New Environment Commissioner slams Harper with frank and tough words

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Julie Gelfand, Canada's new Environment Comissioner. Credit: Karl Nerenberg

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There is a new environmental sheriff in town and the Conservatives are not going to be happy.

Her name is Julie Gelfand, and she is tough and blunt.

This sheriff's official job title is Commissioner of the Environment, an office that is part of the Auditor General's (AG) operation

Like the AG, the Commissioner reports to Parliament, not the government of the day.

Before taking her current job this past March, Julie Gelfand had a background in environmental organizations and in industry. She worked for both Mining Watch and Rio Tinto Iron Ore Company.

That pretty much covers the waterfront, and may have lulled the Harper government into thinking Gelfand might be a softer touch than her predecessor, Scott Vaughan, and Neil Maxwell, who filled in on an interim basis after Vaughan resigned.

Vaughan issued some fairly stern reports.

As long as it was still the law of the land, he even insisted on reporting on Canada's progress toward the Kyoto objectives for climate change. Vaughan knew full well that the Conservatives planned to pull out of Kyoto, but until they did he was a stickler for respecting Canada's signed obligations.

Vaughan left before his term was up to work for the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. He never said he quit early out of frustration at being ignored by the government he was mandated to advise. He was too well-mannered, too Canadian.

Maxwell carried on where Vaughan left off, and now, Gelfand has picked up the torch. Judging by her performance at the news conference on Tuesday, where she answered questions about her first annual report, Gelfand is carrying that torch with vigour and enthusiasm.

Frank and blunt in her language

While her predecessors were tough and uncompromising in their written analyses of the government's multiple environmental failures, but guarded and diplomatic in their verbal comments, Gelfand was refreshingly straightforward and candid in response to reporters' questions.

Commenting on the fact that the government will not achieve the greenhouse gas emission reductions it promised at Copenhagen in 2009 (which were weaker than Kyoto), Gelfand looked straight at the cameras and said:

"When you make a commitment you need to keep it. It is very difficult for Canada to expect other countries to meet their commitments when Canada can't meet its own."

The new Environment Commissioner added that the Conservatives' sector-by-sector regulatory approach is not working, especially since regulations for the oil and gas sector, promised in 2006, are still not forthcoming.

She did reveal, interestingly, that the Harper government has had draft oil and gas regulations sitting on a shelf for about a year; but that it has only consulted very narrowly and privately on those -- and only with one province.

When asked if that province was Alberta, Gelfand pointedly did not say no.

Passionate evocation of disastrous impacts of climate change

The new Commissioner was withering in her critique of that closed-door approach to policy-making. She said that in dealing with a matter as grave as climate change the government must be open and transparent with the public and with Parliament, and must consult widely.

Then Gelfand went well beyond what her predecessors were generally prepared to say in passionately enumerating a few of the tangible impacts of climate change on Canada and on Canadians.

She evoked pine mountain beetle infestations in the west, lower water levels in the St. Lawrence, houses falling into the tundra in the north, and insect-borne diseases in Ontario and Quebec. Those are just a few examples, she said, of real and present dangers brought on by global warming.

Climate change, Gelfand insisted, is hurting many Canadians now, and will, in time, hurt all Canadians. That is why she is so concerned at the government's failure to meet its own modest targets.

The full Environment Commissioner's report it is well worth reading. It is available here.

The new environmental assessment process is problematic

There is much more in Gelfand's first annual report to Parliament. 

For instance, it deals with the new environmental assessment process the Conservatives slipped into their 2012 trojan horse Budget Implementation Bill, C-38. This new process replaced the robust federal system for evaluating the potential environmental impacts of mega projects such as pipelines that had been built up since the 1970s. The Harper government's stated aim in C-38 was to "streamline" the process. Its unstated aim was, as much as possible, to get out of the way of industry.

Gelfand said that under the new system there is no rationale for which projects will be evaluated and which will not. It is an entirely non-transparent process, and could deprive "decision-makers" of "information they need to address environmental impacts."

The Commissioner also noted that, while the process created in C-38 paid lip service to Aboriginal participation in assessments, it is not working out.

Aboriginal communities, Gelfand found, are not provided the resources necessary to examine and analyze possible impacts of proposed projects, and to communicate those impacts effectively. That is a fatal flaw in the new, "streamlined" system.

Unprepared for massive increase in Arctic shipping

Another, and unexpected, chapter of the new Commissioner's annual report that raised a lot of eyebrows was devoted to marine navigation in the Canadian Arctic.

Given Prime Minister Harper's ostentatious affection for our "northern frontier," it was shocking to read that the Environment Commissioner believes that "Canadian Arctic waters are inadequately surveyed and charted," and that the government's capacity to do that charting work is limited.

Gelfand also found aids to navigation in the Arctic, which are necessary to safe shipping, to be lacking, and was critical of Canada's inadequate ice-breaking capacity in the Arctic.

These are not minor matters, and not just because the Arctic is where Stephen Harper does an annual, highly publicized summertime junket.

Canada's Arctic coastline, Gelfand pointed out, is bigger than our combined Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. And the government has big plans for massively increased resource development in the North, with an accompanying increase in shipping in the Arctic Ocean.

The Commissioner's clear message on this matter: We are not ready for that massive increase.

Harper sticks by earlier paranoid analysis of Kyoto

In the end, though, climate change remains this Commissioner's biggest preoccupation, as it was for her predecessors.

When the opposition tried to question the government in the House about its failures to meet its own emission reduction targets, the Prime Minister and his Ministers came up with their usual double talk.

The Conservatives never admit that they have not, at heart, ceased to be the climate-change deniers they once were openly. They claim they are fully committed to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as long as those efforts do not have a negative impact on economic growth, of course.

On Tuesday, NDP and Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair tried his best to flush the Conservatives out of their carefully constructed environmental camouflage.  

He quoted, verbatim, the pronouncement then-opposition MP Stephen Harper made a number of years ago on the Kyoto Accord: "Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations."

The Conservative MPs' reaction to that was not to sit stolidly and look at their feet. It was to applaud heartily. They seemed to be saying proudly that, even today, they ardently believe that sort of over-the-top, paranoid guff.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May likes to tell you that 80 per cent of Canadians want Canada to do more -- much more -- to stem global warming.

Given the Conservatives' truculent, dismissive and negative attitude on the subject -- not to mention their dismal record -- why has that issue not been a bigger political liability for them?

Listen to Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand at her news conference here (including an exchange with's Parliamentary Correspondent).

Photo credit: Karl Nerenberg

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