Industry lobby could kill federal contaminants bill
The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada is urging Ottawa to get Bill C-74 through the House of Commons before the next election.
A tough new federal environmental law will likely die before the upcoming federal election campaign starts up, Ottawa insiders say.
That’s unwelcome news for many aboriginal people and northerners concerned about contaminants in the Arctic food chain.
Industry groups opposed to Bill C-74 have been stepping up efforts since last December to derail the proposed new law, which among other things, would compel the federal government to consult aboriginal governments about environmental regulations.
“If the election is in the spring, it will not pass. If the election is in the fall, it may reach the Senate, but will still die on the order paper,” Nadine Levin, a policy advisor with Environment Canada’s protection branch, glumly predicted this week.
ITC speaks out
The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, which lobbied for stricter monitoring and control of contaminants, also believes the new Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) is in trouble.
The Inuit lobby group wants the federal government to go immediately to a second reading of the bill in the House of Commons.
In ITC’s view, Bill C-74 is the only piece of federal legislation that deals with contaminants in a comprehensive way.
That’s because the bill would allow federal environment officials to consult existing data on the more than 20,000 known chemical substances in use in Canada.
“The benefit to the North of a new CEPA,” said ITC’s Craig Boljkovac, “is that more chemicals would get assessed more efficiently in a much more timely manner.”
Industry fights bill
Though industry’s beef is not with the expanded role the bill envisions for aboriginal peoples, Levin said mining, petroleum and chemical sectors have made it clear they dislike the so-called “precautionary” principle the legislation implies.
The principle is contained in the bill’s preamble and is borrowed from the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
Industry is leery of this approach, said Levin, because it means Environment Canada could take action to prevent damage to the environment without waiting for every last bit of data on each contaminant.
Levin, who drafted sections of the revised legislation that expand the role of first nations and Inuit, said industry’s claim that the bill is bad for Canada’s economy smacks of political blackmail.
“Those are the kinds of things that if you say them to the Prime Minister, or to [Finance Minister] Paul Martin or [Industry Minister] John Manley, they get very worried because they’re about to go into an election and they don’t want to run into problems.
“They know what buttons to push.”
Contaminants produced in southern Canada and other industrial areas of the world are known to have made their way into the Arctic food chain, although their effect on humans is still unclear.
Under existing legislation, Environment Canada must conduct all of its own research on these chemicals to assess their toxicity, even though in many cases the information already existssometimes in other jurisdictions, and often within other government departments.
In the seven years since the existing environmental protection measures were introduced, just 44 of these chemical substances have been assessed.
“That’s not exactly a stellar record,” Boljkovac said.
More monitoring needed
Contaminant levels in Arctic country foods have never been systematically monitored.
Environment officials want to be able to draw on existing information about these substances to help make future regulatory decisions.
“On the one hand, industry says you’ve got to make scientifically based decisions, on the other hand they say the minister should not have as much power as he’s going to have under this bill to gather new scientific information,” Levin told Nunatsiaq News.
“Well, excuse me, you either want us to make scientifically based decisions or you don’t. In order to make scientifically based decisions, we need information.”
Expanded role for aboriginal peoples?
A proposed national advisory committee that would confer decision-making powers on Inuit and other aboriginal Canadians also faces opposition not from industry, but from bureaucrats.
“I can tell you we’re suffering a lot of pressure from provinces and territories against the presence of aboriginal governments and aboriginal people sitting on the committee,” Levin said.
Levin said provinces have indicated they don’t think aboriginal representatives possess the technical knowledge required to sit on the committee.
“My reply is, What makes you think you are the only people who are the repository of technical knowledge or environmental knowledge?”
Under Bill C-74, certain regulations could not be passed without consulting the advisory committee.
The committee would bring together representatives from each provincial and territorial government and delegates of the federal health and environment departments.
Six places on the committee would be reserved for representatives of Inuit and first nations governments.
“This is the first time it’s a requirement of law that aboriginal people be at the table. This is not a matter of discretion,” Levin said.
Nunavut would have its own seat on the committee after 1999.
Among other things, the new legislation would enable the environment minister to set up environmental quality monitoring stations in cooperation with aboriginal governments and aboriginal peoples.
Of course, legislation alone won’t be enough to establish a system of monitoring contaminant levels in country foods. That will take political will, Levin said.
“The more the Inuit people agitate for this stuff, the better off they are.”