Municipalities Refute Ottawa's Claim that They Support Fisheries Change

Edmonton Journal, 5 June 2012 By Peter O'Neil

OTTAWA – Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield was accused Tuesday of misleading the House of Commons and of misrepresenting Canadian cities and towns after he suggested the Federation of Canadian Municipalities still supports controversial and sweeping changes to the Fisheries Act.

The FCM, in a near-unanimous emergency vote at its annual meeting in Saskatoon on the weekend, passed a resolution saying that the changes in the omnibus budget implementation bill “could reduce the Act’s ability to protect the environment.”

The FCM, while stressing that it still supports “common sense” measures to reduce red tape for municipal governments, called in the resolution for the federal government to remove and reassess legislation in Bill C-38 that impacts the environment.

Yet Ashfield, confronted by the New Democratic Party and the Green Party on Tuesday about the FCM’s new position, cited a statement by the organization made two days before the bill was tabled in late April.

During question period, he cited a quote from then-FCM president Berry Vrbanovic, who said: “By reducing the time municipal employees are forced to spend filling out forms … the changes will make it faster and less expensive for local governments to perform routine public services.”

He was replaced on the weekend by Edmonton city councillor Karen Leibovici, who reiterated in a statement Tuesday that the FCM wants Ottawa to break up C-38 so MPs have more time to further study environment-related changes.

“This week our members clearly stated that they continue to support common sense reforms to the Fisheries Act, and in light of ongoing questions and concerns, they believe parts of the bill would benefit from further study and debate in Parliament to ensure it continues to provide strong, effective environmental protections.”

B.C. New Democratic Party MP Fin Donnelly and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May both denounced Ashfield’s response.

“The minister is misleading Canadians and is misrepresenting Canadian municipalities,” Donnelly said.

May concurred, and called on Ashfield to “salvage” his reputation, earned as a New Brunswick provincial minister when he stood up to the Irving family to protect old-growth forests, by telling Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pull the fisheries legislation from C-38.

“Does he care so little about his reputation?”

But May said the government made clear during question period that it isn’t budging in its bid to get the bill in its entirety through the House of Commons before the long summer break begins later this month.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, responding to a planted question from a fellow Tory MP, said quick passage of the bill is important to “protect” Canada’s economy during global uncertainty.

“You’d swear that destroying fish habitat was the litmus test for how we’re going to be rated by the International Monetary Fund. It’s ridiculous,” May said.

In April, the Harper government took the unusual step of making an announcement about the federal legislation two days before it was tabled in April, but provided few details on key changes.

It also sent the media supportive quotes from the FCM, Ducks Unlimited, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, and the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities.

The FCM endorsement, which was widely reported in the media, said the “common sense” provisions will reduce red tape for municipalities and make it “easier for governments to set clear, sensible priorities for protecting fish habitats.”

But the FCM indicated in a statement on April 27, a day after the legislation was tabled, that it had second thoughts, and said further clarity was needed on major changes.

The federation finally took an official position in Saskatoon after the resolution was put to 1,100 voting delegates by Tom Siddon, a former Progressive Conservative fisheries minister from 1985-90 who is active in municipal politics as an elected director of the Regional District Okanagan-Similkameen.

Siddon has been one of the most prominent opponents of the Fisheries Act changes.

The fisheries legislation now being proposed in C-38 would eliminate one of the most powerful environmental components of federal law — the ban on any activity that results in “harmful” alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.

It is being replaced by a prohibition against activity that results in “serious” harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or any fish that supports one of those three fisheries.

“Serious harm” is defined as the “death of fish” or any “permanent” alteration to, or “destruction” of, fish habitat.

© The Edmonton Journal