Mr. Speaker, it is my privilege to rise in the House today to speak for a second time to Bill C-55, following the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans' review and analysis of this bill. We thank the committee members for their careful study of this legislation and their thoughtful amendments.
Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Oceans Act and the Canada Petroleum Resources Act, puts forward provisions that show Canadians our commitment to be responsible stewards of our ocean resources for future generations. Since 2015, we have made excellent progress in achieving our domestic and international marine conservation targets. We have kept our promise of protecting 5% of our marine and coastal areas by the end of 2017. In fact, we are now at 7.75%, up from less than 1% in 2015. Meeting this target has put us on track to reach our international target of 10% by 2020. I know that Canadians are proud of this achievement because it means hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of new protections. In fact, we are up to 446,000 square kilometres to date. To get to 10%, our government is following a clear plan, which is based on science, indigenous knowledge, consultations, and collaboration.
Bill C-55 is an important piece of that plan. It currently takes approximately seven to 10 years to officially designate an Oceans Act MPA. Our partners agree when we say that this is too long for a sensitive marine or coastal area in need of protection to go without. Establishing interim protection would address this gap, while still allowing for the necessary ecological, economic, social, and cultural analysis, as well as consultation and collaboration efforts with all of our various partners.
This bill would require the application of the precautionary principle when deciding whether to designate new MPAs. The precautionary principle means that the absence of scientific certainty should not be used to postpone decisions where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm. Under this legislation, incomplete information or a lack of absolute certainty could no longer be used as a justification for avoiding the establishment of an MPA where science tells us there is a need for action and where there is a need for protection.
The precautionary principle would be used judiciously. As we know, it is a matter of concern to some industry stakeholders. We have heard the concerns that science resources may be insufficient to conduct the necessary work within the five-year period subsequent to the ministerial order, or that the precautionary approach could provide an excuse for not doing the scientific analysis at all. This, of course, is not true. Our commitment to science and information gathering remains strong. We agree that our foundational principle of science-based decision-making must not be compromised in any way.
In addition, Bill C-55 would update, modernize, and strengthen enforcement powers, fines, and penalties, effectively bringing the Oceans Act in line with Canada's other environmental laws. Such changes to the act would support the people who manage and monitor MPAs. Enforcement officers, for example, would get the tools and authority they need to better protect MPAs, which in turn would improve the effectiveness of the MPAs. These changes would expand and modernize the tool kit for enforcement officers designated by the minister, which may include indigenous people or provincial and territorial partners.
Bill C-55 also proposes amendments to the Canada Petroleum Resources Act that would complement the freeze-the-footprint process of the interim protection MPAs. These changes would provide the competent minister with the authority to prohibit authorized oil and gas exploration or development activities, for example seismic testing, drilling, or production within a designated marine protected area.
During their review of Bill C-55, my colleagues in the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans have heard from many different witnesses and experts on the proposed amendments and what they think should be included in Bill C-55. I would like to take this time to talk about what we have heard through the standing committee on Bill C-55. Several witnesses expressed concerns that the proposed changes may short-circuit the collection and analysis of reliable scientific data or deprive Canadians of the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the creation of interim protection MPAs. Our commitment to science and to working with our partners remains unwavering. As is our current practice, collaboration is essential to advancing our marine protection work.
We are working with the provinces and territories, indigenous groups, industry, and other environmental stakeholders to establish networks of MPAs and will continue to do so under this new option for interim protection marine protected areas.
Our government knows that the effective management of Canada's oceans depends on an in-depth understanding of the marine environment. We gain this understanding through peer-reviewed science, the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples, and through information shared by the fishing industry and local communities. By balancing the collection of information and consultations with our partners with the precautionary approach, interim protection marine protected areas will offer the needed protections to our important ocean seascape and resources, while still being shaped by science and consultation.
We have heard the call for stronger conservation standards. While Bill C-55 is a targeted response to the length of time that it takes to designate MPAs, we know that it is important to continue the conversation on conservation standards. That is why we have established a national advisory panel that will provide the minister with advice and recommendations on protection standards for future marine protected areas. The panel is to report back with their recommendations. It is essential that we come to the right answers to these questions together, in order to properly protect our oceans for long-term sustainability.
The issue of economic fairness was also raised by a few indigenous groups and fishers during the standing committee's hearings. These are concerns that the new powers proposed could deprive rights holders and others of their dependence on marine resources for sustenance and livelihood.
I want to emphasize that the ministerial order provision is not meant to close the door on economic opportunities. We are committed to working in full transparency with our partners to ensure that our oceans and marine resources support a long-term sustainable economy. In fact, we are of the view that provisions like this will actually make for more abundance so that future generations can have more economic opportunities.
Lastly, we have heard from some of our indigenous partners that we need to renew our relationships to ensure that their voices are being heard. We are open to conversations on co-management, and providing a greater role for indigenous partners in the management of our oceans. We are committed to reconciliation and are striving to work more closely with indigenous groups, including Inuit communities, to inform the process and make the most of their traditional knowledge.
We have listened to many important proposed amendments to Bill C-55 and the committee has worked diligently to reflect carefully on all of them. We particularly support the proposal made by the member for Nunavut, supported by the member for Northwest Territories, which amends the bill to ensure that our approach to interim protection MPAs is consistent with land claims agreements. We understand that conservation is integral to the indigenous way of life, but a balance with sustainable use is necessary to ensure that our communities are able to continue to thrive. As I have said, interim protection MPAs will not be established without constructive conversation, and it will be a collaborative effort.
We are not looking to move ahead without our partners, but to offer protection where it has been identified by our partners as necessary to ensure the long-term health of the marine environment. Bill C-55 is a powerful step toward better protection for our oceans, advancing reconciliation and moving towards a nation-to-nation dialogue, and continuing to work together on the shared objectives that Canadians care deeply about. We have a shared duty to protect our oceans for generations to come, and this bill helps us do that.