Thank you, Mr. Chair.
It is a great honour for me to appear before your committee this evening. I have studied Bill C-38, and I have several comments to make.
I want to start by giving you a quick overview. As a young boy living a little south of you, along the Red Deer River, I was able to go, as my grandfather did, to fish in the Red Deer River around Drumheller. Anyone who knows that river nowadays knows that since the building of dams and with the rapid melt rate of the glaciers above Sundre, we are seeing the water quality severely altered, and fish have long since died in that part of the Red Deer River.
I always wondered why sewage plants were built downstream of communities, right up until the late seventies, without adequate sewage treatment. I worked in a chemical plant as a young engineering student and was urged to turn my back one night as the operating superintendent arranged to open some valves and dumped the heel of holding tanks into the North Saskatchewan River.
This is why I have a strong feeling and concern for what Bill C-38 proposes and purports to do to the federal Fisheries Act, which goes back to 1868. It's the oldest piece of federal legislation. It has 144 years of life behind it, and it does not need modernization after all those years. Perhaps its implementation and application could be modified and improved, but the problem is not with the act, as I will attempt to elaborate.
As an engineer, I'm in favour of mining. I was once the mines critic for the Progressive Conservative Party. I have often talked about the virtues of hydro power and pumped storage, which will come into its day in the future. But at the same time, we have lost more than 85% of the natural habitat to support our fish stocks across Canada, in inland waters and coastal waters. We've seen our stocks decline over the past century to historically low values. The reason for that is that we always did things the way we did them in order to get on with business and not worry too much about the downstream consequences. I think this bill, as I will elaborate in a few moments, has many dangerous elements to it from that perspective.
Having sat on the Okanagan Basin Water Board and chaired the stewardship council for seven years, I have learned that for every watershed, there is one water. So when we hear farmers or cottagers or others talking about doing whatever they wish with their drainage ditches or on their beachfronts, I say no, that's not the case. The riparian shoreline belongs to every British Columbian and every Canadian and has to be protected and preserved.
In 1976, the habitat provisions were introduced in the Fisheries Act in what were called sections 31 and 33, but it wasn't until 1986 that we brought in a policy that led to the regulatory regime under which those habitat provisions were administered. I have here the policy, the document I took to the Parliament of Canada on October 7, 1986, after extensive consultation with all of the interest groups across Canada—in Ontario, in Ottawa, in British Columbia, and in Atlantic Canada—both the proponents of major projects and the conservationists, wildlife authorities, and others.
This policy embodies three major principles. If you think about the decline and demise of our fish stocks, the first principle should strike you as being important: to provide a net gain of Canada's habitat for fish.
The second is that there should be no net loss of habitat arising from specific fish-related projects, which might in fact have consequences otherwise of killing fish—which, by the way, these new provisions of Bill C-38 permit, in the case of certain species.
The third and most important principle was that people should get together in an integrated co-management fashion. That, I would remind you, in 1986—25 years ago—was most uncommon. Governments did what governments wanted to do, and of course, they were often subjected to the influence and the power of money and jobs.
In 1986 we adopted this policy, the first in the world, and it's still significant and it still stands today. But with the passage of this bill, its impact and its import will be significantly reduced and diminished.
Experience taught me some hard-won lessons as Minister of Fisheries for Canada between 1985 and 1990. I had to preside over the demise of the Atlantic groundfish fishery, because the Kirby royal commission recommended a corporate fishery, which had no provision to prevent the destruction of the fish-bearing seabed off the coast of Newfoundland, and the scientists were wrong in suggesting that there were more fish when in fact there were declining stocks. Small cod stocks were being thrown over the side and high-graded, without regard for the fact that they took seven years to come to maturity and to reproduce.
In Prince Edward Island, we had a serious issue with contaminated shellfish in which people died because we didn't administer the shellfish aquaculture industry effectively when it came to the brackish lagoons around the coastline of Prince Edward Island. We created something called dinoflagellate populations, which essentially killed people.
We had the pulp mills of Canada all across Canada pouring the products of the kraft bleaching process, dioxins and furans, into waters throughout our interior and around our coasts, with the result that carcinogenic levels of dioxins and furans were found in the bottom-feeding fish, which were part of the overall food chain. That wasn't found out until Greenpeace sent water samples to Sweden, because Canada didn't have the capacity to discover those realities.
I had to deal with the fact of the populations of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence, which were once 20,000 when they met at the mouth of the Saguenay downstream from the Alcan smelter, dwindled to a few hundred because the females, who needed to be about 14 years of age to reproduce, had their ovaries destroyed by chemicals in the St. Lawrence River.
The consequence of intense fish farming...? After 25 years, the jury is still out on that one.
And the decline of Pacific salmon and steelhead stocks is always at the forefront of the concerns of British Columbians. Mudslides caused by indiscriminate logging practices and sometimes mining operations have to be considered. In a moment I'll tell you why I think this bill is not going to provide adequate protection for that.
You can't always put fisheries science into a neat little box or a straitjacket of time limitation, as in part of this bill—proposed sections 52 to, I think, 131 or 129. With the new CEAA provision, you're going to fast-track everything, put it in a neat little time-limited box, but this has no regard for some of the complexities that as fisheries minister I had to deal with. I had to deal with hundreds of angry fishermen who had their fisheries closed. The Atlantic cod stock collapse led to an industry being virtually closed for now more than a quarter of a century, because we didn't have the foresight or the knowledge at that time to do it right.
When we were a Conservative government, we brought in the first and only green plan for Canada's environment. We brought in an environmental protection strategy—the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which is now being totally replaced; the Canadian Environmental Protection Act; and the Arctic environmental protection strategy.
Did you know that the breast milk of Inuit women in the Arctic is loaded with industrial chemicals from the south because we have not learned that it goes through the atmosphere into the Arctic food chain, into the fatty tissue of marine animals, and Inuit women drink it, and their health is impaired as a result of it?
This is why we have a Fisheries Act with teeth in it. I am very alarmed by the provisions of Bill C-38, which will erode all of the provisions of 144 years of history.
In questioning, I will tell you specifically—clause by clause, if you ask me—what I feel is defective in this bill. But I'm here to express my concern that Bill C-38 makes a Swiss cheese out of the federal Fisheries Act.
My concerns are shared by numerous other former ministers of fisheries, including the three others who, with me, signed a letter to the Prime Minister two days ago. It's shared by hundreds of fisheries scientists and biologists and thousands of conservation-minded Canadians.
I think government members and this committee should give careful and thorough consideration to that, and I'll deal with specifics later if we have an opportunity, Mr. Chairman.