Thank you for the opportunity to speak and participate in your deliberations. I hope you're given the opportunity to hear from many Canadians as you carry out this task.
I would like you all to consider your own constituencies. You might pick up a newspaper in your constituency and learn about a new project. That's how many Canadians find out about projects that are happening in their area, projects that could bring risks to the environment, to the area's social and economic future, and to the health of the community itself.
While you might be interested in the jobs that a project has to offer, other people in your constituency will have other interests. Your neighbour may be interested in health services. She may note that many of the jobs are low-paying ones that will put pressures on the health sector. Your local environmental organization may be concerned about stack emissions and water emissions. What these people have in common is that they're interested in an efficient and fair way for decisions to be made about the project. The people who call your constituency office are all assured that there's going to be a proper pre-approval assessment. I think this scenario plays out on a daily basis across our country, and Canadians have come to expect environmental assessments and depend on them as one of the important policy tools for making decisions that are sustainable and provide net benefits.
It's what's referred to is minimum regret planning. That's what people like to see us engage in. Environmental assessment is a principle that is no more complicated than trying to incorporate common sense and concerns about community futures into the decisions that we make. It's now practised in over 100 countries. It's evolved in all those countries and will continue to evolve. It's a daunting task before you. Dr. Gibson has already outlined a number of the important aspects of assessment that you will need to cover, so I won't go through the list that I put into my brief. I'll just mention three: meaningful public participation, multi-jurisdictional assessment and substitution, and the focus of assessment processes.
Public participation is often identified as the cornerstone of environmental assessment. In fact, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act underscores the importance of this by stating that one of the purposes of the act is “to ensure that there are opportunities for timely and meaningful public participation throughout the environmental assessment process”.
We've tried to make participation more meaningful since the five-year review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. We now have funding for comprehensive studies. We've made improvements to the FEIA and there's new guidance material. But to my knowledge there's been no open review of these undertakings. We still have a long way to go to incorporate meaningful participation into environmental assessment.
There are a number of key issues that I continue to hear about from participants and as a participant. These relate to accelerated decision processes, insufficient resources, information and communications deficiencies, the lack of participation at early stages in the decision-making processes, and our weak participation in follow-up activities.
Meaningful public participation must continue to be a cornerstone of environmental assessment. I've suggested in my brief a number of things that need to be done in this regard, and I think they're particularly important as we move away from having government scientists participating in the process and bringing important details to the table. We're going to have to look to ways to make sure that other people have the opportunity to come and bring that information. We need to clearly identify the components of meaningful participation. We need to codify direction, and we need to look at other ways to encourage participation through alternative dispute resolution.
In respect of multi-jurisdictional assessment, Canada has a long history of interjurisdictional coordination. Three approaches to environmental assessment have been considered: standardization, harmonization, and substitution. Dr. Gibson already talked about standardization, so there is no need to explain this further.
Many contend that there continues to be duplication in the process, but that it will be eliminated once we deal with harmonizing the process. I think a lot of duplication has already been removed from the process, because political masters have required that be the case. In fact, much of the duplication that's left is the result of politics.
Basically, there are two forms of multi-jurisdictional assessment that we have traditions in, one being bilateral agreements, of which there are many. All provinces west of and including Quebec have bilateral agreements, and we've had project-specific agreements, such as the Sable Island project. More recently we've had one example of substitution, that being the Emera Brunswick pipeline case.
I feel that the focus of this review should be on bilateral agreements. Specifically, I think that bilateral agreements should be completed with all provincial jurisdictions and that the existing agreements need to be strengthened to ensure process certainty for proponents and the public, while limiting the variation in what's required. As Bob has already mentioned, it's a dog's breakfast in terms of the processes that we're trying to harmonize. There are misunderstandings about decision authority that need to be corrected, and we need to ensure that harmonization occurs to a higher standard and not a lower standard.
I'd just like to comment on substitution. I think that the Emera pipeline project has indicated to us that, really, we should be eliminating substitution at this time, or at least restricting it until regulatory processes are modified. We need to further discuss how and if it's even appropriate to substitute regulatory tools for what is largely viewed as a planning tool for sustainability. It's also hard to substitute outside of one's jurisdiction.
Lastly, I'll talk about the focus of EA law and policy. It's been suggested that to gain efficiencies we just need to reduce the number of EAs that we do. There are a number of ways of achieving that. I will just mention two. One is the elimination of screening level assessments; the other is moving to a new model of deciding what projects should be assessed, such as projects of national significance.
Screening levels assessments have been a target for elimination for as long as I can remember—at least 20 years, I think. While there are cogent arguments for reducing the number of screenings, especially now that we have class assessments, we need to carefully consider the sorts of projects we would be eliminating. The proverbial park bench is often referred to as the sort of thing that is subject to screenings. That's a simplified argument. There are many projects at the screening level that require careful consideration. We have to think about how those projects should be assessed; in other words, they're large projects if we get rid of screening level assessments.
You'll be directed to the Australian experience in terms of thinking about projects of national interest. Consideration of projects-of-national-interest approach will require you to tackle the difficult or delicate issue of how to make the determination of what should be considered. You'll be directed to the Australian experience, and I will just point out a couple of thing in that regard. First, the Australian Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act relates to projects of national environmental significance. The act actually combined a number of other acts related to biodiversity, conservation, whaling, and so on, which helped to provide the significance test for the act. As well, the number of cases actually went up once the act was put in place, and the delegation that's occurring under the act has been problematic.
So in conclusion, I'd like to say that much has been learned about EA law and policy from practice here in Canada. In fact, we were at one time the go-to jurisdiction for ideas and innovation in relation to EA process and practice. Canadian practitioners continue to do this, but nationally many leaders in the field are concerned about slippage as we move to make EA processes more efficient by limiting the scope of assessment, restricting public input, and spending time in court. We need to only look at the projects we undertook before national assessment processes were in place to see the value of forward-looking assessment processes.
We need to do a better job—Parliament needs to do a better job—of making sure that Canadians have the tools to advance sustainability, protect ecosystems, and retain their social and economic well-being. This requires strong EA law, regulation, and policy that is legislated and gives the public a meaningful voice in decisions, avoids duplication, and is effective, efficient, and fair.