In this version, the provincial MPs get to look like they're protecting the environment, when in reality amendments added to the legislation render it almost useless. The culprit? The need for votes from a misinformed public.
Toronto Star political columnist Ian Urquhart explains.
A legislative committee is expected to give approval today to a bill to protect Ontario's endangered species, ranging from the woodland caribou to the eastern prickly pear cactus.
But with a provincial election looming in the fall, some of the politicians casting their votes may also be on the endangered list, for the Endangered Species Act has become a major political battleground at Queen's Park.
It did not start out that way. During debate in the Legislature last month, there seemed to be an all-party consensus in favour of the legislation, which was given second reading by a vote of 39-1. The lone dissenter was Cambridge MPP Gerry Martiniuk, a Conservative.
In the subsequent committee hearings, however, the MPPs were deluged by appeals to water down the legislation from farmers, native people, unions, hunters, trappers, developers, municipalities, and mining and logging companies.
The testimony was quite emotional at times. Picking up on an environmentalist's suggestion that we could live with any diminishment in economic activity as a result of the legislation, Thunder Bay Mayor Lynn Peterson declared: "Economic activity is not a thing. It's people who get up in the morning and go to work and raise their children and pay their mortgages." And while most presenters started off by saying they support the "objective" of saving flora and fauna from extinction, they then recommended amendments that would effectively gut the legislation, including:
- Restoring political discretion to the decision on whether to list a species as endangered. The bill would give that authority to a committee made up of scientists and persons with `aboriginal traditional knowledge." The environmentalists say that is essential to the integrity of the legislation.
- Loosening the definition of the "habitat" to be protected. The bill's definition is "an area on which a species depends, directly or indirectly, to carry on its life processes." Again, environmentalists see this relatively broad definition as essential.
- Deferring to existing "forest management plans" between logging companies and the crown. Environmentalists say this proposed change would essentially exempt the companies from the act.
- Compensating companies and property owners negatively affected by the act. The government is proposing a "stewardship fund" of $18 million over four years, but has ruled out full compensation. The environmentalists say compensation would drain money away from efforts to improve habitats.
In committee today, the Conservatives and the New Democrats – with a bow to their respective rural and northern bases – will present amendments reflecting some or all of the above.
Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay, who is responsible for the legislation, suggested yesterday that the opposition is succumbing to "fear-mongering" about job losses. He said that the Endangered Species Act, as written, is flexible enough to ensure that the livelihoods of northerners and rural Ontarians aren't threatened.
I was disappointed to see that on the provincial level, the NDP sides with the Conservatives.
Also on Ontario environmental policy, I have a question about the proposal to drastically reduce plastic bag usage.
In general, cutting down on unnecessary bags and packaging is an excellent idea, something we all can and should do. But what about bag re-use?
We've always used plastic supermarket bags for trash bags. In the past 25 years, I've probably bought a total of two boxes of trash bags for household use. If we didn't have plastic bags from our grocery shopping, we'd have to buy trash bags on a regular basis.
Buying extra bags specifically made for trash certainly seems more wasteful and less environmentally conscious than re-using bags that once held groceries. Isn't this a major flaw in thinking about reducing plastic bag usage? Or am I missing something?