[Note: The following was first published in the February 2013 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2013 Don H. Meredith
It’s something I thought I would never see in this country: the federal government’s abandonment of its obligation to protect the environment and the resources that depend on that environment. That indeed is what has happened with the passing of the two omnibus bills, C-38 and C-45, making wholesale changes to the federal Environment Assessment, Fisheries and Navigable Waters acts, among others, without consulting stakeholders or even allowing proper debate in Parliament. All of this to allow the petroleum industry to have its way with pipeline corridors and other developments. Our government is willing to sacrifice all to deliver cheap oil and gas to American and Asian markets—talk about retrograde thinking. And it does not seem to care about the concerns of its fellow Canadians who hold a clean environment and healthy wildlife populations as part of their Canadian heritage. Indeed, the federal government seems to take great delight in bullying these people, casting aspersions on their character and loyalty to the country
At first it appeared the Canadian public was going to let this bullying slide. However, as the consequences of these actions have become clear, there is considerable pushback building over both environmental and democratic concerns. The most notable has come from First Nations in the form of the “Idle No More” movement, which is protesting the unilateral changes the government made to the Indian Act in Bill C-45 as well as the environmental acts listed above. Now, it is easy to dismiss this movement as just another native protest that will not lead to much except maybe an agreement to talk more about First Nations grievances that never seem to be resolved because of lack of action on both sides of the issue. However, I detect this may be something more.
For example, my e-mail inbox has been inundated with messages from people I never expected to be politically galvanized, urging me (among others) to write members and ministers of Parliament protesting the passage of the omnibus bills and expressing support for Idle No More. Many of these people I have known for years in the outdoor and biological communities who are usually politically conservative in their thinking. That is, they prefer to see less government—to a point. They also understand how important the environment is to the well-being of both human and wildlife populations, and that it is only government that can provide the level playing field that protects that environment while allowing planned development of our natural resources. They also understand how much work went into the creation of the Fisheries, Environmental Assessment and Navigable Water acts. Although they may not be happy with how these acts have been enforced in the past, they consider them to be the foundation of Canada’s environmental policy. The federal government’s passage of these omnibus bills, which in effect reduced protection for most fish, wildlife and waterways, crossed a “line in the sand” with these people who otherwise would vote for a government that wishes to balance the budget and lower taxes.
They twigged on the Idle No More movement because the First Nations have pulled all these issues under one hat. First Nations are the one cultural group in our society that acknowledges the importance of the environment and the diversity of creatures it supports in most aspects of their culture and traditions. Sure, individuals and groups have not always respected these traditions, and I’m sure we can all relate examples (as we can for non-aboriginal citizens), but nonetheless, the concept is engrained in their lives in ways that put our non-aboriginal cultures to shame. But what is most important is that they are finally doing something about it. Their special relationship with the federal government (as nation to nation) has potential for causing a lot of grief for that government, both nationally and internationally, if it does not respect their concerns.
Why now? A good question but I think a lot has to do with the unprecedented and undemocratic manner in which these changes were made. First Nations have always chafed from unilateral decisions made by federal governments on their behalf, but seem to get bogged down in bureaucratic snarls designed to bully them into place. Now, non-aboriginals are experiencing the same thing: being treated like children by a government that believes it knows best and doesn’t need to consult or take wise council from experts or stakeholders. The result is an opportunity to band together under a common cause and force this government to realize its democratic and environmental responsibilities.
Normally such actions by a government would not be tolerated by opposition politicians. However, the Conservatives have succeeded very well in dividing and indeed conquering the opposition. The Liberals remain in the wilderness, delaying their leadership convention to the point where they will continue to be a non-contender in the next election. The New Democrats will have difficulty breaking out of their Quebec stronghold without risking losing ground there. The Greens have an opportunity to make gains, but whatever they gain will further fracture the opposition and further ensure another Conservative majority.
So, what can be accomplished to return integrity to our environmental management while the political parties sort out their relevance to the electorate? In short, a lot. First of all, the federal government is not the only player in the game. Provincial governments will have to step up and fill the gaps the feds have created in protecting the environment. That may be difficult for the Alberta government who is already deep into the pockets of the petroleum industry, but other provinces might indeed be able to shame the feds by passing the necessary legislation to ensure their environments remain intact. However, this will not happen unless people make their views known to their governments. Even here in Alberta our government is sensitive to its lack of environmental oversight. Nevertheless, a provincial patchwork of environmental protections across the country is not ideal; but it will be necessary if we hope to recover any of what we’ve lost.
The federal government is not immune to such pressure, either. They obviously believe the majority of Canadians will just accept these changes—even though the Conservatives never campaigned on them and cannot claim a mandate to make them. However, if we truly value our democracy, and environmental and wildlife heritage, we have to make sure the federal government understands that unilateral changes of this magnitude are not acceptable. Yes, the Environment Assessment, Fisheries, Navigable Waters and Indian acts most likely required some changes to bring them up to date and streamline processes; but they did not deserve the wholesale changes that totally changed their intent—not without proper consultation with stakeholders, experts and fellow parliamentarians. The feds must learn to show humility, admit they did wrong and seek to make amends.
However, bullies are reluctant to admit they are wrong. They prefer to keep on bullying as long as their victims let them do so. Pushback is something you do to a bully when you’ve had enough of the bullying. I’ve had enough of the federal government bullying. Have you?