The following article by Environment North vice-president Karen Peterson and president Graham Saunders was first published in the Chronicle Journal on March 9, 2019. (Additional links for more info at the end of the article.)
Unravelling Environmental Protection and the Importance for Public Consultation
There is a general impression that majority governments can do whatever they please, but as recent outcomes of public consultations demonstrate, the current majority government (which represents only 40% of people who voted and far fewer of eligible voters) retreated from an initiative that could have had serious social and environmental impacts.
The Ford government is heavily promoting Ontario as “open for business”. This focus comes at the risk of social and environmental impacts which came to light quickly through a series of initiatives tabled soon after their election last June, i.e. the cancellation of the Cap-and-Trade program in July, elimination of the office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario in November and making changes to the Planning Act through Schedule 10 of Bill 66 “Restoring Ontario’s Competitive Act’ in late December.
The Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) was passed 25 years ago. It was a ground-breaking statute ensuring government transparency and citizen rights to participate in decisions affecting the environment. However , without any public consultation, the Ford government tabled Regulation 386/18 and Bill 4 to end the Cap and Trade Program which was a major component of Ontario’s plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Failing to comply with EBR’s consultation requirements, a lawsuit by Greenpeace prompted a ‘just in time’ 30-day comment period on Bill 4. More than 11,000 comments were received, most expressing support for action on climate change and less than 1% in support of cancelling the program. Bill 4 was passed into law in October. The Ford government attempted to dismiss the lawsuit with the justification that their election campaign included ending Cap and Trade and was thereby “substantially equivalent” to consultation. The dismissal attempt has been denied by The Ontario Superior Court and a spring hearing date has been set for Greenpeace’s challenge to Cabinet regarding public consultation.
The Environment Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) was a non-partisan, independent government watchdog appointed by an all-party committee that has the duty to report on climate change, energy and environmental issues. Last November, the ECO’s report to Cabinet raised serious concerns regarding water pollution. Two days later, the Ford government abolished the ECO stating it would be amalgamated under the Auditor General to save costs. Commissioner, Dr. Dianne Saxe, stated in the National Observer on Dec 6, 2018:
“What a way to mark the 25th anniversary of the Environmental Bill of Rights, but to silence the Commissioner and restrict the rights of the public. The government is saying to people, you can trust us. They say they're going to police themselves. Now, when has that ever worked?”
Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, was tabled in late December, 2018. Schedule 10 of Bill 66 was an ‘open for business by-law’ and ‘planning tool’ to ‘cut red tape’ and ‘burdensome regulations’ that ‘hinder new business’. If a business could demonstrate minimum job creation (50 – 100 jobs in populations of 250,000 or 1M respectively), it could be exempted from zoning regulations, laws, policies and controls that safeguard the environment, human health and safety which are contained in such documents as Official Plans, the Provincial Policy Statement and Clean Waters Act. Public consultation could be side-stepped and there would be no option to appeal. An outpouring of opposition was submitted by municipal councils and planners, environmental organizations, legal associations, private citizens, agriculturalists and Members of Provincial Parliament which resulted in Schedule 10 being pulled the day following the government’s comment period. This retreat signifies a huge victory for public Involvement.
These attempts to unravel environmental protections confirm the importance of our democratic voices to ensure that even majority governments need to align their initiatives with the predominant interests of the people they govern.
Bill 4, The Cap and Trade Cancellation Act, 2018
To find out more about the public comments: click here
For more details on the lawsuit by EcoJustice click here.
Bill 66, Restoring Ontario's Competiveness Act, 2018
To go to a blog by the Canadian Environmental Law Association summarizing the concerns of Schedule 10 click here