Commentary | Our environment is more than just an economic resource

A newly weakened Canadian Fisheries Act

The Canadian Fisheries Act of 1868 is one of Canada’s oldest pieces of environmental legislation, protecting fish habitats by making water pollution illegal, albeit in the interest of the economic sustainability of Canada’s then-booming fishing industry. The recently enacted changes to the Canadian Fisheries Act under Bill C-38 (the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act) are not only environmentally detrimental to fish populations but also mask other interests regarding the Northern Gateway pipeline, according to some environmentalist groups. Without implementing any other effective legislation protecting freshwater species, this alteration is short-sighted and should be reconsidered if the freshwater ecosystems are to survive.

A number of industrial and environmental groups were consulted when developing the proposal for the bill. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) sought feedback on the existing fisheries legislation from 23 business and industrial groups. All criticized the existing Act on economic grounds, and supported Bill C-38. Yet the environmental groups consulted defended the legislation as among Canada’s most effective environmental protection laws and recommended reinforcing it. The industry’s input was clearly weighted more heavily, as the law was changed according to their recommendations.

The Act now only prohibits “serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries, or to fish that support such a fishery.” This significantly narrows the protected areas to those directly affected by industry, a small percentage of Canada’s waters. Since the Species at Risk Act emphasizes species already at risk, this leaves a gap for species that will become at-risk in the aftermath of the bill. This bill illustrates the instability of a weak sustainability approach as articulated by Aldo Leopold, an ecologist. He asserts that “a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided […] It assumes, falsely […] that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May is in fierce opposition to the bill that has now become law in Canada, saying that it has “taken a sledgehammer to environmental law and policy” in the interest of pipeline development. Providing a safe legal environment for pipelines was allegedly a top priority when tweaking the bill’s environmental legislation and industrial project review process.

This bill, effective as of November 2013, is a clear example that the Conservative government’s definition of sustainability is a weak one, which holds industry and economics above all else. Beyond the environmental impacts, May expresses that the way these hidden motivations have been discreetly presented is an “affront to democracy.” In reality these amendments aim to acquit industry of their environmental responsibilities, leaving the majority of Canada’s freshwater ecosystems unprotected.

To get in contact with Natasha Carruthers, email

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