Mr. Speaker, the Fisheries Act is the federal government's main and, by far, most powerful legislative instrument for protecting Canada's lakes, rivers, and streams. In other words, the Fisheries Act is at the heart of federal water policy.
Since first being elected, the Conservative government has waged an almost incessant crusade to progressively undermine the Fisheries Act; in other words, to effectively weaken the act's prohibitions against harming fish and, by implication, polluting Canada's watercourses.
First, the government used schedule 2 of the Fisheries Act's mining effluent regulations to open the door wide to converting more and more northern freshwater lakes into dumping grounds for toxic mine tailings. The original intent of the regulations was to grandfather lakes that had already been destroyed by mine tailings in clear contravention of the Fisheries Act. In other words, the intent was to retroactively make these toxic lakes legal under the act.
In 2012, the government weakened section 35 of the Fisheries Act, the act's provisions for fish habitat protection, by restricting the section's application to recreational fisheries, commercial fisheries, and aboriginal fisheries only. In regard to section 36 of the act, the section that prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances into fish-bearing waters, absent an explicit regulatory exemption granted by entire cabinet, the budget gave greater power to the minister of fisheries to, by himself or herself, carve out exemptions to the act. In other words, he or she could accord permission to those who wished to be allowed to legally pollute waterways for purposes of research or in the process of conducting various industrial activities, including agricultural production.
In the case of agriculture, the government's aim is to make it easier to allow pesticides to leach into waterways.
In budget 2014, the government followed up on the broad enabling provisions adopted in the 2012 budget, by more precisely defining the regulatory framework within which the minister could create blanket exemptions to the water pollution prohibitions found in section 36 of the Fisheries Act.
Is the government's aim to carve out exemptions for the oil sands industry specifically? It is an industry that, despite persistent and, I would say, stubborn earlier denials by the government, has been found by scientists, including the government's own scientists, to be causing to harm to the Athabasca River watershed.