Fin in the News: MPs Seek Restoration Of Fish Act, Will Repeal 2012 Change

Blacklock's Reporter


Parliament must repeal Conservative amendments to the Fisheries Act, says the Commons fisheries committee. The panel’s Liberal majority concluded the 2012 changes failed to protect habitat.


“When they buried those amendments in a budget bill, it was absolutely intentional,” said MP Fin Donnelly (Port Moody-Coquitlam, B.C.), New Democrat fisheries critic. “They specifically bypassed public consultation and cynically tried to amend the Act with as little public notice as possible.”


The amendments were inserted into a 452-page omnibus budget bill that passed the House under closure and sped through the Senate in eleven days before it was signed into law. The 2012 bill also repealed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and narrowed protections under the Navigable Waters Protection Act.


“It’s led to public cynicism,” said Donnelly. “People want a fair process, and I think most stakeholders want to do the right thing.”


The 2012 amendments — the first major rewrite of the Act since 1977 — deleted a prohibition on any industrial activity that resulted in “killing fish by any means other than fishing”, and rewrote section 35 of the act that restricted “any work or undertaking that results in harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.” Section 35 was revised to “any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery.”


The Commons committee in a majority report said the pre-2012 terms should be restored. “We believe in the importance of taking a precautionary approach,” said the report Review Of Changes Made In 2012 To The Fisheries Act. “The majority of the committee agrees with study participants regarding the definition of ‘serious harm’ lacking clarity and concludes that the concept of ‘serious harm’ in the current Act does not fully capture negative impacts to fish resulting from harmful alterations to fish habitat,” wrote Liberal MPs.


The committee chair, MP Scott Simms (Coast of Bays, Nfld. & Labrador), was unavailable for comment. Conservative members of the panel did not comment.


“On Thin Ice”


New Democrats in a minority report said the 2012 amendments should have been repealed immediately after the last election. “The Liberals should have restored those provisions right away,” said MP Donnelly. “There are pipeline projects that have been approved under the current regime. The government did promise to restore those environmental protections.”


The Fisheries Act should also be amended to limit cabinet discretion in granting exemptions under the law, said Donnelly. “As a politician, I understand the Minister wants to be able to make a decision,” said Donnelly. “The difficulty is when you have a Minister making a decision that favours one stakeholder or one company or a certain group or region that is not based on science, you’re on thin ice. People don’t think it is fair.”


Conservative MPs in a minority report noted there was no “scientific or legal proof of harm” resulting from the 2012 amendments, and said restoration of the old Act would affect industry. “The Conservative Party is concerned that a return to the vague language of the pre-2012 definition of harmful alteration, disruption and destruction will be utilized as a means for project opponents to prevent much needed development projects from moving forward, despite having already gone through the regulatory process,” MPs wrote. “Under the previous definition, almost all areas of the country could be considered fish habitat.”


Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc has said cabinet will introduce a revised Act by July 1. The 2012 amendments were “an abuse of process,” LeBlanc testified at the fisheries committee last November 2.  The amendments coincided with budget cuts that saw the closure of 47 of 63 fish habitat offices.


“My hope is in a perfect world we will have legislation we can table before the end of the spring sitting of Parliament in 2017,” Leblanc said; “I recognize the frustration that people have, but we didn’t want to just cut and paste what was there before.”