Anne Murray: Will the election of the Liberals bring a better future for Canada’s environment?

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      Early morning mists, fields full of pumpkins, cottonwoods turning golden, and skeins of snow geese flying overhead mark Thanksgiving season.

      There is a fresh feel in the air that is not just about the weather. The federal election result has imbued the country with new hope and enormous expectations. Can Justin Trudeau and his new Liberal government truly create a future of “real change”? And what does that mean for Canada?

      The election was fought on many issues, but one that resonated with many of us was the need for an open, progressive, and science-based approach to policy making. During the long weeks running up to the election, the environment emerged as a key area needing attention, especially among young voters.

      The swing away from the New Democrats and the Greens, often considered the environment-friendly parties, was more likely driven by the electorate’s strong desire to vote in a majority government and defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives than it by any lack of interest in the environment as an issue.

      Those of us who value research, learning, and science, were appalled at the Harper’s government’s disregard for the science of climate change and the profound consequences of a warming planet.

      The lack of respect for science as a basis for sound decision-making was exemplified by the “muzzling” of government scientists, who were not allowed to speak publicly about their work. The downsizing of federal libraries such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ archives, the elimination of the long-form census, and the withdrawal of funding for ocean monitoring and for the world-leading International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), demonstrated an outstanding rejection of real knowledge. The ELA, encompassing 58 freshwater lakes, had provided “the strong scientific evidence required to inform environmental legislation in Canada and the world”. In 2014, the Ontario government had to step in to provide financial support and prevent its closure.

      So how will Justin Trudeau’s majority government shape up on environmental action? The Liberal Party platform spells out some general approaches: a commitment to evidence-based policy, the appointment of a chief science officer, allowing scientists to speak freely about their work, and consideration of scientific analyses when the government makes decisions. These are all welcome improvements.

      On major projects, the promises are less specific. Federal environmental assessments involve the preparation of thousands of documents and studies, yet often conclude there is no negative environmental effect even when wildlife habitat is clearly being destroyed, damaged, or alienated. Similarly, public consultations can be seen as time-consuming but meaningless processes, just part of getting approvals, rather than as genuine opportunities for dialogue, clarity, and decision-making. The new Liberal government promises that it “will engage in appropriate regulatory oversight, including credible environmental assessments that will respect the rights of those most affected, such as Indigenous communities”. While it is good to hear that decisions will be “based on science, facts, and evidence, and serve the public’s interest”, and that there will be an end to the practice of “having federal ministers interfere in the environmental assessment process”, it is shocking to think that Canada has so long tolerated a situation where these rules of engagement now need to be spelled out.

      As well as universal issues, such as the world’s changing climate, British Columbia has many specific environmental projects that will need the attention of the new government. These include the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and port projects, the proposed new National Park in the South Okanagan, and the protection of internationally important wildlife habitats in the Fraser delta. There is also the locations of many federally-sponsored initiatives, such as ports, roads, and flood mitigation. Some of these issues are mentioned in the Liberal party’s election platform; for the remainder, positions have not yet been developed, one way or the other. Here is a quick run-down on some of the hot issues.

      The Liberal party is on record as opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project, which underwent a National Energy Board (NEB) review from 2009 to 2013 that involved tens of thousands of British Columbians. The review panel heard 1,179 oral statements and received over 9,400 letters of comment. Despite what was clearly widespread public concern for the project, the panel recommended approval and the federal cabinet adopted that recommendation in June 2014. Legal challenges were made by a number of First Nations and environmental organizations, including the Federation of B.C. Naturalists (B.C. Nature), a grass-roots society never previously provoked into this type of activism. These challenges are still making their way through the Federal Court of Appeal.

      The proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would see increased tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet and through the incalculably valuable Salish Sea. In September, Trudeau announced that a Liberal government would “formalize the moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s North Coast, including the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound”. However, he made no mention of tanker traffic through the Burrard Inlet, the mouth of the Fraser River, or the rich marine waters of the southern Gulf Islands, Haro Strait, and Juan de Fuca Strait.

      Jonathan Wilkinson, MP for North Vancouver, was quoted prior to the election saying that the Liberal party would send the Kinder Morgan project back into a new NEB review process to ensure all issues are addressed. Previously, Trudeau was supportive of the pipeline project, as a means of getting resources to market, so the party’s position may have shifted to one more sensitive to due process. The Liberal platform speaks of modernizing the NEB, ensuring the inclusion of “regional views and…expertise in fields like environmental science” and to have “more robust and credible environmental assessments for all projects that could impact our freshwater and oceans”. Meanwhile the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation’s court action against the NEB for inadequate consultation is scheduled to begin on October 27.

      A number of other issues around oceans and marine life made it into the Liberals’ election platform, including action at last on the Cohen Commission recommendations to restore Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks, and the restoration of federal funding for the scientific study and monitoring of Canada’s oceans, “to protect health of fish stocks, monitor contaminants and pollution and support sustainable aquaculture industries on our coasts”. It also looks like there will be quick action on enacting legislation on some of the proposed marine protected areas along B.C.’s coast. Marine and coastal-area protection will be increased to 5 percent by 2017 and to 10 percent by 2020. Funding worth $8 million per year will be available for the science and community consultation necessary to move the process along. The management and expansion of National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries will also receive funding and more will be done to protect Canada’s endangered species, including completing at-risk recovery plans.

      The South Okanagan National Park looks like it may become reality at last. Off to a rocky start when first proposed, with some landowners posting “No National Park” signs prominently along highways, there now seen to be widespread support for the park among the general population, including the local First Nations, vineyard owners, tourism operators, and conservation groups. B.C. Premier Christy Clark suddenly came on board with a modified land protection framework involving two areas for the National Park and a provincial conservancy area, a proposal that has just completed its public feedback period. The timing is right as Trudeau is on record as being supportive of national parks, with a particular interest in making them more accessible to families and new Canadians.

      Finally, there is the issue of the controversial Site C dam project on the Peace River, which will destroy farmland and wildlife habitat in northern B.C. but which has already passed federal and provincial environmental reviews and received a go-ahead from the B.C. Liberals.

      It seems unlikely that the change in federal government can affect its construction. Hydroelectricity production is of course one solution to preventing climate change through the burning of fossil fuels, and on that issue, the federal Liberals plan a number of actions where they will work with the provinces, to “provide national leadership, put a price on carbon and reduce carbon pollution”. To that end, they plan to invest “millions” in new clean technologies, and specifically, $6 billion over 4 years and $20 billion over 10 years in green infrastructure. Perhaps these new plans, if realized, could affect the demand and economic rationale for Site C.

      The legal right to a healthy environment, a feature of the NDP and Green Party platforms, was not part of the Liberal platform.

      Concerned citizens will need to be active watchdogs to make sure election promises are kept and that proposals for Canada’s sustainability and economy are environmentally sound.