May Day, m'aidez

By Briony Penn, June 2012

How environmental protection in Canada went the way of the dodo.

Last month, my 16-year-old son’s class was flown to Ottawa, housed, fed, lectured to and trotted around the capital’s institutions and memorials devoted to war for a full week—courtesy of Stephen Harper’s government. According to David Pugliese, a veteran defense policy journalist, this youth indoctrination program is just a taste of what is to come. 

And, as the defense “booster” budget explodes, the environmental budget implodes. It appears they are inextricably linked by the Harper agenda.

My son’s school trip was part of a multimillion-dollar scheme to bring tens of thousands of young Canadians to the exhibits on Vimy Ridge and the War of 1812. The students are housed in barrack-like accommodation called “Encounters with Canada,” with a welcoming picture of a young Albertan shaking hands with PM Stephen Harper. Located in the industrial district, they are given a taste of institutional life—junk food, videos and confinement. In between visits to war exhibits and memorials, they are lectured on war. 

My son is interested in history, and he has grandparents who were veterans. He also has excellent teachers at home who help him discern the subtext behind “heroes” and “radicals.” He defines himself as a “radical” for wanting to protect the coast from oil spills. He’s on the Coastguard Auxiliary. In sharing his Ottawa adventures with me, he described one lecture in particular where a UN veteran recounted his days in the armed forces, with the excitement of “dodging snipers, driving through mine fields, and fending off machete attacks.” When the speaker was questioned further on the latter, it appeared that the machete attacks were somewhat overstated, and prompted my son to question, “How did he know that they weren’t just local farmers who were upset that an army had just arrived on their land?”

Pugliese, who has moved to Victoria from Ottawa, describes the ideological changes in defense policy as “unbelievable,” with unprecedented and undebated increases in spending, marching hand in hand with unprecedented cuts to the environment. (It turns out that the 10 percent cutback to the defense budget was mostly spin, and mostly directed at programs like care for traumatized soldiers.) Speaking with Pugliese helped me realize the school history/French immersion trip to the nation’s capital was, in fact, a calculated war immersion. While Katimivik, the hugely successful volunteer youth program working with communities was axed, Operation Vimy Ridge was launched. 

The two programs couldn’t provide a starker contrast. Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney states in a press release, “The Battle of Vimy Ridge helped define Canada as a nation as we made our mark on the world stage. By teaching youth about the courage and perseverance shown by the young Canadians who fought during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, we are helping to create a new generation that will help shape the future of our great country.” 

If Pugliese critiques this and other defense policies, he gets threatening phone calls from “information officers” or operatives of the Prime Minister’s Office—who command $10 million dollars of the budget. “Creating the new generation” really means “disassembling the current one”—at least the one that strived for a more discerning society and especially those who block unregulated resource extraction. After all, social and environmental justice are easily characterized as “getting in the way” of national security, aka oil extraction. And who could challenge a veteran? No one, except it appears, a 16-year-old.


In the Budget Implementation, Bill C-38, the attack on Canada’s national identity as a peacekeeping nation with social and environmental oversight, is explicit. The Capital Region, being a hot-house of “radicals,” is being particularly hard hit by the cuts in the budget and laws regarding oversight and safeguards, starting with the National Energy Board (NEB). 

The NEB is in the midst of its review of the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Under Bill C-38, the current Joint Review Panel would be cut off at 24 months (with thousands of British Columbians registered to speak who would not be heard), and recommendations from the panel would now be at Harper’s discretion to ignore—which he will do, as he is openly in favour of the project. 

And which national agency will provide oversight on large projects? Certainly not the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. C-38 gives discretionary powers to the minister to decide what projects do or don’t require an assessment, which together with a cabinet veto, streamlining, staff cuts, downloading of the responsibility to the provinces, and the exemption of federally-funded projects altogether, will make this agency clawless. 

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act itself will now apply only to impacts on aquatic species under the Species at Risk Act and migratory birds. But even the few species in these categories will be left without an ark, because revisions to the Species At Risk Act give agencies like the National Energy Board the ability to override protections of critical habitat on projects it approves. The recent legal victories for the protection of endangered southern resident orca habitat will now be an irrelevant footnote of history.

And don’t look to the Fisheries Act to slow the projects down when they cross rivers and oceans. The Fisheries Act has been not only gutted but headed, tailed and filleted into a spineless act that oversees only fish of “commercial, Aboriginal, and recreational” value, with habitat protections weakened to the point of no returns and again, the ministerial discretion clause applies. Even some Progressive Conservatives, like former cabinet minister John Fraser, are outraged. He told the Vancouver Sun, “To take habitat out of the Fisheries Act is a very serious error because you can’t save fish if you don’t save habitat, and I say this as a lifelong conservative. People who want to eliminate the appropriate safeguards that should be made in the public interest, these people aren’t conservatives at all, they’re ideological right-wingers with very, very limited understanding, intelligence or wisdom.”

