Thank you to the Chair, first and foremost, and to the members of the committee for the invitation to speak here today on part 3 of Bill C-38, the budget implementation bill.
As introduced, my name is Tony Maas. I am the national freshwater program director for WWF-Canada. We are, as I think most folks know, one of Canada's largest and oldest conservation organizations. We have staff and offices from coast to coast to coast. Importantly, our work is science based and it is solutions oriented.
I'll talk a bit about our freshwater program as context. Our overarching aim is really about protecting and restoring the health of aquatic ecosystems so that we and future generations can benefit from the many values they provide, whether that's clean water and recreational opportunities, or habitat for fish and water fowl.
With this as context, and given my area of expertise, I'm going to focus my comments primarily on changes to the federal Fisheries Act that are proposed in Bill C-38.
The Fisheries Act is widely recognized as one of the strongest legal tools that Canadians have to protect fish and their habitat, including the water that the fish depend on, water that needs to be of a quality that doesn't poison them, water that shows up at the right time and in the right quantity to maintain their habitat. This, of course, is the same water that we all drink and swim in and use in our recreation. So in addition to protecting fish and fish habitat, the act has provided an extra layer of security around the water resources that we all depend on.
Is the act and how it's currently administered perfect in my view? Well, no, actually it's not. I think there's plenty of room for improvement. But the opportunities for improvement relate largely, in my mind, to how it is applied in a management context, not to the fundamental principle of protecting fish and fish habitat—which certainly holds water today more than ever, given that the numbers of endangered fish across the country continue to grow, and pressure on our rivers, lakes and wetlands mounts.
Let me give you three specific concerns relating to the changes to the Fisheries Act proposed by Bill C-38. First is the narrowing of the act's scope to include only commercial, recreational, and aboriginal fisheries. Creating a system that is based on determining what rivers and lakes deserve protection means, by definition, that some will be left without protection under the act. Does this mean, for example, that wilderness waterways that are not presently fished by commercial or recreational interests or aboriginal peoples get left out? What about streams that are currently being restored to support future recreational fisheries? There's a lot of hard work, including work by our own organization, and dollars that go into restoring the great ecosystems with the intent of having viable recreational and sport fisheries.
So my point is that while the terms “commercial”, “recreational”, and “aboriginal” fishery are defined in Bill C-38, the complete lack of detail on what the scientific basis and decision-making process used to establish which fisheries and waters are in and which are out makes it very difficult to assess the impacts of these changes and what they will mean on the ground.
Our second concern is the shifting of the rationale for prohibition from harmful alteration and destruction of fish habitat—which I'm sure that we in this room all know as the HAD provision—to a test of serious harm defined as “the death of fish or permanent alteration or destruction of habitat”. This would shift the litmus test from a precautionary approach based on accumulated expert scientific advice concerning potential impacts of a project or undertaking to an as of yet scientifically undefined test of serious harm and permanent damage. Again, I'm not saying these new terms cannot be defined by science, but I do assert that when it comes to management and protection of natural resources, like the fisheries and the ecosystems that sustain them, a clear definition of foundational scientific concepts and criteria should proceed, not follow, legal and policy reform.
Finally, our third concern is the exemptions and delegation of responsibility. The provisions in the act that allow for the exemption of certain works, undertakings, and activities, and certain fisheries or waters have the potential to significantly undercut the important influence of scientific experts in the civil service who have the required knowledge to properly assess the impacts of a project and the sensitivities of particular habitats and waters.
On the issue of delegation, I believe there's significant benefit actually in working with provinces and territories to make implementation of the Fisheries Act more efficient, and I would observe that many delegation arrangements already exist to allow provinces and territories—and in the case of Ontario, where I live, the conservation authorities—to administer authorizations under the act. It is unclear, however, what if any additional responsibilities are contemplated for provinces and territories under the changes proposed in Bill C-38 and, more importantly, whether the provinces and the territories—and in the case of Ontario, where I live, the conservation authorities—have the capacity, particularly in these uncertain economic times, to take on additional responsibilities without additional resources.
For me, what is more concerning about the delegation possibilities in the proposed bill is the potential to also allow for delegation to industry or developers the responsibility to authorize adverse impacts on fish and fish habitat, which ostensibly is leaving the fox in charge of the hen house. Such authorization should remain in the hands of government agencies that are by definition bound to make decisions in the public interest.
I'll wrap up with a few more comments that are largely related to the process by which the changes to the Fisheries Act are being brought forward. I noted at the outset that we as an organization are solutions based. The success of our solutions is very much a product of our efforts to create and sustain diverse and often challenging relationships and partnerships that cut across civil society, government and, most importantly, often business and industry.
I believe the process by which the changes to the Fisheries Act, and for that matter, changes to environmental regulations more broadly, are being brought forward through the omnibus budget bill stands to undermine the very important progress that has been made over the last 20 to 30 years in developing strong, functional partnerships between industry and NGOs. Businesses—at least those that we have worked with—recognize the importance of ensuring and enhancing their social licence to operate.
Strong environmental laws are a foundation of this social licence to operate. They allow industry to function knowing that they have the support of Canadians because governments have ensured that rigorous protections of our environments are in place. When we erode those protections, in my view we begin to erode the potential for businesses to operate in a sustainable way in this country.
If I can leave you with just one message, it is this. Improvements to administration of the Fisheries Act do not require the significant changes to legislation proposed in Bill C-38. They are of a nature related to management functions and those can be resolved without these reforms. To that end, I would finish by urging you, the members of this committee, to use your influence to separate the reforms to the Fisheries Act from Bill C-38 so that they can be addressed in a timely but thorough manner through a reasoned multi-stakeholder and, importantly, a science-based consultation process, so that we can together work towards the goal of creating solutions to protect and restore the health of our remarkable freshwater fisheries and the habitats and ecosystems that sustain them.
I thank you for your time. I look forward to your questions.