Feature image: Ontario Rangers youth gather at Queen’s Park in January, 2013 to protest cuts to a Ministry of Natural Resources program many former participants claim changed their lives.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has called an election for June 12, and as the parties gear up their campaign platforms, it’s worth taking a look back at the environmental ups and downs of Wynne’s 15 months as Premier.
(Note that a full breakdown of environmental legislation introduced in the last session of parliament, all of which died on the order paper, will be published soon at Alternatives Journal. Check back for that story to be posted here.)
The Liberals early decision to step in with $2 million in annual funds to keep the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario operating was a classic example of the government’s ability to recognize the importance of supporting environmental science.
It didn’t hurt that the decision also became another stick with which the Liberals could beat Prime Minister Stephen Harper over his ill-treatment of the province after his government decided in May 2012 to halt any dollars flowing into the freshwater research facility. (In the past year the Liberals have started a war of words with Harper over refusing to enhance the Canada Pension Plan, abandoning vulnerable workers in the Canada Job Plan and failing to invest in the Ring of Fire as they do in other provincial resource projects, among other topics.)
Wynne and Environment Minister Jim Bradley made it clear the living laboratory that is the ELA was too important to lose and, despite the deal being signed at the nail-biting 11th hour, Ontario, Ottawa and the International Institute for Sustainable Development that took over the lab’s day-to-day operations came to an agreement on April 1.
Better late than never was the mantra when the Liberal’s finally made good on Dalton McGuinty’s promise to phase out coal burning for the purposes of generating electricity in the province. Some energy-intensive industries like cement-making still rely on burning coal to achieve the temperatures they need in their kilns, but even here the Liberals tried to make it easier for those companies to burn non-recyclable waste materials in place of coal to reduce its impacts on smog and human health.
Two bills designed to encourage people to drive less and cycle more by making it easier for cyclists to safely travel throughout the province were introduced and are included here for their significant environmental implications. Neither bill became law, but both got people talking about cycling as part of an integrated transit plan for getting people moving both in the GTA and in rural parts of the province where cyclists are a rarer sight.
One bill from Tory MPP Norm Miller to install a one-metre wide paved shoulder on provincial highways would have made long-distance riding on two-lane rural or northern highways substantially safer. It died having made it to committee along with Bill 173 from Transportation Minister Glen Murray, which would have made it easier for municipalities to build cycling infrastructure along with legally requiring drivers to give cyclists at least a one-metre gap when driving past them.
Other environmental measures introduced by the Liberals were far more controversial, however.
As a consequence of dwindling budgets in the Ministry of the Environment and Ministry of Natural Resources, MNR Minister David Orazietti was asked to oversee the “modernization” of permits awarded to companies seeking leave to harm endangered species habitat.
Orazietti claimed their actions were designed to streamline the process to make it more efficient and save scarce ministry dollars, which may have some truth to it. Documents obtained by Ontario Nature through a Freedom of Information request in Feb. 2013 revealed MNR invests an average of 500 staff hours and roughly $24,000 over four years into the development of a single industry permit under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
ESA permitting consumes between 74 hours and $3,491 for low-complexity permits on average to 2,068 hours and $97,546 per permit for high-complexity cases.
Others argued the government simply gutted the Act. Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller claimed the ministry had “failed miserably” to protect endangered species. Ontario’s top environmental organizations were outraged, calling on the minister to change the Act’s broad exemptions for pits and quarries, renewable energy, hydro, mining, infrastructure development and commercial development to obtain permits for projects that may cause irreparable harm to endangered species.
In Sept. 2010, some of those groups hired lawyers from Ecojustice to take the government to court over their July 2013 changes to the Endangered Species Act. They allege Orazietti “failed to first assess whether the proposed regulation would jeopardize the survival of 155 species listed as threatened or endangered,” according to Ecojustice lawyer Anastasia Lintner.
The Liberals also announced in November 2013 their intention to bring back the spring bear hunt shut down by Tory Premier Mike Harris in 1999. The latest incarnation of the program would be a limited version of its former self, allowing hunting of males—but no female bears or cubs—in several wildlife management units around northern Ontario cities to help deal with what Orazietti called a “serious public safety issue” with nuisance bears threatening human lives.
The reaction was mixed. While some northern municipalities excluded from the two-year pilot project to allow spring bear hunting between May 1 and June 15 were frustrated at being kept out of the permitted hunting zones, others bemoaned the orphaned cubs that would result from allowing hunters to bait and shoot bears, many of whom could be females with cubs unseen nearby.
Celebrity environmentalist and former The Price is Right host Bob Barker called the reinstated hunt “cruel” and “barbaric.” The Animal Alliance of Canada and Zoocheck Canada, meanwhile, launched a lawsuit in early April to halt the hunt before it could begin, but an Ontario judge dismissed the case in favour of MNR’s pro-hunt position. Both groups vowed to remain vigilant, with Zoocheck director Julie Woodyer saying representatives from her organization may consider accompanying hunters into the wild to ensure no unauthorized bears are shot.
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