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Evidence of meeting #9 for Environment and Sustainable Development in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was sara.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Cynthia Wright  Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment
Pardeep Ahluwalia  Director General, Species at Risk Directorate, Department of Fisheries and Oceans
Mike Wong  Executive Director, Ecological Integrity Branch, Parks Canada Agency

10:15 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

I think it was a $10,000 fine.

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

Justin Trudeau Liberal Papineau, QC

Okay. What you're saying about the environmental enforcement bill not applying to SARA, I'd like you to go over that, just repeat it for me. Are you saying it could have applied to SARA and it was chosen that it wouldn't apply to SARA?

10:15 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

That's correct. In other words, at the time, the decision was that because SARA could be before this committee—in fact it's unfolded this way, and it is before this committee for review—the enforcement bill is amending other pieces of legislation, so there was a decision to keep them separate but to allow the committee to consider how it could apply to SARA.

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

Justin Trudeau Liberal Papineau, QC

Okay. I'm just surprised, because you'd think an enforcement bill would be protecting wildlife and species at risk, if anything. I think that's certainly something we're going to have to consider here, making sure the provisions of the enforcement bill, when it comes before us, apply to SARA.

To go back, you mentioned polar bears and traditional aboriginal knowledge, and one of the weak points in traditional aboriginal knowledge, by definition, is the new impacts of climate change. For generations native elders could predict exactly which day or which week the ice would break up, and now they no longer know which day the ice is going to break up—a given day—because the weather patterns are so changing.

How is Environment Canada, and specifically in relation to SARA, addressing the changes coming? I think of the disappearance of the sea ice in the polar bear case, but there are many, many others across the board. How are we preparing for the coming changes, because of climate change, in the way we regard species at risk and their habitats?

10:15 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

To use the example of polar bears, that was certainly a topic that was discussed at length at the polar bear round table in January. Indeed, COSEWIC has looked at the long-term implications for climate change on the polar bear in its status assessment. I think that's why they are pointing to the need to make sure harvesting is set properly, so there's a strong enough population base for the species to maintain.

I think what traditional aboriginal knowledge brought to this was a better understanding of how species do recover. Many of the Inuit were recounting stories of declines and increases, so what are the factors affecting that? The other thing they brought to our attention is that maybe the management units we're using are actually not necessarily the right boundaries. They found that polar bears, according to traditional aboriginal knowledge, move more, cross boundaries more. These are all things that can be useful in recovery strategies.

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

Justin Trudeau Liberal Papineau, QC

Finally, in regard to the woodland caribou case, there's a question of the timelines and the amount of time, the gap that was highlighted in SARA between the time a minister receives the assessment from COSEWIC and passes it on to cabinet, to Governor in Council, which would then trigger the start of the nine-month countdown clock.

You mentioned there were concerns about not being able to consult enough in the nine months given. Is that the main reason this gap exists? My understanding was that the gap was not supposed to exist, because it was supposed to be the onus of falling back on the science, the onus of action as opposed to an onus of inaction.

10:15 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

I hope I haven't misled the committee, Chair.

For woodland caribou, the gap is not in the listing. Caribou is a listed species and therefore afforded the protection of the act, so thou shalt not kill, harm, harass, take—

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

Justin Trudeau Liberal Papineau, QC

Or endanger critical habitat.

10:15 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

The second aspect where the challenge has been is identifying the critical habitat for caribou. Understanding caribou and their habitat needs, that's where the scientific challenge has been and that's where we've needed extra scientific work. The species is on the list and afforded the species protection provisions of the act.

The example I was using where the consultation takes longer is in the listing phase, and for other species, just to use the example of the polar bear, that's one where we have an obligation to consult with wildlife management boards as some of the key managers on the population. So we have an instrument we've negotiated that respects wildlife management agreements, and that instrument makes it hard to complete the consultations in nine months. We cannot do it within the nine months and respect the land claims, and the Nunavut land claims agreement in particular.

10:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Thank you. The time has expired.

Mr. Watson.

March 10th, 2009 / 10:20 a.m.

Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to the officials for appearing here today.

