Mr. Speaker, it is always a privilege to rise in the House to represent my constituents of Kootenay—Columbia. It is an honour as well to be the parks advocate for nationals parks for the NDP. I prefer “advocate” to “critic”, as I have spent my life working for parks, and I am very much an advocate for them.
I am also happy to speak to Bill C-18 and the importance of protecting Canada's national parks. The New Democrats have long called for strong legislation that gives Rouge National Urban Park the same legal protection as our other national parks.
Rouge is one of the most biologically diverse areas in all of Canada. It is home to a rare Carolinian forest, more than 23 federally-designated species at risk, and more than 1,700 plant and animal species. It also provides the only ecological connection for wildlife between the Oak Ridges Moraine and Lake Ontario. Rouge also has great cultural significance, containing a national historic site, an active agricultural community, and some of Canada's oldest known indigenous historic sites and villages.
For decades, community groups, such as the Friends of the Rouge Watershed, have worked tirelessly with local and provincial governments to protect the existing parklands with effective conservation management plans. It is our hope that all of this work will now result in the creation of a strong Rouge National Urban Park, one that may serve as a model for other parks to come.
While Bill C-18 does make big strides forward in prioritizing ecological integrity, there is still more work to be done. As lawyer John Swaigen of Ecojustice noted, “Notably missing from Bill C-40”, the Conservative's Rouge legislation, “was a commitment to preserve ecological integrity.” He went on to say:
...Also missing from the bill were a commitment to preserve the parkland for future generations, requirements for a strong science-based ecological approach to park management, and requirements for public and scientific consultation to help create and implement the park management plan...Despite this important progress [in Bill C-18], there is still room for improvement — none of the other recommended amendments to the Act have been made.
The New Democrats agree. Additional amendments are required to give the legislation sharper teeth and to ensure that the government's commitment to ecological integrity is more than just words. The New Democrats believe that the legislation for Rouge should ensure that all activities which may affect the park undergo thorough environmental assessments, and that greater opportunity should be mandated for regular public and parliamentary oversights to hold the government accountable to its promises and its stated priorities.
In addition, there has already been a great deal of work done by the Ontario government and local stakeholders on ecological management plans for Rouge. In fact, part of the land transfer agreement between the province and the federal government requires that the federal legislation for Rouge must meet or exceed the existing provincial legislation protecting the park.
It was the previous Conservative government's failure to meet this requirement with the initial Rouge legislation that caused the provincial government to withdraw its support for the land transfer agreement. The current government, of course, enjoys a greater level of support from the Ontario provincial government, and so the deal is back on the table. However, this does not change the fact that we have a responsibility to ensure that Rouge's guiding legislation meets or exceeds existing levels of protection.
Part of that means ensuring that ecological integrity is prioritized in the legislation, as reflected in Bill C-18, and part of that means incorporating and complementing the excellent science-based work that has gone on before. We want Rouge Park's management plan to be nimble and able to respond to issues identified by ongoing scientific monitoring and planning. However, we also do not need to reinvent the wheel when so much good work has already been done to effectively manage this important ecosystem.
In 2013, Canada's environment commissioner found that important gaps existed in Parks Canada's systems for maintaining and restoring ecological integrity. There is certainly no need to widen these gaps by ignoring the existing ecological management plans.
The environment commissioner's report points to a larger issue facing all of Canada's national parks, and facing Canada's larger conservation plan, in fact. There is a growing concern that the federal government is falling down on its commitments on ecological integrity and on conservation as a whole.
Over the past few months, I have been proud to participate as the NDP representative of the environment committee study on protected areas and conservation objectives. This study has focused on Canada's progress in achieving its conservation targets and how we move forward in the future.
In 2010, the Conservative government signed on to the Aichi biodiversity targets, which commit us to the goal of protecting 17% of our land and 10% of our marine territory by 2020. These are ambitious goals, but a number of countries around the world have already achieved or even exceeded them, including Brazil, the Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Botswana, Austria, Colombia, Spain, and others. By contrast, Canada's progress on these targets to date has been abysmal. We have currently protected only 10% of our land and just 1.1% of our marine areas. With just over three years until 2020, the new Liberal government has committed to meeting these targets, but we have a very long way to go.
The witnesses who have appeared at the environment committee virtually all agree that the federal government has a major leadership role to play in ensuring that Canada's conservation objectives are met. This includes providing predictable ongoing funding, and a consistent coordination effort across the network of protected areas, including but not limited to Canada's national parks.
As Silvia D'Amelio of Trout Unlimited Canada told us:
There is a strong need for a national strategy—not just an agency one—for the management and identification of future protected areas. This requires collaborative strategic planning and the linking of various protected area initiatives by Environment Canada, Parks Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada into a cohesive integrated planning initiative that would direct a longer-term protection program.
However, so far, this coordination effort has been lacking in Canada.
John Lounds of the Nature Conservancy of Canada said, “the range of federally protected areas is not currently integrated in any formal way to achieve Canada's targets and objectives, and nor are they coordinated with provincial, indigenous, or privately protected areas.”
The lack of true federal leadership when it comes to conservation has left us far behind when we need to meet our objectives. The federal government must turn its promises into considered action in order to make real progress on achieving the Aichi targets.
At the same time, the witnesses at the environment committee told us that while every effort should be made to reach Canada's conservation targets, the government must not prioritize quantity over quality. Instead, conservation science and the protection of biodiversity must be at the centre of policy surrounding protected areas, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring that conservation and ecological protection is meaningful, and a minimum standard of protection should be put in place for protected areas.
