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It’s no surprise that escalating environmental concerns are prompting a growing need for sustainable solutions. There is a strong public voice of support for urgent action, strengthened environmental regulations and sustainable decision making. So why is our federal government carrying out a methodical and relentless plan to deregulate and defund Canada’s environmental programs? It’s a concerning and confusing statement of what our priorities are as a nation and part of a large global ecosystem.
With the release of the federal budget earlier this year, the Government of Canada announced that it would be making substantial cuts to environmental programs and initiatives, totalling a loss of up to $1.6 billion in funding and the elimination of thousands of jobs. Among the deep cuts planned, Environment Canada will lose $222 million in funding over the next three years, while the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency will eliminate one third of its workforce.
Many of the programs slated for cuts oversee the collection of reliable scientific information and data about our water resources and aquatic environments. Environment Canada, for example, no longer has a water quality division (all staff have been assigned to other departments). In the 2010 Fall Report of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, Environment Canada was scolded for “not properly monitoring the quantity and quality of Canada’s water resources”. The report concludes by saying that “understanding the status and long-term trends in the quality and quantity of the country’s fresh water resources is of vital importance to Canada’s future prosperity”. The department responded to the report and agreed with all recommendations contained. And now, instead of strengthening our ability to understand, research and monitor our natural resources, we’re abandoning it as a priority? How can we manage what we don’t measure? Without information, Canada’s decision-makers are simply forced to make uninformed decisions.
Other program cuts will greatly affect the implementation of Canada’s water-related policy and legislation, including the Canada Water Act, the Federal Water Policy, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Federal regulations governing our water resources are not consistently enforced and are often overlooked unless brought to the public’s attention by nonprofits, community organizations and persistent individuals. Reductions in these areas will take away the teeth behind our protective regulations. How can we expect compliance without consequence? It also means that Canada’s policy makers – those responsible for developing new and stronger protective regulations – are mandated to do less, with less.
We urgently need leadership from our federal government. We need to improve our commitment to enforcing existing laws and regulations. We need to have an in-depth scientific understanding of the quality and quantity of our natural resources, like water resources. We need to commit to investing in environmental programs and sustainability initiatives. We need to develop new regulations and build the capacity for them to be enforced. We need to move forward, not backwards!
As an example, let’s consider one of the biggest issues in the Ottawa River Watershed – the ongoing dumping of wastewater effluent and raw sewage into the river – in the context of drastic spending cuts. While our neighbours in the United States have had strict wastewater effluent legislation in place since the 1970s, it was only two years ago that the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) released the Canada-wide strategy for the management of municipal wastewater that led the government to develop new federal regulations governing the treatment and release of wastewater effluent into our water bodies. The draft regulations, released early last year, left much to be desired and are still in the consultation and development phase. The release of the finalized version has once again been postponed. It was proving difficult for the federal government to table these regulations before spending cuts. Now, with the program and its resources gutted, what will happen to our federal wastewater strategy?
Cuts to Environment Canada’s Substance and Waste Management programs, which are responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of these regulations, are among the largest in the department. Funding is being slashed by nearly 50% and 279 jobs supporting these programs will be eliminated over the next three years. It is of great concern that a program area already struggling to catch up to standards other countries have had in place for over thirty years is being forced to cut programs and organizational capacity to such a severe extent. This is in no way aligned with the principles of sustainability.
In response to the criticism that these cuts have elicited from numerous environmental interest groups, Treasury Board President Tony Clement maintains that Environment Canada will still be able to deliver core services and has said, “In terms of what Canadians expect out of Environment Canada – protecting air, protecting water, those kinds of issues – there’s been no diminution.” The reality is that Canadians expect so much more than what Environment Canada is currently able to accomplish. Now, more than ever, we are looking to higher levels of government to lead by example and work harder to guarantee a greener future.
We need our government to take responsibility for the stewardship of our lakes, rivers and streams and to invest in increasing our capacity to protect our natural resources. By making budget cuts to programs that are vital to the protection of these resources, our government is slowly but surely increasing the vulnerability of our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and is unnecessarily putting our water resources at risk. Given the already deteriorating state of our lakes and rivers, we cannot afford to let this happen. The longer we wait to develop and implement good programs, policies and laws, the harder it becomes to find sustainable solutions for the future.
In the absence of leadership, step up!
Every community needs to understand where their water comes from, what the quality of the water is and what they need to do to protect it.
1. Write your MP – Do they enjoy swimmable, fishable and drinkable water? Will they stand in opposition to continued spending cuts and deregulation?
2. Why are rivers, lakes and streams important to you? What steps are you taking to protect water resources? Please share your voice with us.
Learn more about Great River Project, a 900 kilometre journey down the Ottawa River to inspire action and a strong sense of community water stewardship.