The Ontario Endangered Species Act (ESA), a law without friends in power

Sierra Club Ontario was a strong supporter of the Ontario Endangered Species Act from the moment that the McGuinty Government proposed it. We worked with our environmental community colleagues to help fine tune it and I deputed before a Queen’s Park committee in support of the ESA. Was the final product perfect? No it was not, but at least we had a species protection act that attempted to be comprehensive and had some basis in science. Those were the good old days.

 


Now we are faced with a situation in which the stewards of the ESA, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), are proposing these sweeping changes to the Act:

·         A five-year exemption for all logging operations, affecting a 45 million hectare area

·         Permanent exemptions for existing pits and quarries and hydro operations

·         Exemption across many industrial sectors (pits and quarries, housing development, electricity, waste management, renewable energy, hydro, roads and other infrastructure, and more) for planned or approved activities that harm newly listed species, newly discovered species at a site, and newly protected habitat

·         Protection undermined for 65 species scheduled for habitat protection this coming summer that have already waited an average of 19 years for better protection

Among the species that MNR is proposing to “exempt” from the protection of the Act is the Woodland Caribou. The Caribou, whose image graces the Canadian Quarter, are arguably the most iconic of Ontario’s endangered species. In recent years they have drawn the attention of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Gord Miller, who has stated that under current Ontario forest management practices the Woodland Caribou are headed for extinction in Ontario. When a reporter asked Commissioner Miller for an estimate as to when this extinction might occur, he suggested the middle of our current century. Woodland Caribou need large undisturbed tracts of boreal forest to survive. Fragmented forests leave them vulnerable to threats including increased predation by wolves.

MNR is being less than forthcoming as to why the Ministry is looking to back away from so high profile a commitment of their government. Commissioner Miller has supplied one possible reason as he has on several occasions observed that MNR lacks the funding to carry out its mandate, and he made this observation before the Ministry was handed the responsibilities required in the current ESA. As well, industry representatives have been vocal in attacking the ESA as a supposed “job killer” in virtually every circumstance in which they encounter the ESA. Yet another very sad reason for MNR’s desired ESA abdication of responsibility is the fact that fulsome defenders of the Ontario ESA are thin indeed among the ranks of our elected Members of the Provincial Parliament.

It will come as no surprise to most that the Ontario Progressive Conservatives are no fans of the ESA. Tory leader Tim Hudak singled out the ESA for particularly harsh criticism during a recent Toronto speech. Mr. Hudak lambasted the Act as an intrusive and unwarranted attack on the “business as usual” status quo that created the crisis of endangerment in the first place. He even took offence at the number of species now and soon to be covered under the ESA, suggesting that this was an example of bureaucracy run rampant. Ontario’s top Tory seems willfully blind to the fact that hard science is behind every species listing on the ESA.

More surprising to some might be the pronounced lack of fervor that the Ontario NDP has for the ESA. House Leader Gilles Bisson never did support the Act. One newspaper account prior to the 2011 Ontario election quoted Mr. Bisson as saying “Don’t blame us for the Endangered Species Act”. To be fair, tepid and qualified support for the objectives of the ESA is occasionally voiced by some Southern Ontario members of the provincial NDP caucus in conversation but it has been observed for some time that on certain issues, the ESA being a prominent one, the Ontario NDP speaks one message in Northern Ontario and another in the South. It is especially unfortunate that, of late, even the NDP leadership has been not been heard regarding MNR’s attack on its own law. The silence of leader Andrea Horwath on the proposed gutting of the ESA has been deafening.

It is fortunate that as I write this, the proposed MNR abandonment of their ESA stewardship is still only proposed. There is still time for Premier Kathleen Wynne to halt this misguided ministerial misstep. One indicator of the Premier’s willingness to act will come with the soon to be released Ontario budget. If more funding isn’t allotted to MNR, that will signal a lack of political will to see that the Ministry, often derided as the Ministry of No Results, fulfills its current ESA mandate.

Then it will rest with the people of Ontario to tell our new Premier that we expect her government to enforce the Ontario Endangered Species Act as presently written. Sierra Club will lead the way with our environmental colleagues in fighting to ensure that endangered species, including the Woodland Caribou, are protected and not literally and metaphorically thrown to the wolves.

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To send a letter to Premier Wynne, please visit: http://www.protectendangeredspecies.ca/

 

 

 

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