Oh, eight. That's fabulous. Thank you, Mr. Calkins.
It's difficult to know where to start with this bill. I'm going to do my best to provide what Ecojustice believes is a broad-brush stroke critique of Bill C-38 and of the contents of part 3.
Effectively, what we're looking at are weakened federal protections for fish and fish habitat, an entirely new and entirely less comprehensive federal environmental assessment regime, and greater discretionary powers vested in ministers and in cabinet. We believe there will be less accountability and fewer opportunities for the Canadian public to participate in processes that ultimately lead to sustainable development.
It's our opinion that this is the most significant and devolutionary set of environmental law reforms that have ever been presented to Parliament. There is no law that we can recall that has ever, in such a broad and structural manner, changed the federal environmental governance regime. Thus, our main message here is that Canadians are not ready for this. Parliament is not ready for this. There has been inadequate process to consider the transformative changes that are being proposed.
We would urge this committee to recommend to the finance committee that part 3 of Bill C-38 be excised and be separated and retabled, if the government deems appropriate, in a stand-alone bill.
Now, I understand it is less than likely that this government is going to move in that direction. However, both for the sake of environmental protection and also with a view to social licence going forward for Canadian industries...it's not good for Canadian businesses when environmental laws federally are eviscerated without sufficient buy-in from a number of communities. That isn't to say that the environmental community couldn't appreciate the need for amendments to the environmental assessment process and that, if necessary, we couldn't proceed with changes to the Fisheries Act. Indeed, there are changes that are needed, but the scope and the depth of the changes that are being proposed are simply unacceptable.
To go specifically to the Fisheries Act, this is at the core of Canadian environmental protection. Habitat protection through the Fisheries Act is really where environmental protection started federally, back in the mid-19th century, when the river immediately to our north was being polluted by the sawmills, the industry of the day, with all of its sawdust causing impressive losses of fish, destruction of fish habitat, and actual property damage as well. This history is well documented.
One of the key raisons d'être for the enactment of the Fisheries Act one year after the enactment of the British North America Act was to protect the environment. As a matter of historical process, the protections to the environment have only increased over the years. In particular, in 1977 the Honourable Roméo LeBlanc proposed changes that were adopted to ensure habitat protection and to ensure that deleterious substances wouldn't impact fisheries as well. So this was a progress towards greater protection.
What we're seeing with the amendments proposed in Bill C-38 is a reversal of direction, and we don't think that is in the Canadian public interest. I'd like to quote Roméo LeBlanc, then the Minister of Fisheries and the Environment, who said:
Protecting fish means protecting their habitats. Protecting the aquatic habitat involves controlling the use of wetlands. The banks of streams, the foreshores of estuaries, provide nutrients to the larger eco-system of lakes and oceans in amounts far out of proportion to their size.
The main effect of the changes would be this: for landfill, dredging, excavation, or other such projects in these sensitive areas, we would be able to examine the plans first, and to require modification or, if necessary, prohibition. Instead of accusing someone, after the fact, of destroying fish habitats, we would be part of the planning to save them.
The point of this comment is that three years after I was born, the then Minister of Fisheries made amendments to allow for habitat protection of fish, with a view to establishing a planning and environmental protection regime that would ensure we weren't trying to solve environmental problems after the fact. We are reminded of this when it seems that every month there is some other disaster that happens in this world, whether it's the Exxon Valdez spill, the BP disaster, or nuclear incidents in Japan. We're reminded constantly that better decision-making up front saves us money and ultimately is better for the economy.
What I see and what Ecojustice sees with this legislation is a return to an era when this kind of planning in advance is going to be lost, in large measure, whether it be for protection of fish habitat or environmental assessment processes that are no longer going to be done, and we're very concerned about that.
Ecojustice is extremely concerned by the provisions in Bill C-38 that would provide for ministerial regulations exempting certain water bodies and certain classes of works from the application of the fish habitat protection provisions. This has been done before. We've seen it done back in 2009 in the context of the Navigable Waters Protection Act with amendments that were also smuggled into the budget bill.
Also, we know from the ministerial order issued pursuant to the NWPA that certain types of works, such as pipeline crossings, and certain types of waters—the famous drainage ditches, but there are others as well—have been exempted from the authorization process required under the NWPA. In relation to the Fisheries Act, we're expecting that there will be regulations passed exempting these kinds of waters and these projects—like pipeline crossings—from fish habitat protection.
That's clearly not going to ensure that habitats are protected, and we have serious concerns in that regard.
I'll conclude by suggesting—and maybe for the purpose of this comment I will wear my University of Ottawa hat, as a professor there—that this government really does not have any mandate to make the fundamental amendments it's proposing in Bill C-38. The Conservative Party 2011 platform, prior to their majority election, mentioned nothing in the way of environmental law reform. We don't believe there is a mandate to make any amendments, let alone far-reaching amendments. We don't know right now whether risky activities such as offshore drilling in the Arctic or offshore drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence—