Madam Speaker, it is a great pleasure to stand in the House and speak about the new Fisheries Act. I have had numerous interactions with the minister over my time in Parliament and I know his heart is in the right place. I do have some issues with the new Fisheries Act, however. My background is in fisheries. I have a graduate degree in fisheries biology and have been active in the field of fisheries science for over 20 years.
I also sat on the fisheries and oceans committee in the previous government and for two years of the current government and was involved in the hearings regarding the new Fisheries Act.
The Fisheries Act was written in 1868 and had three fundamental functions: the proper management and control of fisheries, the conservation and protection of fish, and the protection of fish habitat and the prevention of pollution. It was considered one of the strongest pieces of environmental legislation that Canada had, but it evolved over the years to such a point that when we were in government we had to make some changes to the old Fisheries Act.
The courts had determined that what was considered fish habitat was expanded and expanded so that almost all of Canada became fish habitat. Therefore, the act became quite unwieldily and these were some of the problems with the act. This is from a paper that I wrote in 2001 for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy where we looked at the current Fisheries Act. That was about the time when, what we called back home, the “fish cops” descended on prairie Canada and wanted to inspect every drainage ditch that every producer had put in place. The old Fisheries Act created a lot of uncertainty and created more uncertainty in the development process in prairie Canada, especially for rural communities. It was very unclear as to who had jurisdiction over natural resource development.
It had a wide scope. The definition of fish habitat under the old act included entire watersheds and extended the reach of the federal government to policy areas such as watershed and land use planning, areas where DFO clearly lacked expertise. Again, we are going back to this old regime. The program removed any regulatory discretion since all fish habitat was considered important. There was no ranking of significant fish habitat versus habitats that were less significant.
Canada is a very large place. In my province of Manitoba, for example, we have 100,000 lakes and no one can know everything about all these water bodies. I think Ontario has 250,000 lakes. We look at our coastlines, and the amount of fish habitat and fisheries water in Canada is absolutely enormous. Most of these fish populations are fairly poorly studied, and because of that, all water bodies are presumed to be fish habitat until proven otherwise.
Under the old act and again with the new act, the costs of compliance are not considered and for poorer rural municipalities the costs of compliance under the old act and probably under the new act will add a major burden. It also adds to the regulatory burden. The new act is layered on top of other regulations and I am going to return to this very important point later.
Ironically, the old Fisheries Act actually threatened existing conservation programs. There are many angling groups that work very hard to enhance and improve fish habitat. When a fish habitat is enhanced and improved, I guess that is an alteration. For example, in my constituency the walleye is considered the most valuable fish. One way to enhance walleye populations is to take trucks on the ice in the middle of winter, put gravel on the ice, and when the ice melts the gravel sinks and voila, there is a new walleye spawning area and it increases the population of walleye. One wonders if that is an alteration of fish habitat. I guess it is, but again, this will inhibit very important conservation programs. Again, we think that the new act would have these same attributes.
As I said in my question for the minister, in 2009 the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development conducted an audit under the old Fisheries Act. Again this is the regime we are going back to and this is what the auditor found in 2009:
Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada cannot demonstrate that fish habitat is being adequately protected as the Fisheries Act requires. In the 23 years since the Habitat Policy was adopted, many parts of the Policy have been implemented only partially by Fisheries and Oceans Canada or not at all. The Department does not measure habitat loss or gain. It has limited information on the state of fish habitat across Canada—that is, on fish stocks, the amount and quality of fish habitat, contaminants in fish, and overall water quality. Fisheries and Oceans Canada still cannot determine the extent to which it is progressing toward the Policy’s long-term objective of a net gain in fish habitat.
The auditor went on to point out, “There has been little progress since 2001, when we last reported on this matter.” Therefore, the old way of doing business clearly failed.
We are going back to the old definition of fish habitat. Bill C-68 says that fish habitat means spawning grounds and any other areas, including “nursery, rearing, food supply and migration areas, on which fish depend directly or indirectly in order to carry out their life processes.”
The key word is “indirectly”. Ultimately, every drop of water, unless it is evapotranspired, flows into a smaller waterway, then to a larger waterway, and then eventually to an area where fish exist. The word “indirectly” means that basically all of Canada would become fish habitat. The lawn on Parliament Hill would be fish habitat. Therefore, clearly, such a wide definition of fish habitat would give great licence to fisheries officers or as we call them back home “fish cops” and could cause some grave difficulties for communities and municipalities.
