08/21/2013 10:29 EDT | Updated 10/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Harper's Sneaky NEB Act Revisions Violate Our Charter Rights

Between 1990 to 2010, carbon dioxide emissions from Canada's oil sands nearly tripled. Scientists estimate that average global temperature will rise anywhere from three to six degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Some foresee that an increase of just two degrees Celsius by 2050 will cause the extinction of up to a third of terrestrial animal species, along with significant water shortages, hunger, malaria, and flooding around the world.

Oil sands production produces more than triple the greenhouse gases of conventional oil production. Increased exploitation of the oil sands, facilitated by pipeline expansion across the country, is inconsistent with reducing climate change, and neither the federal nor the Alberta governments have adequate policies in place to limit emissions growth.

Climate change isn't the only adverse effect of oil sands exploitation.

Elevated levels of cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc have all been found in melted snow and water collected near or downstream from oil sands extraction sites. Downstream, aboriginal people are experiencing more respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular problems, and rare cancers associated with these and other toxic substances. Oil in local watersheds has led to arsenic contamination of moose meat, a dietary staple of many aboriginal groups.

Further afield, oil spills and leaks from pipelines contaminate streams, rivers, lakes, and ocean environments. Not only do these spills kill fish and wildlife, they also contaminate our soil and drinking water and present serious health risks for humans. Animal populations are slowly poisoned over years or even months of ingesting oily water and contaminated food supplies.

Unfortunately, Canada has a poor record of enforcement against oil companies, and prosecutes less than one per cent of environmental violations in the oil sands.

All of what I've just said ought to inform any public decisions we make about expanding the oil sands. But, in changes quietly implemented last year, the Harper government has blocked these issues from consideration during hearings before the National Energy Board (NEB) -- the government body that decides on important energy projects, such as oil sands expansion, coal mining developments, and construction of oil pipelines.

Concerns raised by people living near oil sands developments -- including those suffering serious health impacts, citizens worried about health risks posed by toxic refinery emissions and the link between the tar sands and climate change -- are currently excluded from any analysis of a project's impacts.

Because of changes to the NEB Act last year, they won't hear about climate change science or cancer statistics. Projects will go ahead without the input of the people who live in the communities directly affected by them.

People wishing to express such concerns are literally told via a government form that they need not apply.

And, in fact, to exercise their rights to free expression, Canadians must apply and do the paperwork! Another sneaky rule change means anyone who wants to so much as submit a letter must fill out a 9-page "Application to Participate" form. This is just incredible when you consider that most people's letters won't be 9-pages long. These changes are clearly designed to discourage everyday Canadians from participating in the public decision-making process. It's an unreasonable limit that violates our Charter-guaranteed right of free speech.

As it stands, foreign markets are buying up our resources, corporations are getting rich, and average Canadians are taking on all the risk. But some Canadians are fighting back. We believe restrictions on public participation jeopardize the health and safety of our people and our environment. Our forests, waterways, fisheries, and the very air we breathe are threatened by the government's cynical and short-sighted decision-making.

We've launched a lawsuit calling for the Federal Court of Canada to strike down anti-democratic rules in the NEB Act restricting public comment.

We're not asking the courts to tell the NEB what it can and can't do. All we're asking is that Canadians be allowed to have a say, without the hassle of a 9-page form and non-transparent screening process. We know all sides always agree on everything, and that's okay. Thriving despite our differences and working out creative compromises have made our country strong. We're just asking that any Canadian who wants to take part in the debate be allowed to do so.

There's too much at stake to sit back in silence. We hope you'll join us.

We're a small group standing up for what we believe is right, and we need your help. If you refuse to be silenced, join us online at and sign up for our mailing list. Our opponents are strong and well-funded; please also consider making a donation.

Tzeporah Berman, B.A. M.E.S., LLD (Honoris Causa) is an author and member of the Board of ForestEthics Advocacy.