October 3, 2005

Ottawa maintains track record of unfinished environmental business, says federal Commissioner

The federal government has introduced many initiatives to put Canada on a path to environmental sustainability, but rarely sees them through to completion, says Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. The Commissioner's 2005 report, presented to the House of Commons on September 29, details urgent examples of unfinished environmental business in areas such as Canada's deteriorating oceans, protection of biodiversity and the safety of drinking water in First Nations communities, as well as in other areas of federal responsibility.

"When it comes to protecting the environment, bold announcements are made and then often forgotten as soon as the confetti hits the ground," said Commissioner Johanne Gélinas. "The issues we raise this year pose concrete risks to the environment and well-being of Canadians," she continued, adding,"Federal performance must improve markedly if vital initiatives are to achieve their goals."

The report also looks at the government's efforts to protect national parks and to follow through on its commitment to "green" federal purchasing. As well, it includes the results of three audits of environmental petitions submitted to the government by Canadians-one of which concerns the government's promise to update requirements for nuclear liability insurance coverage to meet international standards.

The passage of the 1996 Oceans Act made Canada the first country in the world to have comprehensive oceans management legislation. After eight years, however, the Act has not resulted in better management of Canada's oceans and their resources, says Gélinas. "We've seen major declines in some fish stocks, the continuing introduction of pollutants and invasive species, and declining biodiversity and productivity. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has failed to turn the tide on this worsening situation," she stated.

The audit found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has not succeeded in using the Oceans Act to protect and develop Canada's oceans in a sustainable way. No oceans management plans have been finalized: these are the Act's main tool intended to manage sustainable development of ocean industries and resolve conflicts between ocean users.

In addition, says the report, little progress has been made in establishing marine protected areas, another important aspect of the Oceans Act and one of the primary means of protecting marine habitat and biodiversity. Of the 13 possible marine protected areas identified between 1998 and 2000, DFO has put in place only two. These poor results are partly because fisheries issues dominate the broader oceans agenda. The government must make oceans management a priority, said. Gélinas.

A follow-up audit on implementation of Canada's Biodiversity Strategy also found that the federal government has stalled at the starting gate. The Commissioner noted that problems discussed in two previous audits persist, and several commitments to deliver on biodiversity priority areas have not been met. "Almost ten years after endorsing the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, the government is still only at the starting gate when it comes to carrying it out," said GÈlinas.

As the first major industrialized country to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992, Canada committed itself to conserving its biodiversity and using it sustainably. In 1996, Canada's federal, provincial, and territorial governments endorsed the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy.

In addition to stalling on implementation of the strategy, the report says the federal government has not fulfilled commitments to improve Canada's capacity to understand its biodiversity and manage biodiversity information. And there is still no comprehensive report on the state of biodiversity in Canada, leaving Canadians without a complete picture of the overall health of this vital resource.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life in all its forms, including ecosystems, species, and genetic diversity. Maintaining biodiversity plays a vital role in providing food, purifying air and water, and regulating climate. "Failure to protect biodiversity now will cost Canadians dearly in the future,"Gélinas observed.

Two of the report's chapters deal with the safety of drinking water, concluding that the federal government is not doing enough to ensure drinking water safety, including putting laws and regulations in place to ensure safe drinking water supplies in First Nations communities.

The Commissioner's audit team found that the federal government is not fulfilling all of its responsibilities for inspecting the water on interprovincial and international carriers and testing the water in federal facilities; it is also slow in updating guidelines for drinking water quality.

The federal government is responsible for ensuring safe drinking water in First Nations communities; on military bases, in national parks, and in federal facilities; and on passenger trains, aircraft, and cruise ships travelling between provinces or internationally. The audit found that Health Canada inspections were being carried out on cruise ships and passenger trains, but not on aircraft.