This wide definition of fish habitat was emphasized over and over by witnesses at the fisheries and oceans committee, of which I was a part of. I sat through every single meeting during the revisions to the Fisheries Act that the government was proposing.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture is the largest farm group in Canada. Mr. Ron Bonnett is the president and also an active farmer in Ontario, and these are his comments regarding the pre-2012 Fisheries Act:
The experience that many farmers had with the Fisheries Act, unfortunately, was not a positive one. It was characterized by lengthy bureaucratic applications for permitting and authorizations, and a focus on enforcement and compliance measures taken by officials....
Many farmers were then relieved when the changes that were made just a few years ago [by the Conservative government] drastically improved the timeliness and cost of conducting regular maintenance and improvement activities to their farms as well as lifting the threat of being deemed out of compliance.
Mr. Bonnett went on to point out:
There are also many accounts of inconsistency in enforcement, monitoring, and compliance across Canada with different empowered organizations, which led to a confusion and indiscriminate approaches to enforcement and implementation. Even at the individual level, there were different interpretations of the act based on one's familiarity with agriculture....
It is CFA's position that a complete revert to reinstate all provisions of the Fisheries Act as they were would be unproductive, would re-establish the same problems for farmers, and would provide little improvement in outcome for the protection and improvement of fish habitat. Human-made water bodies such as drainage ditches simply should not be treated as fish habitat.
He went on to talk about the Fisheries Act of 2012 that we put in. He said:
The current streamlined approach is working far better for all and efforts should continue this approach....
Overall, any changes to the current Fisheries Act  should be considered as to how they will support outcomes-based conservation rather than a process-oriented approach.
This is a very important point. Here is a farmer saying that the old Fisheries Act actually inhibited conservation projects that the agriculture community wanted to implement on their own land. The old act, which sounds like the new proposed act, was process and process, and enforcement and enforcement. If we really want to improve fish habitat, then we should get out there and improve it, but it is going to be very problematic whether projects like these will be allowed to continue.
Again, regarding the changes that the Conservatives made, Mr. Bonnett said, “There are still some challenges when you have multiple jurisdictions working on that”, but again, he says the Conservatives Fisheries Act 2012 “has improved dramatically from what it was.”
Regarding the old act, Mr. Bonnett had this to say:
...we saw a lot of inconsistency, depending on the DFO office. One would come in and say, no, there's no problem, go ahead. Another one would come in and it would be a whole bureaucratic process that you had to go through. I guess that would be the caution about just putting HADD back in place without having some clear and enforceable guidelines that spell out how you treat a municipal drain.
It is important to talk about the issues agriculture had with the old Fisheries Act. I and many others on this side of the House represent agricultural communities. I saw first-hand, prior to my becoming a member of Parliament, the problems the act created.
What did we do to modify the former Fisheries Act? In the old Fisheries Act, there was equal consideration of all fish species and all fish habitat. We focused on the sustainability and ongoing productivity of commercial, recreational, and aboriginal fisheries and on effective management of key threats, such as aquatic invasive species.
Going back to the old act, all projects were reviewed for any impacts on fish and fish habitat, and advice was provided on a project-by-project basis. We went to the effective management of projects linked to fisheries of commercial, recreational, and aboriginal importance through the adoption of tools.
In the old act, there was duplication and overlap between federal and provincial review processes. Our act, the Fisheries Act from 2012, relied on best place delivery and partnerships with third parties.
As I said, it goes back to the old way of doing business. Interestingly, in 1986, the department wrote “Policy for the Management of Fish Habitat”. I gather that it is still DFO's fish habitat policy. It is a great piece of work, done when Mr. Tom Siddon was the minister.
The 1986 fish habitat policy talks about the national application of the Fisheries Act. It says:
The policy applies to those habitats directly or indirectly supporting those fish stocks or populations that sustain commercial, recreational or Native fishing activities of benefit to Canadians.
That was the vernacular in 1986. Fisheries and Oceans Canada recognized its responsibility to protect and increase fish stocks. That first sentence is interesting. Our act, the Fisheries Act from 2012, is directly in line with the fish habitat policy in 1986, which talked about specific fisheries being protected through the protection of their habitat.
It goes on:
In addition, Fisheries and Oceans recognizes its responsibility to protect and increase fish stocks and their habitats that have either a demonstrated potential themselves to sustain fishing activities, or a demonstrated ecological support function for the fisheries resources. In accordance with this philosophy, the policy will not necessarily be applied to all places where fish are found in Canada, but it will be applied as required in support of fisheries resource conservation.
