmental protection and any remaining trust with aboriginal peoples.

Over several months of omnibus bills, amendments, regulations and tinkering with longstanding conventions, Ottawa has undertaken a series of adjustments that add up to undeniably profound changes in both environmental and aboriginal policy.

Bill C-45, the 457-page budget omnibus bill tabled this week in the House of Commons, is the latest instalment in what may seem like evolutionary changes. They may turn out to be revolutionary changes.

“It is all about jobs, investment and opportunity. It is all about creating economic growth so Canadians can get back into the workforce and be able to provide for themselves and their families,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the House on Friday under a barrage of aggressive questions about C-45.

Canadian business leaders are saying little but they are quietly content with these changes, officials with several major business groups told The Canadian Press.

Aboriginal groups and environmentalists, however, say they are deeply disturbed — both with the new directions and the stealthy way those directions were undertaken.

“When our people see no movement from the government to work with us, when they see backsliding, undermining and continuing threats and pressures on an already burdened population, the flames only grow stronger,” Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said last week.

“Our people will not stand for it. Rightly so, there is growing anger and frustration.”

There has been no big announcement or unveiling of a bold new strategy. Rather, profound changes have come cloaked in dense bureaucratese that lawyers from all vantage points are still puzzling over.

“Essentially what the federal government has done is slice and dice environmental law to the point where they are not protecting water or air,” said Jessica Clogg, executive direchtor of West Coast Environmental Law.

On the environment front, reform first came in the spring budget omnibus bill that, among other things, replaced the Environmental Assessment Act, significantly modified the Fisheries Act, tinkered with the Species At Risk Act, and gave ministers more approval power over energy and pipeline projects.

Natural resource industries were delighted with the changes and did not lobby for anything further, notes NDP environment critic Megan Leslie.

“They were pleased as punch. They didn’t ask for anything else.”

But the government went further anyway.

In the second budget omnibus bill tabled this week, there was more tinkering to make up for faulty wording the first time around, more changes to the Fisheries Act, as well as a major revamping of the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Indeed, the word “waters” will be dropped in when the bill passes.

The end result? There will be dramatically fewer environmental assessments, focused only on major projects. Provinces will handle the assessments if they are able. Only fish of commercial importance will be protected.

Pipelines will be exempt from the navigable waters act and the environmental assessments that law has often triggered. Only three oceans, 97 lakes and 62 rivers will be covered by the new act — less than one per cent of Canada’s waterways.

But if mining companies are tempted to pump water out of any of those waters to use for dumping tailings, they will no longer be allowed.

“The net effect is that Canada’s environment is less protected by the federal government than it ever has been before. They are piece by piece getting out of the business,” said Will Amos, director of the Ecojustice environmental law clinic at the University of Ottawa.

The goal, government argues, is to maintain environmental protection, stiffen enforcement, but to reduce overlap and regulatory uncertainty so that safe resource development can go ahead without unnecessary delay. Billions of dollars in investment will be unlocked.

Environment Minister Peter Kent and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan were not immediately available for comment.

The changes give the pipeline industry exactly what it had hoped for: “more focus, more certainty, more transparency,” says Brenda Kenny, president and CEO of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.

“That is what has been accomplished.”

The overhaul of aboriginal policy has also been layered into the two budget bills, but is complemented by additional proposals for legislation. The aim, according to Minister Duncan, is for Ottawa to get out of the way and allow First Nations to develop more self-reliance.

“Our government has been hard at work modernizing legislation in order to allow First Nations and aboriginal organizations to operate at the speed of business,” Duncan said in a speech last week.

He has introduced new rules for financial transparency on reserves, passed a law to improve the quality of drinking water, and opened the door to reforms in land management and private ownership. He has promised to table new legislation to overhaul native schooling and give more control to First Nations.

And last week, the Conservatives threw their support behind a private member’s bill setting out steps to remove the Indian Act.

Except in almost every case, Ottawa has lost the support of large numbers of First Nations leaders because of a lack of consultation, cooperation and trust.

“Much was promised by Prime Minister Harper and his ministers. Much less has been delivered thus far,” Atleo said in his speech at Ryerson University last week.

“The clock is now ticking, my friends. My people will not wait on the delivery of promises forever. And we have seen the tragedies that explode when patience runs out.”

Despite the extremely complicated legislation that is driving so many of the changes, opposition parties feel they have the ear of the public.

On Monday, Liberal interim leader Bob Rae is going to put forward an alternative strategy for reforming aboriginal policy, in the hopes of gaining the necessary support of First Nations.

He is asking MPs to support a motion that would see Ottawa negotiate directly with First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis. They talks would create a replacement for the Indian Act based on constitutional and treaty rights as well as the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed by Canada.

While the Liberals are using procedure, the NDP is turning to the public.

The NDP’s Leslie says the backlash during the summer over the changes to environmental assessment tell her that voters can be counted on again this fall to pressure the Conservatives into scaling back its plans.

“We know that this government doesn’t pay attention to science,” she said. “But they do pay attention to public opinion.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.