Six federal departments and agencies were examined for their compliance with Canada's obligations for water testing. The report notes that testing was not always done at federal sites and when testing was done, it ranged from complete to insufficient, and compliance varied. In addition, scrutiny of efforts led by Health Canada to develop the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality found that this process, although rigorous, is too slow.

The report expresses particular concern about the lack of laws and regulations on drinking water in First Nations communities. The federal government has responsibility in this area, but there are currently no federal laws or regulations governing the provision of drinking water to residents of these communities. Moreover, the Commissioner's audit concluded that the technical support available to First Nations, such as training in operations and maintenance, is also inadequate.

As a result, Gélinas noted, nearly half a million Canadians living in First Nations communities have no assurance that their drinking water is safe. This situation, she said, is unacceptable.

In 2001, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada found a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water in three-quarters of the water systems in First Nations communities. The report says many First Nations communities still remain exposed to risks from unsafe drinking water. Unless the federal government works in co-operation with First Nations to take action on these issues, the Commissioner says it is unlikely that the First Nations Water Management Strategy, a five-year, $600-million initiative approved in 2003, will improve the quality and safety of First Nations drinking water on a continuing basis. The $600 million is in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars invested in recent years.

Green procurement remains another area in which, after more than a decade of promises, the government has not lived up to its commitment. The federal government is one of the largest purchasers in Canada, spending a reported $13 billion per year on a wide range of goods and services, such as office supplies, laboratory equipment, vehicles, and building maintenance. On such a scale, the greening of federal procurement has the potential to significantly reduce environmental impacts, boost the availability of green products and services, and stimulate innovation.

The report points out that there is still no government-wide green procurement policy. "As a result, opportunities to make environmentally sound choices are missed every day," said Gélinas. Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), which is responsible for providing procurement services to other federal departments and agencies, has taken some steps to green these services, but much more can be done, the report states.

Another area in which the federal department has failed to provide overall direction is in the co-ordination of their sustainable development strategies. "Departmental strategies can be a powerful tool to achieve sustainable development," said GÈlinas. "The government is failing to tap their full potential."

Every three years more than 30 federal departments and agencies are required to submit their sustainable development strategies to Parliament. Three rounds of strategies have been produced so far-in 1997, 2001, and 2004-and a fourth is scheduled for December 2006. An overall federal sustainable development strategy could help bring coherence to the government's approach to sustainable development, says the report, but such a strategy, though long promised, has not yet been produced.

"The federal government is trying to navigate without a chart," said Gélinas. "This leaves parliamentarians and Canadians with no idea of where the federal government plans to go, or how it intends to get there."

The chapter on environmental petitions not only reports on new petitions received, it presents the results of audits of government responses to three environmental petitions relating to insurance for nuclear operators, guidelines for listing species at risk, and the environmental impacts of hog farming. "Auditing the government's response to petitions submitted by Canadians gives me the opportunity to examine environmental issues that might not have come to my attention otherwise," Gélinas explained.

In a response to the petition on insurance for nuclear operators, the report says the Minister of Natural Resources promised to update the Nuclear Liability Act, but this has not yet occurred. Currently, insurance coverage in Canada remains at a level established almost 30 years ago and is considerably lower than in other major industrialized nations. Updating the Act would increase the mandatory amount of insurance carried by operators of nuclear facilities to compensate those who may suffer in the event of an accident.

Through another petition, the Minister of the Environment committed to establishing guidelines that would help the government decide which species to protect by listing them under the Species at Risk Act. Environment Canada has confirmed that these guidelines will not be in place until 2006. In the meantime, decisions are being made without the benefit of guidelines intended to make the government's decision-making process more consistent and transparent.

The Commissioner's office also audited actions by Environment Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to reduce the environmental impacts of hog farming. Although both departments made commitments to address these impacts, they do not know if their programs and activities are having the desired results.

The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development reports to the Office of the Auditor General of Canada (OAG). The 2005 report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development is available on the OAG Web site, www.oag-bvg.gc.ca.

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