Two scheduled media events on the St. John’s waterfront Monday morning showed a great political divide.
At Harvey’s Marine offices, a collection of representatives from the mining and oil and gas industries were on hand to hear Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue describe the benefits of impending changes to federal environmental regulations, through budget Bill C-38 — a “streamlining” of the regulatory system.
One building lot over, in Harbourside Park, local activists and environmentalists were rallying, many taking to a microphone to denounce the same regulatory changes and the same federal omnibus bill.
The cuts for science programming in various federal departments, including Environment Canada and Parks Canada, have been attributed to a need for budgetary belt tightening across the board. As for the legislative changes — a new Environmental Assessment Act, revised habitat-related clauses in the Fisheries Act, repeal of the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act and repeal of the National Roundtable on Environment and Economy Act — the mantra has been efficiency over redundancy.
Harbourfront rally part of countrywide day of action
Environmentalists, meanwhile, say it all reflects a narrow viewpoint, with government focusing on day-to-day dollars over greater environmental understanding and both economic and environmental sustainability.
Black Out Speak Out
Objections to the federal actions began before Budget Day — when cuts were being revealed piece-meal and legislative changes were still rumors. The Black Out Speak Out campaign is the latest effort to draw public attention to the changes now visible on the horizon.
The harbourfront rally, of a few dozen people, was part of Black Out Speak Out events across the country — a “day of action” campaign promoted by more than 500 organizations, with websites “darkened” and a message of public protest flooding onto emails and through social media.
Supporters included the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Environmental Defence, Equiterre, Greenpeace, Nature Canada, Pembina Institute, Sierra Club Canada, West Coast Environmental Law and WWF Canada.
In St. John’s, Chris Hogan, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Environmental Network, likened the grey sky and chill to the current relationship between environmental groups and the Canadian government. “This government has attacked environmental groups using language that is pretty inflammatory and that’s of grave concern,” he said.
“They’re trying to shut down all the dissenting voices,” claimed protestor Don Quigley, who could be seen at the waterfront rally holding a sign, calling on government to “Protect Fish Habitat.”
The president of Nature NL, John Jacobs, lamented the closure of federal research facilities and what he anticipates will be a loss of public outreach programs as a result of the budget.
“Doing away with these things means, essentially, closing the window on nature for the public and on our ability to understand what’s going on,” he said.
Industry not about injury
Proposed federal cuts and legislative changes were attributed by rally participants to the power of lobbyists, or an ignorance on behalf of decision makers.
“From our point of view, what the federal government is trying to do is streamline the process. No one is trying to get away with anything,” Mining NL president Gerry O’Connell told The Telegram later in the day.
He said most mining companies are prepared to go beyond the existing regulations if it means assuring community safety.
“It’s really about timely decisions for us,” said Paul Barnes, with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in Atlantic Canada.
He said he understood why Black Out Speak Out participants might point fingers at the oil and gas industry — or “Big Oil,” as some speakers at the St. John’s event said — but few industries are regulated to the same extent as the oil industry.
Barnes added while legislation, including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, is on its way out, it remains unclear as to exactly what is being brought in behind.
“We as an industry are still waiting on some of the details as well in terms of exactly how it will be spelled out in terms of the legislation,” he said.
Provincial Minister of Environment and Conservation Terry French told The Telegram any changes at the federal level will not negatively impact the quality of environmental assessments and protections in this province.
“We have a very robust Environmental Assessment Act and, you know, that certainly will not be compromised by these federal regulations. And regardless of what the federal government does, we still are very responsible for the environment here in this province, and our Act dictates what we have to do,” he said, outside the House of Assembly.
Black Out Speak Out participants said, for their part, objections will continue and all eyes will be on the impact of changes resulting from Bill C-38.