Bill C-38 is supposed to implement provisions made in the March 29th federal budget. But as CPJ wrote last week, this omnibus Bill includes much more.
Over one-third of this legislation deals with environmental issues, much of which was not mentioned in the Budget Speech itself. Here, there are enormous implications for Canadians and the environment.
For example, let’s look at what Bill C-38 does about climate change.
Scott Vaughan, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, reported to Parliament on May 8. Vaughan said that the federal government has not complied with the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, and will not meet its current target for greenhouse gas emission reductions of 17 percent by the year 2020. In fact, Environment Canada’s own forecast shows that in 2020, Canada’s emissions will be 7 percent above the 2005 level.
In the Budget or Budget Speech itself, you can look in vain to find a single reference to climate change – although there is certainly concern for “the investment climate".
Yet, Bill C-38 repeals the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, and closes the National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment (an entity that measured Canada’s lack of performance on global warming.) Therefore, Bill C-38 almost guarantees that Canada will not meet our greenhouse gas reduction commitments in future.
C-38 also repeals the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. It sets timelines and time limits for environmental assessment hearings and allows Ottawa to relegate assessments to the provinces. Commissioner Vaughan has suggested that compared to the approximately 4,000 reviews currently carried out by the federal government, only 20 – 30 assessments may be undertaken in future. Since the regulations defining project assessment are not yet published, citizens are concerned that environmental assessments now required by law will be weakened, and participation limited to those persons arbitrarily defined as “directly affected” by project proposals.
Bill C-38 gives the federal cabinet the authority to approve new pipeline projects. It also makes changes to how permits under the Species at Risk Act are authorized, and overhauls the Fisheries Act to focus only on major waterways and “economically viable” species of fish. Four former federal fisheries ministers (two Conservatives and two Liberals) publicly questioned why the government has given only four days of hearings into such major initiatives. They called for these changes to be reviewed by the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, to ensure adequate oversight. These Privy Councilors are convinced that survival of some species will be endangered without adequate federal regulation and enforcement, particularly in the area of habitat protection.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Green Party refers to C-38 as “The Environmental Devastation Act.”
However, there are groups that support the environmental changes enshrined in C-38. Various federations of anglers and hunters support the legislation. And the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters stated that, “The approach for environmental approvals proposed in Bill C-38 represents a responsible and modern approach to regulatory management and oversight.” Clearly, C-38 is good news if you think economic interests should trump environmental concerns.
Omnibus Bills – Ominous for Democracy?
Do so-called “Omnibus Bills,” which lump various legislative measures into one giant piece of legislation, threaten democracy? Opposition parties argue that such Bills should be broken into their specific parts, allowing Parliamentary Committees and the public to fully understand and better scrutinize each specific law. Unfortunately, the environmental aspects of Bill C-38 were not debated by Parliament’s Environment Committee, but rather by a subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Finance.
For their part, First Nations demand that they be consulted on the design of environmental and regulatory review processes affecting their lands. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations has spoken out strongly against C-38 for this omission. First Nations in B.C. now threaten legal challenges if pipelines are approved to cross their territories.
Columnist Andrew Coyne has referred to the omnibus budget bill as “that 425-page ransom note,” because it demands that MPs approve amendments to more than 60 bills at once. Since a budget bill is a confidence motion, defeating it would bring about the government’s fall and lead the country into an election. That is unlikely to happen in a majority situation, where MPs are “whipped” into support of their party’s stances.
Civil Society’s Response
There is no love lost between the federal government and environmental NGOs. Government Ministers and Senators have used inflamed rhetoric while referring to “radical” ENGO activities, and accused some of inappropriately obtaining foreign funding and even laundering money (a criminal offense). Bill C-38 includes an increase of $8 million to the Canada Revenue Agency, specifically to further audit and monitor Canadian charities, with special attention towards the 8% of charities that do environmental work.
In response, a dozen of Canada’s best known environmental charities started a campaign in support of “two core Canadian values: nature and democracy.” On June 4th they blacked out their websites as a protest against C-38’s environmental measures and its “silencing” of environmental groups. Over 200 organizations, including CPJ, joined in this symbolic act.
It is time for advocates of public justice to enter the debate. Citizens can encourage MPs to consider all the implications of this bill rather than obediently voting along party lines. We may be able to calm tempers among various groups and promote a civil discourse – while ensuring that we make real progress on climate change and the environmental protection that this country so desperately needs.