06/21/2016 11:40 EDT | Updated 06/21/2016 11:59 EDT

Liberals Launch Public Reviews Of NEB, Environmental Assessments

Public reviews of NEB, environmental assessments coming.

OTTAWA — Almost four years after the previous Conservative government helped spark the Idle No More indigenous movement with sweeping, unilateral changes to fisheries, navigable waters and environmental assessments, the federal Liberals are making the first, tentative moves to alter course.

But advocates gathering Tuesday to mark National Aboriginal Day may not be celebrating, since it will likely be years before any substantive changes are legislated by a Trudeau government that is placing public engagement ahead of decision-making.

Six Liberal cabinet ministers on Monday announced a series of public reviews to begin later this year aimed at overhauling the way major resource projects are approved.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna joins fellow ministers during an announcement in the foyer of the House of Commons on Monday, June 20, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The target appears to be a series of significant reforms that were pushed through by Stephen Harper's majority government in back-to-back omnibus bills in 2012.

"Consultation and engagement will be at the core of this review," said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

In fact, Canadians are being asked to weigh in on the draft mandate of two new expert panels that are, pending public review, to be given the job of assessing the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act — essentially a pre-consultation about the consultation.

The Liberals have also asked two parliamentary committees to study changes to the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act. However, the House of Commons adjourned last Friday for the summer and won't be back until Sept. 19, meaning those committee studies won't get underway for at least three months.

'Solution in search of a problem'

The move prompted withering fire from right and left over the Liberal love of process.

Conservative environment critic Ed Fast called it a "solution in search of a problem," stating that average voters never once complained to him about the Conservatives' 2012 efforts to streamline and speed up resource project decisions. 

"What you now have from a Liberal government is endless consultations on a host of different issues; essentially the federal government avoiding making tough decisions in Canada's national interest," said Fast.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May was no more accommodating.

"I vigorously opposed the idea of a drawn-out consultation without first repealing the devastating changes made to environmental assessment in omnibus budget bills of 2012," May said in a release.

"I vigorously opposed the idea of a drawn-out consultation without first repealing the devastating changes made to environmental assessment in omnibus budget bills of 2012."

— Green Party Leader Elizabeth May

"There's no reason Parliament cannot restore the pre-Harper legislation, and then move to consultation to further improve the process."

The Liberals announced interim changes to the way resource projects are assessed in January, but promised at the time that a more fundamental overhaul of the National Energy Board was in the works.

The government was quick to repeat Monday that the current system has lost the trust of Canadians.

'The most significant environmental law reform initiative in at least a generation'

That absence of trust was evident in British Columbia, where the City of Vancouver launched the latest court challenge to the National Energy Board's conditional approval of the $6.8-billion Trans Mountain pipeline.

Stephen Hazell, general counsel for Nature Canada, called the government's proposed review "the most significant environmental law reform initiative in at least a generation" and said widespread public engagement is the only way to restore lost trust.

And while the Liberals weren't putting timelines on the legislative overhaul, beyond a Jan. 31, 2017 deadline for the expert panel reports, Hazell figures its going to take years.

"I think it's realistic to think they could get legislation through Parliament by the end of their (four-year) mandate," he said. "That's a realistic objective."

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