BY LINDSAY BRISCOE
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has released a report stating the regulation changes the province made to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in July of this year threaten the protection of Ontario’s species at risk.
Commissioner Gord Miller says the ESA itself is a “progressive and viable piece of legislation” but the MNR has failed to implement it and has subsequently created sweeping exemptions from it, for a number of industries.
In his report, Laying Siege to the Last Line of Defence: A Review of Ontario’s Weakened Protections for Species at Risk, Miller says activities such as forestry, aggregate pits and quarries, hydro-electric dams and infrastructure construction contributed to species becoming threatened in the first place, yet the “full protections of the law no longer apply” to those activities.
“By eliminating the permit process, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has shed its ability to say ‘no’ to a proposed activity, no matter how harmful it may be to an imperiled species,” said Miller, in a statement. “And since proponents don’t have to file any monitoring reports with the ministry, MNR will be blind to the effectiveness of its new rules.”
He also says the public has lost its rights in the process because proposals that could harm endangered species no longer show up on the Environmental Registry, eliminating the opportunity for the public to know what’s happening or provide comment.
Aside from Miller’s recent public condemnation of the MNR’s changes to the ESA, the Ontario government is also currently involved in a legal battle with two provincial wilderness conservation groups.
Anna Baggio, the Director of Conservation Planning with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS)-Wildlands League, says her organization tried to assist the province with implementation of the ESA over an 18-month period. She says the government invited the Wildlands League to participate in a stakeholder panel, then “didn’t really take its advice.”
“We brought forward ideas that were science-based and the government didn’t really have any interest in implementing them,” she said, in an interview. “They then proceeded with broad and sweeping exemptions from the Act that we just could not support. That’s why we had to resign from the panel…When every option was exhausted we felt like we had no choice but to seek legal remedy.”
She says that while she understands the province’s effort to balance the budget and the push to get industry projects “out the door,” her organization will not sacrifice endangered species to do so.
In the meantime, Baggio is pleased with Miller’s report.
“For us it certainly provides an independent assessment from his perspective, of what Ontario’s doing and we respect that… There are other independent people that are concerned about this issue and I think you’re starting to see voices coming up…more and more of that concern articulated.”
David Orazietti, Minister of Natural Resources says he remains proud of the government’s Endangered Species Act as it is still recognized as “a North American leader and the gold standard in protecting species.”
Orazietti also says he’s concerned the environmental commissioner does not fully understand the regulatory changes.
“The elements that make this legislation the gold standard continue to be in place…” his office said in am e-mail. “MNR continues to have great success through the Endangered Species Act in playing a key role in the ongoing recovery of species like peregrine falcon and piping plover. The environmental commissioner himself recognized MNR for an award in 2013 for its efforts to return breeding piping plover to the Lake Huron shore – evidence our ministry’s efforts are making a difference in the protection of species at risk.”
He says the regulation changes “represent a broader public consensus” as well as avoid duplication and streamline approvals.