JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

June 11, 2012

Three years ago, Canada's Catholic bishops asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take action on climate change. Then-CCCB president, Archbishop James Weisgerber wrote, "As Catholic pastors and teachers, we have a special concern for how climate change impacts the poor.

"Concrete commitments should be agreed upon and mechanisms should be created to mitigate additional global climate change and to help poor persons and developing nations adapt to its effects. . . .

"Protecting the poor and the planet are not competing causes; they are moral priorities for all people living in this world."

Have these "moral priorities" received suitable attention since 2009?

Not from the federal government, according to Canada's commissioner of the environment and sustainable development. On May 8, Scott Vaughan said the government did not comply with the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, and that the federal government would not meet its current target for greenhouse gas emission reductions of 17 per cent by the year 2020.

In fact, Environment Canada's own forecast shows that in 2020, Canada's emissions will be seven per cent above the 2005 level.

Worse yet, legislation implementing the federal budget will seriously undercut environmental sustainability efforts.

Bill C-38 will implement the budget. But the bill includes tougher Employment Insurance measures, revisions to seniors' pension benefits and goes on to implement weaker environmental measures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Green Party refers to C-38 as "The Environmental Devastation Act."

About one-third of this legislation is directed towards environmental issues. It 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). It sets timelines and time limits for environmental assessment hearings and allows Ottawa to relegate assessments to the provinces.

Bill C-38 gives the federal cabinet 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 for such major initiatives. They call for these changes to be reviewed by the Parliament's Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, to ensure adequate oversight.

However, some groups, such as federations of anglers and hunters, support the environmental changes in C-38. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters say the bill's approach to environmental approvals "represents a responsible and modern approach to regulatory MANAGEMENT AND OVERSIGHT."

DEMOCRACY THREATENED

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 understand and better scrutinize each specific law.

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, for example, has spoken out against C-38 for this omission.

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.

INFLAMED RHETORIC

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 offence).

Bill C-38 includes an increase of $8 million to the Canada Revenue Agency, specifically to further audit and monitor those eight per cent of Canadian 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 4 they blacked out their websites as a protest against C-38's environmental measures and its "silencing" of environmental groups. Over 200 organizations, including my own, joined in this symbolic act.

It is time for Canadian Christians to enter the debate, calming tempers among various groups and encouraging civil debate - while ensuring the real progress on climate change and environmental protection that this country so desperately needs.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)