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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Trudeau faces big challenges restoring what Harper killed

| January 7, 2016
Photo: flickr/ Premier ministre du Canada

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure to restore many of the programs the Harper government abolished.

The new PM did not need prodding to restore the Interim Federal Health Program for refugees, which Harper's overzealous immigration maven Jason Kenney (darling of The Globe and Mail editorial board) so ostentatiously axed.

The Conservatives had the chutzpah to boast about that particularly mean cut in their fundraising pitches.

Their pitch was, in effect: Support us because we're so tough-minded we punish refugee children.

It is all to the Liberal leader's credit that he did he not flinch in the face of Conservative xenophobic propaganda on refugee health.

To the contrary, he put the issue front and centre during one of the campaign's leaders' debates.

The new Liberal government has also stopped financially penalizing First Nations over alleged violations of the draconian First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

And it has put the blatant exercise in pandering the Harper people chose to call a memorial to the victims of communism on the slow track to oblivion.

Now there are those who want Trudeau to restore Katimavik, the youth volunteering program his father's government created.

This is an issue close to the current prime minister's heart. He was personally involved with Katimavik as its board chair, and his first initiative as a newly elected MP in 2009 was a private member's bill that proposed that the government study youth volunteering.

Finding $25 million for a youth volunteering program, whether it means reviving Katimavik or creating something new, will not be hard for the new government.

What Harper killed: A long list

There were other agencies and institutions destroyed by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper that may be much more difficult to revive.

In 2012, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae listed some of those during question period in the House of Commons.

In the course of questioning Conservative minister John Baird about the Harper government's decision to kill the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, Rae named just a few of the key Canadian entities the Harper government was in the process of killing:

"The Inspector General of CSIS will be gone, the Centre for Rights and Democracy will be gone … the First Nations Statistical Institute will be gone, the Governance Institute will be gone, the National Aboriginal Health Organization will be gone, the National Council of Welfare will be gone, environmental assessment will be gutted, Parks Canada will be gutted, and old age security will be gutted..."

A good deal of what Rae enumerated got its start during Pierre Trudeau's time in office.

The federal environmental assessment process is a good case in point.

In 1968, the year Pierre Trudeau became prime minister, the whole idea of environmental regulation was new. The first Earth Day did not even happen until 1970.

Trudeau-père engaged with the environment early on. Three years after taking office, he created Canada's first federal ministry of the environment. It was, in fact, one of the first such ministries in the world.

During the 1970s, Pierre Trudeau planted the seed of a federal role in environmental assessment of mega-projects when he was faced with the prospect of a major pipeline through mostly undeveloped wilderness north of the 60th parallel. It would carry natural gas from the Beaufort Basin north of the Arctic Circle through the Mackenzie River valley corridor in the Northwest Territories (NWT) to Alberta.

There were actually a series of different pipeline proposals, some of which would have involved bringing gas from the Alaskan North Slope via a west-east spur line.

The Pierre Trudeau government of the 1970s was under considerable pressure to move quickly to facilitate a pipeline, and neither environmental groups nor First Nations were as well organized or influential back then as they are now.

Had the Liberal government of the day proceeded, there would have been some opposition, especially from First Nations whose land claims had never been settled. But it is doubtful Pierre Trudeau would have paid much of a political price, if any, while considerably padding federal coffers with royalties from Beaufort gas.

Instead, Trudeau-père, in effect, empowered First Nations communities and environmentalists by creating a special federal inquiry into the pipeline proposals -- and naming former British Columbia NDP leader, Judge Tom Berger to head it.

Heeding communities affected by mega-projects: A novel idea in the 1970s

Justice Berger saw to it that tiny and remote Dene and Inuit communities got the funding and resources they needed to go up against the rich and well-connected oil, gas and pipelines industries. And he took his inquiry to virtually every community in the region, from Paulatuk on the Beaufort coast to Fort Smith in the NWT's "south," on the Alberta border.

The result was an effective moratorium on any pipeline development for at least a decade. First Nations claims had to be settled before any such development should take place, Berger said, and communities would have to be willing partners not unwilling bystanders.

The Berger inquiry, and other one-off federal initiatives, led to the creation of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in 1994.

It had a robust mandate and assured a strong federal role in protecting air, water, soil, trees, plants, animals and ecosystems everywhere in Canada.

In 2012, the Harper government decided to severely curtail the agency's role. Harper and his ministers were particularly uncomfortable with the idea of giving too much space to people and communities who would be directly affected by mega-projects -- something Berger initiated back in 1974.

Harper's idea was that the assessment process should be streamlined, interventions should be kept to a token minimum, and each assessment should be completed as quickly as possible.

In fact, Harper went even further and deemed there would be no federal assessment at all if his government were to unilaterally decide that whatever process a province might undertake with regard to a mega-project was adequate.

Harper even tried to rewrite history

Prior to these radical changes to environmental assessment -- which Harper implemented through the stealth means of a massive, omnibus budget implementation bill -- the agency used to proudly tell Canadians about its history and origins, going back to Berger.

It was all there on the Agency's website; but it has all been erased.

All that remains is dutiful obeisance to the Harper government's 2012 Environmental Assessment Act. Some of Harper's minions even went so far as to rewrite the history of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency as told by Wikipedia.

The current Wikipedia entry on the Assessment Agency gushes over Harper's 2012 act, but utters not a word about the vigorous opposition Indigenous and environmental groups expressed at the time it was introduced.

The wiki entry is, of course, entirely silent on the history and antecedents of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

So outrageous is this exercise in Orwellian pseudo-history that the folks at Wikipedia felt obliged to preface the entry with a warning: "This article has multiple issues. A major contributor to this article appears to have a close connection with its subject […and it] contains content that is written like an advertisement …"

We are talking here about only one of the Harper government's many attacks on the federal government's environmental role.

When you consider the pains the Conservatives took to erase even the memory of what they destroyed, you can get an idea of the magnitude of the task the new Trudeau government faces in reversing the damage the Harper government wrought. 

 

Photo: flickr/ Premier ministre du Canada

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