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Defending Canada’s Environmental Laws is just common sense

March 28, 2012

Or “What your Mom taught you about Canada’s environmental laws”

(Cross-posted at

With a wide range of Canada’s environmental laws apparently on the chopping block in the coming weeks, and environmentalists under attack across the country, it has never been more important for Canadians to stand up for our environmental laws. Unfortunately, while 84% of Canadians agree that we need stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment *, many of them find that their eyes glaze over when you talk to them about the Fisheries Act , and 9 in 10 Canadians would rather attend a hockey game than a lecture about the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA).**

But perhaps that’s because environmental lawyers tend to over complicate things.  Much of what environmental laws do is simply common sense.  When you were a kid, I’m sure that your Mom taught you common sense – lessons like:

  • Look before you leap
  • Two heads are better than one
  • Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg

These words of wisdom are not specifically about the environment, but are good advice for anyone who wants to plan for the future.  And, not surprisingly, they are key concepts in many of the environmental laws that the Canadian government is currently looking at gutting.   

Look before you leap

The federal government’s Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency explains:

"[E]nvironmental assessment is a process to predict the environmental effects of proposed initiatives before they are carried out."

In other words: “look before you leap.”  Figuring out the environmental impacts of a mine after it is built is too late.  Poor mine construction may mean the destruction of fish habitat, dangerous contamination by toxic chemicals, erosion or other impacts.  It’s much better to figure these things out, and make sure that they are dealt with, “before they are carried out.” 

While the imminent amendments will not eliminate CEAA altogether, there are signals which, taken together, cause us to fear that CEAA, and related laws, may ultimately face a death by a thousand legislative cuts. We’re still waiting for the soon to be unveiled amendments in this round of cuts (likely in the coming Budget Bill, to be released any day now), but statements by government ministers and leaks lead us to believe that the amendments will ignore some important lessons we learned as kids:

  • Haste Makes Waste: Drastically reducing and limiting the time available to carry out environmental assessments.  This is particularly true for pipelines and other energy projects, despite the rather massive public and environmental concerns with such projects.  While there are doubtless ways to improve the speed with which projects are assessed, imposed time-lines fail to recognize that “haste makes waste”, and that large and complicated projects need adequate time to assess properly;
  • Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover: Eliminating environmental assessments for developments that the government has decided in advance will not have a significant environmental impact (thereby “judging a book by its cover”); and
  • Don’t Turn a Blind Eye: Eliminating other legal protections for species and habitat that might otherwise trigger an environmental assessment, allowing the government to “turn a blind eye” to environmental harm.

Overall, the government’s emphasis is on accommodating various industries in their desire to get quick and favourable answers from the process, rather than on strengthening the ability of the environmental assessment process to take a detailed environmental “look” before committing to “leap” forward with a major project.

Two (or more) heads are better than one

Although a recent Parliamentary Standing Committee report on environmental assessmentpaid lip service to enhancing public participation, the Committee derailed its own public process without hearing from various scheduled witnesses, including several of the government agencies that administer the CEAA. Not surprisingly, the Committee’s report contains no actual recommendations related to how to improve public consultation.  Meanwhile:

Environmental assessment experts know that involving the public is critical to good environmental assessments.  But your Mom knew it too: “Two heads really are better than one.”

This maxim would also apply to recognizing the distinct value in having both federal and provincial environmental review processes, as the federal government has alluded to getting out of the business of environmental assessment entirely and creating a patch-work of environmental assessment standards across the country. 

Not only that, but also hearing from the communities that intimately know the land where a project is proposed to go, helps ensure that projects aren’t “shoved down their throats.”  As a result, strong laws protecting public participation help ensure that the projects have the “social licence” to operate.

Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs

While some may still view the environment as a source of inexhaustible resources, or able to absorb all the pollution we throw at it, the fact is that the environment provides us with literally billions of dollars of “ecosystem services” – from clean air to healthy wild salmon stocks.  Weakening environmental laws risks the economic benefits from these ecosystem services. 

Particularly disturbing is the possibility, as yet not confirmed, that the federal government may seek to remove legal protection for fish and wildlife habitat:

  • fish habitat under the Fisheries Act;
  • critical habitat for endangered species under the Species at Risk Act; and
  • bird habitat under the Migratory Bird Convention Act (giving a literal meaning to “fouling the nest”). 

For these wildlife and fish species, habitat is the “gift that keeps on giving”, the “goose that lays the golden eggs”.  A 2005 U.S. study published in BioScience Magazine found that in the establishment of legal protection for critical habitat of endangered species was a very significant factor in determining whether the species would recover or slide further towards extinction.

If we don’t protect wildlife and fish habitat, we can expect more endangered species and a weaker wild salmon population.  By eliminating protection for habitat, the Canadian government would be killing the goose the lays the golden egg. 

A challenge

The reality is that strong environmental laws are very much about common sense – assuming, that is, that sustainability and environmental protection are your real goals. 

We’d like to invite you to help us make that point.  Think of a saying, proverb or cliché that you learned as a child and tweak it to emphasize the importance of strong environmental laws.  Some examples to get you going:

  • “A bird in the bush is worth two in a tar sands tailings pond.”
  • “An enviro law in time, saves us from a toxic mine.”
  • “Beware of industry lobbyists bearing gifts.”
  • “Don’t foul the nest.  Or my drinking water.  Or my air. Or….”
  • “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
  • “It’s all fun and games until someone gets cancer.”

And then share your greened-up saying with your friends on social media.  A few requests when you post these wisdom sayings for the seventh generation:

Let’s send the message that strong environmental laws are common sense, and that Canadians support them. 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer, West Coast Environmental Law

* - Hoggan Communicating Sustainability Research, 2006  

** - This is a made up statistic.  The real number of Canadians who would prefer to attend a hockey game is probably much higher.