Here, again, the government does not have that great a track record. The environment commissioner told the committee:
In our fall 2013 audit of protected areas for wildlife, we found that Environment Canada had not met its responsibilities for preparing management plans and monitoring the condition of its protected areas.
Only about one quarter of national wildlife areas, and less than one third of migratory bird sanctuaries, were assessed as having adequate or excellent ecological integrity.
In addition, 90% of national wildlife areas did not have adequate management plans, and these plans were more than 20 years old.
Finally, monitoring was done sporadically. The department could not track ecosystem or species changes and address emerging threats.
Alison Woodley of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society concurred: “There is an urgent need to refocus Parks Canada on its first priority by law of maintaining and restoring ecological integrity.”
Moving forward, we need a renewed commitment to making conservation about effective ecological protection based on the best science available.
Dr. Stephen Woodley of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature told the committee:
Often people interpret [the Aichi biodiversity] target 11 as being only about achieving 17% on land and 10% on water, and this would be a misinterpretation of the target. It's also very much about protecting areas of particular importance to biodiversity and ecosystem services to ensure that these areas are effective and equitably managed, that they're ecologically representative, and that they work together as a well-connected system. Those elements are fundamental.
Designating a large chunk of land as a protected area only goes so far. That designation must bring with it a commitment to scientific monitoring, planning, and good policies, based on the protection of that ecosystem. These commitments must also be backed by the resources necessary to effectively implement them, and by the transparency and oversight that hold the government accountable to fulfilling them. Without these things, our protected areas are reduced to lines on a map. This is as important for Rouge National Urban Park as it for any other protected area in Canada.
Another major theme from the witnesses at environment committee was that conservation can and should be a key component in reconciliation with Canada's indigenous peoples. We heard clearly that the federal government's conservation objectives must involve thorough consultation and collaboration with first nations, and that indigenous rights and traditional knowledge must be respected and embraced.
Bill C-18 includes a modification to the boundary of Wood Buffalo National Park that will withdraw 37 square kilometres from Wood Buffalo to create the Garden River Indian reserve. This measure honours a long-standing commitment to the Little Red River Cree Nation, and is certainly welcome.
However, there remains much to do. When we look at some of the concerns, particularly around Wood Buffalo right now, which is under investigation by UNESCO in terms of whether the park should retain its world heritage site, we know there is a lot more to do to protect our national parks.
I was very heartened, though, during our discussions across western Canada, and Canada as a whole, to learn that first nations were interested in creating more conservation areas. They felt it would help both conservation and reconciliation, assuming that these are done in partnership. As Chief Steven Nitah of the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation told committee, “Every Canadian has a treaty in this country, whether you are indigenous or non-indigenous. If you live in Algonquin territory, there is a treaty with Algonquins. Therefore, as Canadians, you have to respect and support that treaty, so that this government respects those treaties.”
Our protected areas have an important role to play in fostering nation-to-nation relationships with our indigenous peoples. It is incumbent upon all of us, as parliamentarians, and as Canadians, that we consider the role of conservation in reconciliation as we move forward.
As we look to the future, it is important to note that a large number of the witnesses in the environment committee's protected areas study told us that the current Aichi targets are just a starting point. They are, after all, political targets, not targets based on conservation science. The witnesses told us that we need to be thinking more “big picture” when we think about conservation planning. We need to think more about connectivity.
Bill C-18 includes a measure that will broaden Parks Canada's ability to pay out funds from the new parks and historic sites account under the Parks Canada Agency Act. This change will provide the government with greater flexibility in paying out funds for the acquisition of land to expand existing national parks, not just to establish new ones. It is our hope that this change will open up possibilities for the government to think on a larger scale when it comes to parks planning.
It is clear that we must expand our scope to think about ecosystems and how protected areas can connect with each other for better ecological outcomes. As Peter Kendall of the Earth Rangers told committee, “Species and habitats don't exist in silos, and neither do the solutions to their protection...”
If we are going to look beyond the current Aichi targets to what makes sense on an ecosystem scale, then we are going to need to broaden our thinking about protected areas, particularly in highly populated regions of the country. Urban national parks may well be a part of that answer.
Rouge National Urban Park provides us with an incredible opportunity to set a bold precedent and solid foundation for the future of urban national parks across Canada. With approximately 20% of Canada's population living within one hour of the park and public transit access, Rouge also provides us with the opportunity to connect a larger number of Canadians with our environment, and to engage them in the important work of preserving and protecting our natural heritage.
As we look ahead to the Aichi biodiversity targets and beyond, the development of urban national parks may have an important role to play. It is therefore essential that we commit to making effective conservation a true priority for Rouge Park, and for all of our national parks.
Bill C-18 would make some important strides forward by bringing the legislation governing Rouge National Urban Park in line with that of Canada's other national parks. For that reason, it has earned the well-deserved support of a broad group of stakeholders. At the same time, there is more to do to ensure that the language about ecological integrity is backed by scientific monitoring and public oversight and accountability.
The NDP will be supporting this bill at second reading with the hope of strengthening it at the committee level, so that Rouge National Urban Park can set a solid precedent for urban national parks moving forward, and so that we, as parliamentarians, can live up to our obligation to protect Canada's natural heritage for generations to come.