Ford Government Uses COVID-19 to Suspend Public Participation in Proposed Environmental Decisions

  “At a time when government transparency and communication is more essential than ever, Premier Ford has moved to gut public participation under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights. … It certainly appears that the Ontario government is exploiting this moment (the COVID-19 crisis) to further erode Ontario’s environmental laws and limit the public’s role in environmental policy.”                                                                  – Robert Wright, Ecojustice lawyer

A News Release from Ecojustice, a Canada-wide group of lawyers advocating for environmental justice, with a brief Foreword from Niagara At Large reporter Doug Draper
Posted April 10th, 2020 on Niagara At Large

A Foreword by Doug Draper –

With Trump using the COVID-19 disaster as cover to do even more cutting and gutting to air and water pollution regulations, it should probably come as no great surprise that the Ford government in Ontario, with an environmental record that is almost equally as bad, might pull the same stunt here.

In a recent story published in the National Observer on the Ford government’s move, a spokesperson for Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek is quoted saying that “this will ensure our government is able to quickly respond to time-sensitive needs that arise as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic.”

It is hard to image what environmental protection measures in Ontario might get in the way of taking steps that would protect us from this virus.

Could we be talking about measures to protect provincial significant wetlands like the ones in the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls? Or how about the province’s protect “Greenbelt” zone, a vital natural heritage and food-growing area that Ford was once caught telling a group of developers he wanted to sell off “chunks” of to build “affordable housing?”

And let’s not forget that in the weeks leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Ford government had launched yet another review of the Ontario Conservation Act, which is seemingly still underway and which could, if those of us who care about nature are unlucky, lead to a weakening of tools that Conservation Authorities across the province have to protect and preserve our natural heritage.

Will there be any more buffer zones or other protections for provincially significant wetlands like this one in the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls, Ontario by the time the Ford government and this virus outbreak are through? Photo courtesy of Lori Monroe

I don’t know about you, but I have been reading and hearing an awful lot lately about how the way jurisdictions around the world have degraded our natural environment has helped set the stage for the growth and spread of deadly viruses like the one that is ravaging us now.

Or is that just another one of those “inconvenient truths” for governments which would rather not let environmental protection get in the way of their “Open for Business” agendas.

The spokesperson for the Ontario environment minister went on to say; “These steps are temporary in nature and will only be taken during this unprecedented emergency period.”

Would you take a pledge like that from this government when it has anything to do with environmental protection to the bank? Going by its record so far, I sure wouldn’t.

My recommendation to all of us is to keep a very close eye on what the Ford government is up to on this one.

And now here is News Release from Ecojustice –

Toronto – The Ford government has used the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic to pass a regulation that effectively suspends public consultation under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR).

Air pollution in the Greater Toronto Area. United Nations photo

Though some public consultation exemptions may be entirely reasonable and good public health policy, Ecojustice lawyers and scientists are alarmed by the regulation, which is the latest in a series of moves the Ford government has made to dismantle environmental protection in Ontario.

The regulation amounts to a far-reaching assault on Ontario’s environmental standards and procedures for the protection of clean air, clean water, land and wildlife from environmental effects of forestry, mining, energy generation, oil refining, chemical manufacturing, and other industries.

Since it came into effect in 1994, the EBR has enabled Ontarians to participate in government decision-making that might affect the environment. 

Among other things, it requires the Ontario government to:

  • inform the public about decisions, and events that could affect the environment including changes to provincial policy, laws, or licenses that are “environmentally significant”, and to refrain from making any change without first consulting Ontarians openly;
  • and ensure that any such decisions have first considered how the purposes of the EBR are being applied consistent with the “Statements of Environmental Values” (SEVs) of certain ministries.

This regulation comes on the heel of other sweeping changes to Ontario’s environmental laws, made before the outbreak of COVID-19, that have substantially reduced environmental protection, transparency and accountability in the province.

Robert Wright, Ecojustice lawyer and a former Vice-Chair of the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal says:

“At a time when government transparency and communication is more essential than ever, Premier Ford has moved to gut public participation under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights.

“No one would criticize temporary measures that are legitimately related to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. But it certainly appears that the Ontario government is exploiting this moment to further erode Ontario’s environmental laws and limit the public’s role in environmental policy-making. We urge the government to withdraw or revise the regulation so that it clearly only targets government environmental proposals that are reasonably COVID-19 related.”

Background information:

Since 1994, the EBR has enabled Ontarians to participate in government decision-making that might affect the environment.  Ontario Regulation 115/20 came into force at the beginning of April 2020. 

It exempts proposals for Acts, policies, regulations and instruments from Part II of the EBR, which provides for “Public Participation in Government Decision-Making”.

This means that the Ontario government does not need to consult the public on such proposals no matter how “environmentally significant” they may be.  Further, the government has turned its back on the environment as its ministries are now not required to consider their own SEVs when making decisions that might significantly affect the environment.

 About Ecojustice – Ecojustice goes to court and uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, innovative public interest lawsuits lead to legal precedents that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax.

For more on the legal advocacy work of Ecojustice, click on – https://www.ecojustice.ca/

To read a related story on this development, click on –https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/04/08/news/ontario-suspends-environmental-oversight-rules-citing-covid-19?fbclid=IwAR2jpZFfLQ3ABo83iVHnvMxxXqvbxY0GX0RRIRUctCrQ3xQFUXb0FeBed10

NIAGARA AT LARGE encourages you to join the conversation by sharing your views on this post, along with your name (not a pseudonym), in the space immediately below the Bernie Sanders quote.

“A Politician Thinks Of The Next Election. A Leader Thinks Of The Next Generation.” – Bernie Sanders

One response to “Ford Government Uses COVID-19 to Suspend Public Participation in Proposed Environmental Decisions

  1. Gail Benjafield

    All too true, Doug. Other media have bypassed this story.

    Like

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