A lot of our colleagues around the table have jumped into a lot of very specific questions, and that probably means they know a lot more than I do about SARA. I'm still studying this thing. In my mind I've sort of separated the review of SARA into two aspects. One is the framework itself, SARA as an act. Is the fundamental architecture of SARA in fact sound? Are only parts of it needing overhaul, or does most or all of it need a fundamental new approach? The second aspect I've separated this into is sort of the policy, the processes, and the results that flow from the framework.

I want to start with the framework itself. I think you've sort of hinted in this direction, but I'm not sure I've heard a conclusive answer from officials. SARA itself as an act, its contents, its prescription as a framework, is it generally speaking fundamentally sound? Should this committee be satisfied that fundamentally it's okay, that there may be certain aspects we should be looking at but not a fundamental rewrite of the legislation? Is that your opinion?

10:20 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

What hopefully the committee has heard from us today is that we've done a lot of work in five years to learn about this act, to learn how to use this act, and to learn how to use this act in the landscape in Canada both jurisdictionally and geographically. We feel that we're well positioned to now start to make significant progress in implementing this act.

10:20 a.m.

Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

I'm not sure I heard the answer yet. Is the fundamental architecture okay?

10:20 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

If you mean in the general sense of this process—

10:20 a.m.

Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

What the act lays out. I'm looking for direction as to whether this committee should be looking at a fundamentally different approach to species at risk than the act itself.

Are we looking at a fundamental overhaul of the act, or is it the opinion of officials now, with five years of experience under their belt, that the act itself largely is okay? There may be some specific areas that we should be focusing in on as a committee to sort of.... I don't want to say “tweak” per se; it might be more than a tweak. But were they looking at a select number of areas in which to make improvements to the act so that it allows you to function better in your capacity for carrying out the act? That's more what I'm driving at. Is that a clear question?

10:20 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

I think that would be a fair assessment, especially if one considers that it took roughly ten years, I think, to come up with this architecture of an act. So we are able to function in it. There are criticisms and weaknesses, but we are making progress in those areas.

10:20 a.m.

Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

Okay. That I think is highly instructive for our process as a committee, then, in terms of your opinion. We'll of course be seeking the same guidance from others who will appear before the committee, as to whether they think the fundamental architecture is sound.

In your opinion, then, where can the architecture be improved? That will give us some guidance as well. I ask the question from my experience on my other committee, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, where we're looking at the Navigable Waters Protection Act. That's an act that's over 100 years old, and there's a whole lot more experience, but officials came to us with some suggested amendments and some areas to be looking at based on their experience. As I ask the question about where are some areas that this committee could pursue to improve SARA, will officials be coming forward at some point with suggestions on how to make those improvements in the areas that are trouble spots?

10:20 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

We haven't identified areas where it needs to be improved. A lot can be done within the existing act with clear procedures and practices. So we won't be bringing forward specific areas for improvement.

10:20 a.m.

Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

Okay. Can you point us in the direction, then, of where the framework itself poses some challenges for you?

10:20 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

I think I have spoken to the listing and how we're managing that. You will hear more from others, but essentially how we're managing the nine-month clock is it starts with when the minister makes his recommendation to the Governor in Council. So where the minister needs more time to respect land claims, we are taking more time before we refer the recommendation to the Governor in Council. That's an example of where members might want to make the act clearer on that.

10:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Thank you; your time has expired.

10:25 a.m.

Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

Time flies when you're having fun, Mr. Chair.

10:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Mr. Woodworth.

10:25 a.m.

Conservative

Stephen Woodworth Conservative Kitchener Centre, ON

Thank you very much.

First of all, I just want to pick up a bit on what Mr. Watson was saying.

I get the sense from you that it took ten years to get this act together and that the first five years have really been working out the kinks, if I could put it that way. And I almost get the sense that your plea is “For goodness sake, now that we've got this system up and running, and we're poised to really put it to use, let's not go back and change the fundamentals”. Am I overstating it, or is that what I should take from your answers?

10:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

Mr. Chair, it's as important for us as civil servants to implement the act that Parliament has given us. We feel that we're making good progress toward implementing the act that Parliament has given us.