Our Fisheries Act of 2012 was actually in line with current departmental policy. This is why the act, as we wrote it, was well received by industry groups, rural communities, farm groups, angling groups across the country, and many others.
When we held our hearings at the fisheries committee, we asked a clear question of many of the witnesses who were obviously not in support of the Fisheries Act, 2012. We asked them if they could prove that there were any impacts on fish populations in Canada as a result of the changes made by the Fisheries Act, 2012. Naturally, there was a lot of hemming and hawing and saying they did not have enough information and that there was not enough time. On and on it went, but not a single witness could point to any fish population in Canada that was negatively affected by the changes embedded in the Fisheries Act of 2012.
Again, I am going to talk about the pros of the Conservative approach to fisheries conservation. We much prefer the direct approach to enhancing fish habitat. We created a program that was actually enabled by the Fisheries Act of 2012, called the recreational fisheries conservation partnerships program, through which we partnered with fisheries conservation groups across the country. They provided half the funds for the work and the RFCPP provided the other half. Well over 800 fisheries enhancement projects were undertaken and successfully completed across the country.
I would note that the recreational fisheries conservation partnerships program is being sunsetted by the current Liberal government. Is “sunset” not a nice word? It implies sitting on the beach with a cool one and watching the sun go down. Actually, this program has been shot down and is going down in flames. There are hundreds of angry groups across Canada whose mission is to do direct conservation and enhancement of fisheries across the country that will now not be provided with support.
I would point out something about Atlantic salmon, a fish that is obviously near and dear to the minister's heart, I would hope. Our fisheries and oceans committee did a major study on Atlantic salmon, and not a single recommendation from that study has been implemented. We recommended a seal reduction program. We recommended a significant increase in the striped bass harvest. We also recommended that diplomatic action be taken against Greenland for overfishing our Atlantic salmon. Nothing has been done.
Here is a clear case of the minister talking a good game about caring for fish, but there is a fish right in his backyard, the Atlantic salmon, of importance to thousands of anglers and businesses in his region, and nothing is being done to help that particular fish species.
However, over $200,000 or $300,000 is going to the fish cops. I would rather see direct programming that would help Atlantic salmon stocks, and other stocks across the country, to rebuild.
I am pleased that there is a provision in the proposed act to talk about rebuilding stocks. I like the habitat banking portion. Hopefully the government will be open to some amendments on that and open to some ideas on how it could be done, because a number of us have a few thoughts on that. Again, all that money is going to enforcement when there are groups, like the Miramichi Salmon Association, which I belong to, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, that do things like create cold water refuges for Atlantic salmon so the fish can summer better and survive better than they would otherwise. We hope that projects like that could go on.
Bill C-68 is part of the Liberal plan to kill development. The Prime Minister's principal secretary, Mr. Gerald Butts, once said: “The real alternative is not an alternative route, it's an alternative economy. We don't think there ought to be a carbon-based energy industry by the middle of the century.” I am sure the thousands and thousands of middle-class Canadians who work in the energy industry will be very disappointed to know that this is the thinking in the Prime Minister's Office. The ultimate agenda is to severely restrict Canada's energy industry.
I want to quote the Canadian Electricity Association. It is headed by the hon. Sergio Marchi, who said:
In practical terms, this means that virtually any action, without prior authorization, could be construed as being in contravention of this Act. Consequently, the reinstatement of these measures will result in greater uncertainties for existing and new facilities, and unduly delay and/or discourage investment in energy projects that directly support Canada's clean growth agenda and realize its climate change objectives.
Of course, the other shoe to drop is how investment is leaving Canada. Suncor CEO Steve Williams said, in a headline that reported what Suncor's activities will be, “Suncor to shun major new projects amid Canada's 'difficult' regulatory environment”.
I had the honour of working in the oil sands in 2009-10. I lived in a camp for an oil sands project. There were people from all walks of life. People talk about the industry as if it were some kind of bad word. The industry is workers and people. There was a young dad saving for his child's education, a young couple saving for a down payment on a house, and a senior couple saving for a dignified retirement. These are the kinds of people who work in the energy industry. These are the kinds of people who will be hurt by this excessive regulatory process that is killing energy and natural resources jobs across the country. I am afraid the new Fisheries Act is just part of that, so I will be unable to support it.