FISHERIES ACT OVERHAUL CASTS OFF AT SENATE COMMITTEE
Fisheries Act overhaul casts off at Senate committee
The overhaul of one of Canada’s oldest laws is now before the Senate fisheries committee.
Tuesday evening, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson spoke to Bill C-68, the government bill that aims to restore protections that were gutted from the Fisheries Act by the previous Conservative government in 2012 and incorporate new safeguards to protect fish and their habitat.
“As Canada’s population continues to grow, marine fisheries, freshwater and fish habitat need to be protected and conserved for future generations,” he told senators. “This bill encourages the adoption of best practices to mitigate and manage negative impacts, which is fundamental to sustainable economic growth.”
Introduced in February 2018 and passed by the House of Commons last June, the bill goes beyond restoring what was.
For the first time since the Act was enacted in 1868, the proposed legislation directs the minister of fisheries and oceans to manage fish stocks sustainably and to put rebuilding plans in place for depleted stocks.
Before 2012, it protected all fish and fish habitat in Canada. That changed when the Harper government introduced omnibus legislation that did away with a prohibition against the “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.” The goal was to make life easier for farmers, and spare them having to navigate a sea of red tape to alter what they deemed to be insignificant bodies of water on their land.
As a result, protections were extended only to fish that were part of commercial, recreational or Indigenous fisheries.
This proposed overhaul would give Canada the kind of modern fisheries-management laws other leading fishing nations have in place. Proponents of the bill say it could mark a course correction for fisheries management in this country.
In addition to restored protections for fish habitat and better integrated management, it includes enhanced regulation and enforcement, increased monitoring and reporting, as well as more certainty and clarity of requirements for development projects.
The proposed amendments also require the minister to consider the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples when making certain decisions, specifically those involving fish and fish habitat. The government has included a requirement that confidential Indigenous knowledge provided to the minister must be protected, something that has long been called for.
The bill is sponsored by Independent Sen. Dan Christmas, Canada’s first Mi’kmaw member of the Red Chamber. When he spoke of the bill in October, Christmas noted it provides a constructive framework with practical mechanisms and tools to further reconciliation, a more collaborative relationship based on the recognition of the nation-to-nation reality, and sets the stage for Indigenous partnering agreements, but he said there’s still a bit of a road to travel.
“(The Department of Fisheries and Oceans) is by no means renowned for its sensitivity to Indigenous peoples, practices and customs … I’ll be watching closely to see whether the aims of these provisions will manifest the improvements they promise. The relationship between First Nations and DFO cannot yet be described as healthy or robust. I’m hopeful that it can be measurably improved.”
Wilkinson agreed to the need for improved relations between First Nations and his department.
“I believe the amendments in this bill are a step in the right direction, but we need to do more; not just through this legislation, but in our daily work across the country,” he said. “I look forward to hearing your views and the robust discussions I am certain will take place in this committee in the coming weeks.”
Bill C-68 has undergone wide consultations with Canadians and received a great deal of feedback in letters and emails, and online. The minister said the provisions in it have been refined to reflect that feedback.
“I know that there have been concerns raised regarding the potential for increased uncertainty, from proponents in resource industries, and the agricultural sector. The amendments made to C-68 have always been done with the intent to provide more clarity,” he said.
Sen. Mike Duffy asked what an overhauled act might mean for plans in Nova Scotia for the Northern Pulp paper mill to dump over 80 million litres of unrefined effluent — via a 10 kilometre pipe — into the waters of Northumberland Strait each day, which he noted are the fishing grounds of fishers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
After years of receiving industrial-scale effluent from the kraft pulp mill in Pictou, Boat Harbour Basin is scheduled to be closed by the Nova Scotia government this year. That means Northern Pulp must come up with a new treatment plan for its effluent.
The company has committed to a new $70-million oxygen de-lignification system to improve the quality of the effluent it wants to discharge into the Strait. But as Michael Harris wrote for iPolitics in October, fishermen and members of Pictou Landing First Nation are adamant the idea is a bad one. They say the estuary that once supported a variety of marine life has become a toxic lake and a national disgrace, on par with the poisoned tailings ponds of Alberta and North Sydney.
The project is currently undergoing a provincial assessment, but lawyers for Friends of the Northumberland Strait say the province’s environment minister has a conflict of interest and have asked her to delegate her authority to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency given “the significant and financial interest” the province has in ensuring the assessment is concluded as quickly as possible.
Wilkinson said under the existing Fisheries Act and the new Fisheries Act, there is a requirement not to disturb fish or fish habitat, and that if there was going to be a disturbance, that it be mitigated and ultimately offset.
He said the decision to do a federal environmental assessment would fall to the environment minister, but his department would be directly involved in providing scientific advice with respect to the potential impacts on fish and fish habitat.
“The other piece of it is that there is a marine refuge in that area, so Fisheries and Oceans has to opine on whether there is any impact on the marine refuge.”
Wilkinson said there are other pulp and paper facilities that meet Environment Canada’s pulp and paper effluent standards and are authorized under the Fisheries Act to discharge into an ocean environment.
Duffy said people in the region might be surprised to hear that DFO, “which has been around for 100 years and has been looked to by people throughout the region for leadership on the fishery,” would be taking a back seat to Environment Canada.
Wilkinson said that’s not the case. His department is providing scientific information relating to fish and fish habitat to Environment Canada, which has the formal responsibility to do environmental assessments.
“Do you feel (residents’) pain and their anxiety,” Duffy asked.
Wilkinson, who was the parliamentary secretary for the environment before taking the helm at Fisheries and Oceans, said he definitely does.
“I have had conversations with the same groups while wearing two different hats. I feel their concern. It’s very important we are able to demonstrate from a scientific perspective that either there are specific concerns that should be addressed in a thoughtful way or the science tells us that this is not a significant issue.
“We need to make sure we’re doing the work to engage those conversations and being transparent about it.”