I’ve started, stopped, and tried again to write this post many times in the last few weeks. I hardly know where to begin, particularly with shocking new details appearing in the news media daily. I’m talking about the Canadian government and their ‘austerity’ measures. The pitting of the economic recovery of the country against pretty much any environmental regulation and/or regulatory or monitoring body. The assault on democracy in the form of a more than 400 page ‘budget’ bill that serves as a Trojan horse that will have devastating consequences on our country for decades to come.
It started with the government’s refusal to continue support for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS). Last March, the multimillion dollar program closed its doors and said goodbye to the many researchers who’s climate-related work they had supported for over a decade. While some people were upset at this development, others (largely those who weren’t on the ‘inside loop’ to be funded by CFCAS) were cautiously optimistic that the government might replace the program with something more accessible to all researchers.
Little did everyone know what was to come.
The cut to CFCAS led to the closure of the Polar Environment and Atmospheric Lab (PEARL). Recently outfitted with the latest in atmospheric monitoring equipment, the government pulled the research funds required to run the station – one of the best in the world, which was heavily involved in identifying and monitoring the massive ozone hole over the Arctic last spring. While many Canadians donated to help raise private funds for the facility to maintain operations, it wasn’t quite enough. Now the station is closed, some equipment malfunctioning because researchers don’t have the funds to go up and maintain it.
Next came the dismantling of NSERC’s Major Resources Support program. Think this doesn’t affect you? Think again. the MRS program supports the Kluane Research Station in the Yukon, which many Canadian researchers across the country use as a base for their work – and which had just had $2.5 million in renovations and celebrated its 50th anniversary. It also – like CFCAS – supported PEARL. Then there’s the CCGS Amundsen, the Canadian icebreaker that has been plying Arctic waters for the last several years with both university and government scientists on board, examining everything from oil and gas potential on the continental shelf to sea ice development and formation to calving Arctic glaciers. And what about the Bamfield Marine Science station on Vancouver Island, which provides world class learning opportunities for students from many western Canadian universities? These are just a few of the national research operations utilized by hundreds of scientists across the country and around the globe. The government, however, said scientists were exaggerating the impacts of the cuts.
At the same time that the government has been dismantling major Arctic research programs (PEARL, Kluane station, CCGS Amundsen, etc.), they’ve championed their plans to build an Arctic research base in Cambridge Bay. Why invest millions of dollars in new infrastructure when the existing infrastructure – for example the Polar Continental Shelf base in Resolute Bay – is falling apart? Or when researchers can’t access funding required to even do such remote research?
The government then turned the axe on their own civil servants, with Environment Canada and the Dept of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) bearing the brunt of the cuts. The entire ocean pollution monitoring team across Canada has been axed. The air quality monitoring team has been cut, with the government erroneously suggesting that they can get similar information from the US EPA instead. The work of the ice core research group has been redirected towards permafrost and other northern impacts on oil & gas development. The Canadian Space Agency has seen significant cuts that will likely scuttle the development of the Radarsat 3 satellite – a key component of Canada’s environmental monitoring system.
The icing on the cake came when the government announced the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). For over 50 years, the ELA has been operating under DFO, with both academic and government scientists conducting groundbreaking research on freshwater systems and pollution. This research has supported the development of international policy and helped with decision making here at home. For example, studies on phosphorous in freshwater systems at the ELA led scientists to confirm that this was the main pollutant affecting Lake Winnipeg. Scientists from around the world have expressed outrage at this latest cut, calling it an embarrassment for Canada on the world stage.
Also cut this year was the National Round Table on Energy and the Environment (NRTEE). An arms-length body that provided expert advice to the government on environment-related issues, the NRTEE was shut down because the government felt that the same information could be obtained from the internet and from academic researchers. Sure – as long as they’re not the same academic researchers whose work has been affected by the cuts listed above. Then it came out that the real reason the NRTEE was cut was because the government didn’t like what they were saying. Recent reports from the group suggested a carbon tax was a sound way to reach carbon emission targets, but something to which the Conservative government was strongly opposed.
Since it wasn’t enough to just cut funding programs and scientists, the government decided it was time to rewrite environmental legislation. And this is where the omnibus (or ominous) budget bill comes in. This massive bill contains much more than just a budget. It also contains significant changes to the Fisheries Act and the Environmental Assessment Act (we won’t even get into the changes to Employment Insurance, the Fair Wages Act, border security…).
The Fisheries Act manages not just fish, but also fish habitat across the country. The changes to the Act will reduce its efficacy and its ability to protect habitat, by requiring that it only be applied to species of ecological or economic significance. Aren’t all fish ecologically significant? And who is the onus on to prove that the fish is ecologically or economically significant? The Environmental Assessment Act will be weakened to allow the committee to exempt projects from assessment, and will give Cabinet the power to overrule the decision of those assessments that are undertaken. It will also limit public participation in the assessment process to those who are ‘directly affected’. How do you define someone directly affected – and how do you exclude those who will be indirectly affected? Does this represent the workings of a strong democracy?
Critics suggest that all of these changes are designed to make it easier to build oil and gas pipelines across the country, like the Northern Gateway pipeline across BC or the Keystone pipeline down to the States. With more lax regulations, these types of projects are more likely to be approved. And without the science to flag potential development impacts, it will be more difficult to define potential environmental problems. This is a government that questions their own Environment Minister on the science behind climate change, and that appears to be using the financial savings from these environmental science cuts to provide funds to the Canadian Revenue Agency to keep a closer eye on environmental groups, and to establish an Office of Religious Freedoms.
But what can we do about it? The government has another 3 years in office, and with a majority there’s not much to stop them. Our country will look very different by 2015, and I’m not sure we’re going to like it. While the government rails against environmental groups, saying they represent ‘foreign’ interests (sort of like oil companies I guess) and launder money, they don’t realize that it’s not just so-called greenies who are against these changes. It’s First Nations, municipalities, commercial and recreational fisheries, conservationists, and more. There’s a petition to save the ELA, and a day of protest planned for tomorrow 4 June. Some are trying to find ’13 Heroes’ – the number of Conservative MPs required to bring down the budget bill by voting against it – potentially triggering an election (not entirely sure that’s what would happen). But how effective will these measures be? Some columnists argue we need to be like the students of Quebec, and take to the streets en masse. But this is Canada – would that ever happen?