Madam Speaker, I very much appreciate the opportunity to be able to enter the debate here today on this important resolution of the House, an amendment to the Constitution of Canada relating to Prince Edward Island's terms of union.
It will allow for a fixed crossing joining the island to the mainland. For greater certainty, as I quote from the motion before the House, nothing prevents the imposition of tolls for the use of such a fixed crossing between the island and the mainland, or the private operation of such a crossing.
The debate today is of great interest to me for several reasons, one of which is that I have a great affinity for the island, an affinity that goes back to several visits I have made to the island, several by ferry and several by air. The people of Prince Edward Island are very kind and generous who care an awful lot not only about their own island but about Confederation and about this country.
All members of this House recognize that not all islanders are in favour of the fixed link. There are many people who have earned their living off the water as fishers, people in the Northumberland Strait, and also islanders who enjoy their way of life on the farm, a good, quiet rural way of life. They are quite satisfied with the ferry service.
I was very pleased today to be in the Chamber when the member for Davenport spoke eloquently about the alternatives that the government has chosen to ignore. One alternative in particular calls for an updated ferry service that would allow for the prevention of some of the environmental problems that the fixed link proposes.
That is partly the other reason why I am pleased to speak today. The whole issue of environmental assessment is one that I have spent a great deal of time working on in the previous Parliament and something that is of great concern to me.
The member for Davenport spoke about the need to take into account what environmental assessment means when considering the future of major projects that will be discussed and taken care of in our country.
We have many major projects under way in this country that have not been subjected to environmental assessments and others that when they have been assessed under strict environmental guidelines have been found to be substantially inadequate.
The point that I will come to very shortly in my remarks concerns the failure of the previous government and now apparently this government in dealing with this process of instituting an environmental assessment process that will ensure that we have an adequate response to the needs of the environment on projects such as the Northumberland Strait bridge.
I hesitate to mention the name of the previous Prime Minister in this place. Bill C-110, the act respecting the Northumberland crossing, an act debated in this House in June of last year and passed by this Chamber, was really one of the very last acts of the previous government before it adjourned for the summer recess that eventually ended up in a federal election and the election of a new government.
The record of the previous government on the environment left a tremendous amount to be desired. I am quite surprised that the new government would pick up exactly where the old government left off, especially on a project in which the one single federal environmental assessment review of a general nature on this project called for the shutdown of this particular project, the bridge. I will come to more of that in just a second.
I want to acknowledge that I believe something has to be done with regard to the access to Prince Edward Island, to improve the access to and from the island for products, for tourists and for residents.
When Bill C-110 was in the House, an act respecting the Northumberland crossing that gave the go ahead to proceed with the construction prior to this constitutional change, the debate in the House was characterized by Mr. Jim Fulton, then the member from Skeena, who had quite a number of things to say.
I would like to reiterate for the benefit of the House some of the things that Mr. Fulton had to say. Mr. Fulton was a long time environment critic for the New Democratic Party. As such, Mr. Fulton served our party and our nation very well. This speech on Bill C-110 at the time was almost Mr. Fulton's last intervention in this House prior to his retirement. One could tell from the way he approached this issue how important it was to him and how important he thought the environmental assessment process was to this country.
As I had previously stated and argued very strongly at the time, the bridge was never assessed by a public panel. All of the studies that the government has talked about, the 90 or 91 studies, were done in a sense by vested interests in the Northumberland Strait and in the bridge construction. The environmental assessment review process that I have supported very strongly in the development of a new Canadian environmental assessment act would require independently financed environmental assessment for projects such as this.
Mr. Fulton referred to the bridge never having been assessed by a public panel. As I indicated a few minutes ago, when the environmental assessment review office took a look at a general concept of it the generic bridge concept was turned down.
The Federal Court ordered that there be no irrevocable decisions by government until the provisions of the environmental assessment review process had been met. Members will recall that prior thereto EARP had also been avoided in the Kemano project. The Federal Court also found that in the Kemano II project the government had acted both illegally and
unconstitutionally. We had hoped to avoid that situation with the Northumberland link project. Of course that has not happened.
I want to raise as well, thanks to some of the notes Mr. Fulton set out in the Chamber in June, the case of the Oldman River dam. When we look at that project who do we find there but SCI, the very same company involved with the fixed link. When it came to damming the Oldman River, SCI joined with the Government of Alberta and the federal Conservative Party at the time in fighting against the public every step of the way until the highest court in the land eventually had to rule that there must be an environmental assessment of that project.
When the assessment took place it ordered that the dam be taken down, that it was neither economically nor environmentally sound. The same company that did not believe in an environmental assessment process in that case has not been participating in a public environmental assessment process on the Northumberland Strait.
I am quite concerned about this matter. As the member for Davenport talked about earlier, the environment assessment review process is something that must be taken extremely seriously as we look at all projects in the future. It is a process in which we have to develop some confidence, or the projects we have to deal with will constantly come under pressure from the public. Their ability to serve the interests of the public will be held in jeopardy.
