Mr. Chair, members of the committee, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak today.
By way of introduction, MiningWatch Canada is a pan-Canadian coalition of 20 environmental, aboriginal, social justice, development, and labour organizations that advocate for responsible mining practices and policies in Canada and by Canadian companies operating internationally.
Environmental assessment is one of the areas MiningWatch has worked closely in, in terms of policy development, as well as working directly on a number of project-specific environmental assessments.
One of the most surprising aspects of this work has been the level of interest from the public. Communities potentially affected by mining projects are naturally very interested in the assessment of those projects, but so is the broader public, and we receive a constant stream of inquiries and requests for information and assistance.
Environmental assessment, or EA, is sometimes seen as a somewhat technocratic and esoteric process. It can certainly be complex and inaccessible. Yet people are adamant that we need strong and consistent EA processes, and they are willing to invest considerable time and energy in trying to understand the process and participate effectively in project assessments. They tell us what an important part of working together for sustainable development it is.
On January 21 of this year, not four months ago, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously decided a case brought by MiningWatch Canada over the federal government's handling of the proposed Red Chris copper and gold mine in north-central British Columbia. The court ruled that the federal government cannot assess only part of a project, or split projects into artificially small parts, to avoid rigorous environmental assessments. The ruling guaranteed that the public would be consulted about major industrial projects, including large metal mines and tar sands developments.
The bill before you today includes amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that would effectively reverse the Supreme Court ruling. These amendments should be removed from Bill C-9.
With support from Ecojustice and the broader environmental community, we have fought through the courts for three and a half years to try to correct profound deficiencies in the application of CEAA. It is with great dismay that we now see those same deficiencies being deliberately re-created, only now in the text of the act itself. What's perhaps most unfortunate about the proposed changes is that they won't address the actual issues with the act that they're supposed to resolve. There is in fact a structural problem with the way CEAA is framed that creates delays through a late triggering of an environmental assessment. By the time a permit or licence application is filed triggering the act, a project can be well along in its planning stages. A major projects management office was created a little over two years ago to help resolve this contradiction by identifying projects earlier on, although it's hard to determine at this relatively early point how effective it has been.
The Supreme Court decision on Red Chris should also help eliminate delays by clarifying the decisions that responsible authorities are required to make under the act. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, for example, does not have to spend months and months trying to figure out how to avoid triggering an environmental assessment or how to reconfigure a project proposal to avoid a comprehensive study, if it simply accepts the project as proposed and assumes its responsibility.
By the same token, if there is a clear mandate behind the federal involvement in joint processes with other jurisdictions, then there is no need for protracted negotiations around the EA process itself. By putting arbitrary ministerial discretion on scoping into the act, the proposed changes will essentially re-create the situation that we fought through the courts to clarify.
MiningWatch Canada has always pressed for a strong federal role in environmental assessment, partly because of the consistency and accessibility that it brings, but primarily because of the federal jurisdiction in a number of critical areas, as has already been mentioned. But let me provide a concrete example.
The proposed Prosperity copper and gold mine in British Columbia is currently undergoing both a provincial assessment and a panel review under CEAA. If the project were to proceed as presented, it would have serious detrimental environmental effects, including the draining of Teztan Biny or Fish Lake to make way for the mine. I have provided you with a picture of this, so that you have an image of Fish Lake. The project would also have serious impacts on the Xeni Gwet'n and Tsilhqot'in people.
The federal panel review has been hearing evidence from the affected communities, independent fisheries experts, and social scientists. Serious shortcomings in the proponents' proposals have been identified and are being reviewed. Meanwhile, the provincial review has been completed and the project has been approved by the B.C. government.
The other picture I have is of the Kemess mine, just so you have an idea of what will take the place of Fish Lake. It's a large open-pit copper-gold mine, barely a few hundred kilometres away and very similar in ecological terms. But if it weren't for the federal review, there would be no meaningful consideration of significant issues around the project's impacts on water and fisheries, and the interests of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation and the Tsilhqot'in national government.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is a critical element in Canada's legal framework for sustainable development and environmental protection. It has its strengths and shortcomings, but there are also processes established to build on those strengths and to address those deficiencies, and they should be used to their fullest. Substantially weakening the act will deprive Canadians of one of the best and in some cases one of the only tools they have to ensure that vested interests and poorly considered projects do not compromise environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
Thank you for your consideration.