Just to ensure there are no loopholes, the Navigable Waters Protection Act has been changed to exempt pipelines and power lines from its provisions. Those will now become a responsibility of the National Energy Board, which, as we now know, is a rubber stamp agency. 

Under all these deregulations, Harper will be able push through his plans for the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion from the tarsands to Burnaby. The plans to triple capacity and infrastructure from 300,000 barrels/day to 850,000/day with up to 30 tankers a month plying the Salish Sea will be able to go ahead without public scrutiny. Existing decisions, like the protection of Fish Lake in the Chilcotin from becoming a tailings pond, will be able to be reversed as the bill applies retroactively to July 2010 (the Fish Lake decision came in October 2010). As local MP Elizabeth May cites in her analysis, “The new Fisheries Act provisions create an incentive to drain a lake and kill all the fish, if not in a fishery, in order to fill a dry hole with mining tailings.” Any recommendations out of the Cohen Commission on the sockeye disappearance will likely be waived under some discretionary wand and removed from the record.

In case you had one last hope that Parks Canada might be able to put checks on projects through national parks or marine conservation areas, think again. They have taken huge hits, losing nearly a quarter of their staff. The Gulf Islands National Park was, to quote an insider, “gutted.” They have lost their key scientists and ecologists, and Bill C-38 will permanently remove monitoring and ecological restoration from their responsibilities. By the end of this summer, the Canadian icon of the park warden educating children about nature will be virtually wiped from our institutional memory. Harper does not want an educated person identifying for children the beauty, diversity and fragility of the shoreline past which oil tankers are going to be passing when Kinder Morgan or Enbridge gets their pipeline approvals.


The rest of the 420-page Bill C-38 is more housekeeping to ensure that every loophole is plugged that might prevent the movement of the 71 percent foreign-owned bitumen to China. For example, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which brought Canadians from all walks of life together to provide advice on federal policies, has been dismantled. 

Not content with shutting down the Round Table, Harper is shutting down every dissenting voice with unprecedented vindictiveness. Charities will no longer be able to accept gifts that may result in political activity. He has already allocated $8 million in the budget specifically to harass environmental groups like ForestEthics, already hounded with repeat audits. 

Finally, if there was any doubt that there is, in John Fraser’s words, “limited understanding, intelligence or wisdom” in the architects of Bill C-38, water—the most basic of needs—has been the target of more deregulation. Environment Canada is losing a wide range of responsibilities from running programs on water-use efficiency to monitoring effluent discharge of toxins into our water systems. Combined with recent news that 75 jobs in the national contaminants program concerned with marine pollution have been axed—including nine scientists and staff at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in North Saanich—we simply won’t know whether there are dangerous toxins in our oceans and rivers. As Peter Ross, an environmental toxicologist who received his notice of termination, told news media, “I cannot think of another industrialized nation that has completely excised marine pollution from its radar…It is with apprehension that I ponder a Canada without any research or monitoring capacity for pollution in our three oceans, or any ability to manage its impacts on commercial fish stocks, traditional foods to over 300,000 aboriginal people, and marine wildlife.”

The siege of Bill-38 on our old bastions of agency oversight goes on and on. In all, 70 laws are rewritten. Did I mention that they propose the axing of the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act? This is the final nail in the coffin of policy on climate change and, therefore, fossil fuels. Altering the climate irrevocably will be seen as the greatest act of war on the Earth by the next generation.

Which takes us back to my son and his trip to Ottawa. Besides tales of the glories of war, what else are they teaching our children in Ottawa these days? 

A walk inside the Museum of Nature reveals the sponsorship of Toronto-based Barrick Gold, the biggest gold mining company in the world. Barrick Gold creates vast strip mines around the world and has such a bad track record of violations that even the Government Pension Fund of Norway has dumped their stock on ethical grounds. When concerns about this partnership with a public institution charged with educating our young about nature were raised with museum CEO Margaret Beckel, her reply was, “The ongoing generous support from sponsors such as Barrick Gold allows the museum to realize priority projects thereby making it possible for the museum to achieve its overall goal of connecting people with nature.” Who is the latest appointment to the board of Museum of Nature? Byron Neiles, Enbridge’s Vice President, Major Projects.

Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and A Year on the Wild Side.