Canada's environmental laws are under attack by both the federal and Ontario governments. In Ottawa, the government introduced Bill C-38 to implement far-reaching measures announced in its budget. Ontario's government introduced a similar omnibus bill with profound implications for the environment.
The 420-page Bill C-38 will gut a raft of federal laws passed over the years to ensure that our air, water, and most vulnerable wildlife populations are protected. Casualties include the Canadia Environmental Assessment Act, Fisheries Act, Species at Risk Act, National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy Act, and the Kyoto Implementation Act.
In a surprisingly similar action, the government of Ontario recently introduced Bill 55. The 327-page bill seriously affects no less than six important resource and wildlife laws, with amendments that strike at the heart of Ontario's Endangered Species Act and other vital environmental legislation. These changes would reduce the level of protection and undermine public management of cherished forests, lakes, and rivers and the immeasurable benefits they provide.
When Ontario introduced its Endangered Species Act in 2007, legal experts and advocates lauded it as one of the strongest environmental laws in North America. Ontario's leadership was commendable, as it established a strong legal benchmark to protect wildlife at risk in the province, such as caribou, snapping turtles, and rare Carolinian forests, only a few years before the world came together to celebrate the 2010 United Nations International Year of Biodiversity.
Although biodiversity loss receives less attention than issues such as climate change, it threatens the very life-support systems of our planet: clear air, clean water, and productive soil. This is not a problem of some far off tropical rainforest nation or our overfished oceans. Scientists say Ontario is particularly vulnerable to biodiversity decline and has a global responsibility for stewardship.
A study in the renowned scientific journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified the boreal forest (which makes up more than 40 per cent of Ontario) as the biome on the planet most vulnerable to damage from industrial activities and the effects of human-caused global warming. The study's authors showed that in recent years these areas have lost more forest cover to resource development and natural disturbances exacerbated by human-caused climate change than any other biome on the planet -- including tropical rainforests such as the Amazon.
By weakening its Endangered Species Act -- eliminating legal timelines for the development of species recovery strategies, creating loopholes for resource industries like forestry and mining, and further limiting legal protection of endangered wildlife on private lands -- Ontario will be unprepared to cope with ongoing threats to its precious ecosystems and biodiversity, such as urban sprawl, the spread of invasive species, and climate change.
The federal government has justified its efforts to eviscerate environmental laws by cynically claiming that caring for nature is a barrier to economic prosperity. But this ideologically driven agenda will harm our nation and undermine the future for our children. We can't hope to have healthy economies and communities in Ontario or the rest of Canada without healthy ecosystems and species diversity.
Species and ecosystem losses affect production of valuable economic commodities like food, timber, and medicines, and compromise many ecological services that sustain the health and well-being of our communities. Nature helps regulate climate, disease outbreaks, and wastes; provides aesthetic, recreational, and spiritual value; and supports services such as nutrient cycling and water purification.
A recent study by the David Suzuki Foundation found that biodiversity in Ontario's Greenbelt alone helps to filter, store, and regulate drinking water for millions of people in the Greater Toronto Area -- a service worth over $1 billion a year that saves cash-strapped municipalities hundreds of millions in capital costs just to upgrade water infrastructure.
The health of our air, water, and most vulnerable wildlife populations are too important to be treated so callously. The government of Ontario must withdraw the proposed amendments to its Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws.
The environment can't simply be a fair-weather friend for politicians running for election. True leadership means committing to the long haul and ensuring that air, water, land, and wildlife are protected now and into the future in Ontario and across Canada.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Terrestrial Conservation and Science Program director Faisal Moola.
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