Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee members, for the opportunity to appear before you on this important topic. I apologize that my speaking notes were not ready in time for translation, so you don't have them in front of you, and also that my colleague, Ramsey Hart, was not available to be here today.
MiningWatch Canada is a pan-Canadian coalition of environmental, aboriginal, social justice, international development, and labour organizations that advocates for responsible mining practices and policies in Canada and by Canadian companies operating internationally.
We have extensive experience in the environmental assessment of mining projects, intervening in the public interest as well as working with community groups, first nations, Inuit, and others in their interventions. We've also been actively involved in discussions of environmental assessment policy at federal and provincial levels.
I'd like to start by signalling our concerns over the present review. We don't know what the timing, scope, and focus are, to be honest. Apart from groups and individuals who've been alerted to these hearings and have been invited to participate, there is no indication of when and how the public will be able to participate. Witnesses have very short notice to appear, so have little opportunity to develop more comprehensive submissions or to coordinate with each other.
Finally, there has been no public engagement process, not even a discussion paper, to signal to the public what the government's key considerations for this review might be.
I don't envy you your position. You are now faced with an array of opinions and options, and you will have to find a way to make coherent and constructive recommendations.
It is a real contrast, actually, with the process that led to the creation of the act, which I was part of and which involved broad consultations and extensive deliberations, and included the creation of a regulatory advisory committee to oversee the development of the act's key regulations.
It is also a contrast to the five-year review of the act, with discussion papers, a national consultation process led by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and the participation of the regulatory advisory committee.
When that review reached this committee, a witness list was developed before the hearings even began. While there was certainly some disappointment in the results, I don't think any stakeholder felt that the process hadn't been fair or that they hadn't been heard.
With reference to CEAA, I will present a number of challenges and recommendations that in our view would help resolve those challenges.
First, public participation and aboriginal engagement need to be reinforced. You've heard mention of the MiningWatch Supreme Court case, and of course the key issue there was public participation. I've circulated a short article about that case.
Along the way it also had to deal with scoping and discretion. Those issues have largely been dealt with, thanks to the court's judgment, but there are still serious obstacles to consistent and effective public involvement in EA processes.
Timeliness is often invoked as an objective, if not a principle, of good EA. Unfortunately, it's often code for, or explicitly identified as, at the proponent's convenience or simply speedy, rather than recognizing the different realities faced by different participants in the process. A fixed period for public review and comment that happens to coincide with a major holiday or harvest season is only timely from an administrative perspective. Releasing documents just before Christmas, for instance, may be convenient for the person trying to clear his or her desk before the holidays, but if it happens too often, people begin to wonder if their input is really welcome.
Participant funding is another challenge. Both the amounts available and the timing of its availability make it difficult for the volunteer-based community organizations that we work with to participate effectively. Funding availability is often announced along with or even after the beginning of the public comment period for guidelines, with the actual allocations being made later on.
This severely restricts people's ability to do serious work at the guideline stage. Ideally, it would be phased, in coordination with the review, and some funding would actually be allocated before groups were expected to start work. Private contractors usually ask for a deposit or a retainer.
Funding amounts are perennially inadequate. In the interest of time, I'll skip the details, but maybe we can come back to that later.
Others have made the point, but I think it bears reinforcing, that public participation is a cornerstone of good EA for several reasons. On practical grounds, local knowledge is often important in understanding environmental impacts, and independent evaluations of project parameters are likewise important in verifying or challenging the proponents' predictions.
At the same time, for any project to make a meaningful contribution to sustainability, it must also be socially accepted. Transparency and fair and meaningful involvement in the assessment process are part of that.
People have an expectation of democratic involvement, and they rely on specialist groups such as ours to support them. Proponents and bureaucrats often seem to have an aversion to greater public involvement, which is understandable. It is messy. People don't always behave. It costs money. It takes extra time. It may highlight deficiencies in the project. It may help create consensus and social licence for a project, or it may highlight fundamental conflicts of interest and may even lead to the cancellation of a project. But in our view, if a critical eye on something prevents a stupid and expensive mistake, isn't that a good investment of time and money?
Second, panel reviews are a crucial component of the environmental assessment regime. The most effective public involvement is through panel reviews in which there are actual hearings and there can be an open and independent presentation and interrogation of evidence. People can be heard and can see how their concerns are dealt with, instead of just reviewing documents and filing comments.
The Supreme Court decision clarified the application of the comprehensive study list regulation, but we're concerned that the decisions on panel reviews are being done arbitrarily. The assessment of the Cliffs chromite project in Ontario's famous Ring of Fire is a good example. The Matawa first nations had asked for a panel review to get a broader and more participatory assessment of cumulative impacts of the project and its related infrastructure and the sustainability of mining development in the region and in the Cliffs mine as a basin-opening project. They have stated that they're not opposed to the project, but they've gone to court because their request to designate the environmental assessment as a comprehensive study was ignored. This situation was entirely avoidable.
Third, a strong and consistent federal role is essential. I found Arlene Kwasniak's submission to you very helpful in drawing an important distinction between duplication and overlap. As the mining association, among others, has pointed out, now that the agency has the necessary authority, unnecessary duplication can be and is being dealt with. We also join the mining association and others in asserting the need for continued funding of the agency to carry out this central role, as well as continued funding for the aboriginal engagement program. We disagree, however, with industry submissions calling for the elimination of overlap and the delegation of assessments to the best-placed regulator, whether federal or provincial.
In addition to the problem of ensuring that eliminating overlap doesn't leave gaps in jurisdiction, as you've already heard from other witnesses, there is not likely to be consensus about which regulator is best placed. Mark Haddock’s in-depth comparison of the provincial and federal assessments of the Prosperity Mine project in B.C. shows that the two processes do not look at the same issues in the same light. It's worth noting that under the current rules, there's no reason that project wouldn't have undergone a coordinated joint review. Based on our experience and observations of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is best placed to conduct environmental assessments of nuclear installations.
Fourth, regional and strategic environmental assessments need to be included in the legislation. Surprisingly, I disagree with some of your industry witnesses on the need for strategic EA policies, plans, and programs as well as regional assessments. It is precisely by undertaking higher-level assessments that some of the most difficult challenges facing individual project assessments can be addressed. Meaningful EA of policy initiatives would assist in achieving coherence and sustainable development objectives and compliance with international obligations as well as establishing clear criteria for both proponents and the public when individual projects are initiated. Regional EA, closely linked to the development and implementation of land-use plans, would provide a framework for subsequent project proposals. For this reason, some industry groups have strongly supported it.
Finally, the act should include monitoring and enforcement measures. This review provides an opportunity to address the weaknesses of the CEAA regime in following up its predictions and its commitments. As it now stands, compliance with the act ends with the decision to approve a project. Monitoring and enforcement of mitigation measures are left to individual departments and agencies and are therefore vulnerable to capacity limitations and institutional weaknesses. Furthermore, any recommendations emerging from the EA process that do not correspond to specific licensing or permitting requirements may simply slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, these tend to be precisely the innovative and positive measures.
We see EA as part of an integrated and participatory planning process with sustainable development as its ultimate objective. If these reasons don't provide justification, there are also pragmatic and practical reasons to approach it this way: better projects and diminished long-term liabilities; public acceptance and a social licence to operate; and avoidance of lengthy delays and the possible loss of investment due to litigation and public protest.
Thank you very much.