Before closing I would like to put on record what I think must be involved in a good environmental assessment process. I simply want to indicate I do not think we are being well served today to accept this constitutional amendment with so many questions having been raised about the project, particularly on the environmental side. Members of all parties today have raised some of those concerns. None of them, other than the member for Davenport, have really expressed them in such a way that we should not proceed with the project but should carry on.
Again I would like to quote former member Mr. Fulton who on June 15 said:
Until Canadians are assured of what are the impacts of the bridge, if those impacts can be mitigated and if they can be mitigated what the costs are, we cannot start seriously and intelligently addressing it. Instead what we are seeing is the government shoving the project through the House, Prince Edward Island squeezing a constitutional amendment through, and SCI out there with its hand out.
These are very important words to consider during the process of consideration of the constitutional amendment today.
The ideal environmental assessment process in Canada has to take into account many factors. Ideally the environmental assessment process should incorporate some of the following principles. I stressed once already that the assessment should be done by an independent agency free from political pressure or influence peddling. The decision should be final and binding.
It really does not strike me as unusual, but it is indicative of what is happening that a constitutional amendment dealing with a structure affecting the environment and others is introduced in the Chamber by the minister of public works whose department has most influence over the project and specifically wants the project to be completed.
If anything, the project should be viewed as an environmental project as opposed to an economic one. The government should not be treating it as another economic project.
If we wish to create jobs in Prince Edward Island or northern Saskatchewan, we could find all sorts of things to do just by throwing some money out there and ensuring that it is done. The Prince Edward Island link bridge must be tied into the environment, the economy of the area, the needs of the community, and those types of things.
The assessment of the environment is a very key and important part of whether or not this project should proceed. An independent agency, free from political pressure and influence peddling, should be where the decisions are made. It should not be made by consultants who are paid by the proponent of a project to make the project appear to be environmentally friendly.
There should also be a very broad definition of the environment applying universally to quite a variety of initiatives. The government has yet to proclaim the environmental assessment act. I am waiting very patiently for the Minister of the Environment to bring a new environmental assessment act into the Chamber with the amendments suggested in the previous House by the member for Davenport, members of the other parties, and myself dealing with these matters. The definition of environmental effect was expanded in the last bill to include health and socioeconomic conditions. We must ensure that kind of assessment is also done on projects similar to the fixed link.
Environmental effect can also take into account physical and cultural heritage and current uses of lands and resources for traditional reasons by aboriginal people in Canada. The recent Supreme Court decision on the Oldman dam assists in strengthening the definition of the environment to include the community's livelihood.
The environmental assessment process should also extend the policy and programs. When the Department of Public Works wants to proceed with a project and undertakes to proceed with it, the policy which guides it should assess the environmental rules as well. This is something on which the previous government refused to budge. I am hoping that under the new legislation to be brought in by the new government the new minister
will budge on this one and ensure that policies and programs are covered under the process.
The decision maker discretion should be minimized and accountability should be ensured. In the environmental assessment process and in building confidence among the public we cannot be seen as having a strong environmental assessment process on the one hand and then later an unaccountable decision making process which can ignore the whole exercise that has gone on before it.
New Democrat amendments in the previous Parliament to Bill C-13 went quite far to improve this and remove the tremendous amount of discretion in the previous bill where the minister or responsible authorities were only bound to act when they were "of the opinion that damage to the environment might occur". That discretion for the most part has now been removed and assessment or action must be taken if a project or undertaking may cause significant negative environmental effects.
This now has to be tested in court, but it goes a long way to closing a loophole under the guidelines which was used in the bridge project assessment and open to industry to influence politicians.
Proponents should justify the purpose and the need of the project. Alternatives should be considered as part of the assessment process. What was never considered in this process was improvement to the existing ferry system. There is an alternative view to what could be taking place here: an injection of funds and a maintenance of existing jobs. The assessment process that existed on this particular project did not take those into account. A new environmental assessment bill should ensure that we deal with this sort of thing.
I also believe very strongly there should be a significant public role early and often throughout the process, including participant funding and notice. I will admit and agree there has been a lot of debate on Prince Edward Island about the Northumberland Strait and the bridge, and perhaps even the tunnel the member for Malpeque earlier indicated he originally supported. There is no question at all that the whole matter of public debate over projects like this one is very important. The key thing in all this is that the debate has hinged on economic issues, not on environmental issues.
We have been forced to gloss over the environmental issues in the particular debate and not to make our decisions on environmental issues but on economic ones because the government and the proponents have constantly said: "Don't worry about the environmental things. Our studies indicate that environmental matters are not important".
Yet the one federal panel that looked at it in general terms said: "Turn it down. Don't accept it. Do something else". Many of the questions raised in the House today were of an environmental nature. They have still not been answered to the satisfaction of the people most concerned about it. A full and public debate is important but it has to include all issues surrounding the project.
I feel very strongly about the environmental assessment process and what it means for Canada. I also feel very strongly about the lack of an environmental assessment process on the Northumberland link project. I feel very unhappy the government has chosen not to move quickly on a new environmental assessment process. It would have avoided a lot of problems in dealing with the issue before us today.
Madam Speaker, I thank you very much for your time and attention today. I certainly wish all members well in their deliberations on this amendment.