Two Reviews Show Why Both Environmental Assessment and Conservation Authority Acts Should Be Left Alone

The Mohawk elder Danny Beaton (Turtle Clan) speaks on the threat posed by two environmental reviews in Ontario.
He warns,

“How many books have to be written about environmental protection or films made by David Suzuki, Ed Burtynsky, or Jacques Cousteau, before we create another environmental crisis? How many environmental disasters — Katrina, Bangladesh? How many mega projects do we need? There is an Earth crisis still unfolding from killing wild animals in China.

Someone is proposing the elimination of environmental regulations for the opening up in Northern Ontario, Indigenous Peoples Territory. The call for opening up the north for mining companies is like saying, ‘Here comes a gold rush again, let’s get every river or mountain that might be holding diamonds, silver, copper or gold — it doesn’t matter what gets destroyed in the process, it doesn’t matter about our children’s future. This is for our sacred economy. It doesn’t matter if insects, birds and fish are poisoned and there will be no areas where moose, bear, lynx, beaver or rabbits can hide’. If we look at the pollution from the Tar Sands in Alberta, you will find that the Mackenzie and Athabasca are contaminated, harming the Dene and Cree people living off the land.

In 1885, Chief Seattle said that ‘every part of the Earth is sacred to my people because the Earth is Mother to the Red Man. Only when the last tree is cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, will people say you can’t eat money. What affects Mother Earth, affects the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. What he does to Mother Earth harms himself’. Having said this, my hope is that whomever is coming up with negative ideas and supporting negative thinking stops before we create another environmental crisis.”

Since 1975, Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act has been a powerful tool. It protected damage to the relatively untouched, what was formerly legally described as Ontario’s “Far North”, and healed those damaged in the south. It helped to change the whole focus of the largely southern Ontario-based conservation authorities. The speed of the proposed change now is similar to that of an ecocidal “Gold Rush.”

Currently, through Second Reading by the Ontario legislature and a slower moving public consultation, two reviews are being made of major Ontario environmental legislation. One is a review of the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act, first passed in 1975. Another is a review of the Conservation Authorities Act, approved in 1948. Both pieces of legislation were weakened by amendments passed in 1996, by the then Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris. What is now being proposed by the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford, is the further erosion of their conservationist force.

The Environmental Assessment Act of 1975, introduced by Premier William Davis, and the Conservation Authorities Act of 1946, passed by the government of George Drew, were milestone environmental achievements of Conservative governments. They enjoyed widespread bipartisan support and were not altered by subsequent New Democratic and Liberal ministries. Although in power for over a decade, two subsequent Liberal governments after 1996 did not do anything to fortify Harris’ battered bulwarks of environmental protection in Ontario. As the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) pointed out in a briefing on the review, there has not been - since the 1996 gutting - a review of an assessment by the Environmental Review Tribunal.

After a long review of the Conservation Authorities Act by the Liberal government, they simply affirmed the control of their governing boards by municipalities. In the Niagara Region, this resulted in actions which were eventually denounced by the provincial auditor for putting land development over conservation. These exposés provided the basis for a sweeping change of Niagara’s elected representatives with the help of a movement called Better Niagara.
What is now going unnoticed in the current consultations is that the major reform of how conservation authorities actually were the distinguishing feature of the Environmental Assessment Act. This is its requirement for the consideration of alternatives to undertakings. This brought new scrutiny to flood control dams that damaged the habitat of aquatic life.

While examination of this devastation was originally upon fish, severe consequences also hit amphibians, turtles, waterfowl, water snakes, mussels, and countless forms of life dependent on aquatic ecosystems. Now, a major role of conservation authorities is to assess stream health by varied benthic creatures — tiny, sensitive indicators of water quality.

The 1946 Conservation Authorities Act was an uneasy compromise between two very different approaches to the protection of Ontario’s watersheds. One approach to the problem of flooding in Ontario’s rivers was based on building dams and reservoirs. The second was to protect and restore forest cover to southern Ontario’s tree denuded landscape.

The two approaches towards curbing flooding controls were debated at the 1944 Conference held in London, Ontario, which was a prelude to the 1946 Act. Here, advocates of dams were challenged by the then Chief Forester of Ontario, Edmund Zavitz. He delivered a paper called, Reforestation As a Means of Controlling Run-Off. Here Zavitz stressed, “The fact that forest cover prevents rapid run-off of rains and melting snow makes it important that a good percentage of our watersheds be under forest cover.”

When Zavitz spoke of the need to restore forest cover to prevent flooding, an agency had already been created that was focused entirely on accomplishing this task through dam construction. This was the Grand River Conservation Commission, created in 1934. It proceeded to construct the Shand Dam and then the Luther and Conestoga Dams. In 1948, the Grand Valley Conservation Authority was created, which embarked on purchasing threatened forests, wetlands and reforestation. The two conservation agencies were merged through provincial legislation in 1968.

The deluge of dam building on the Grand failed to reduce flooding and devastated fish habitat. Two usually hardy indicator species, Northern pike and smallmouth bass, vanished north of Brantford from dam degradation of their habitat. Sturgeon vanished from the entire Grand. These disasters, coupled with continued flooding, triggered an investigation by the provincial legislature in 1974. No more flood control dams were built on the Grand, or anywhere else in the province after environmental reviews of them were required under the 1975 Assessment Act.

The environmental assessment process after 1975 finally brought the wisdom of native elders to the table. A fisheries study by the now united Grand River Authority concluded that, “In the years since the dams were constructed, the dams have had the effect predicted by the Six Nations back in 1812 - the loss of fishery resulting in the loss of social and economic culture. The Six Nations also feel that the dams have negative consequences on the fish populations of Lake Erie to an extent which may not be known.” The study concluded the elders see the Grand River dams as “an irritant both to the fish and to their community.”

On Thames as well as the Grand, gradually after the 1975 environmental reviews forced a realization that trees were better for watersheds than concrete. The painful and slow way that this was accomplished shows the folly of the approach taken by the Ontario government during the current Third Reading of the Environmental Assessment Act. As pointed out by CELA, the bill is full of clauses intended to speed up environmental reviews. Examples include the need for a “streamlined” process, reducing alleged duplication, reducing timelines and expiry dates. The unpredictability created by human-induced climate change compels the need for longer, not shorter reviews.

One important victory achieved as a result of the environmental reviews in the Thames River Watershed was the cancellation of five proposed flood control dams. Three massive flood control dams were built between 1952 and 1965. Five more were planned. One of those defeated schemes, the Glengowan Dam and Reservoir, got going to the point where the Upper Thames Conservation Authority (UTCA), purchased some 1,300 acres planned for a reservoir. The concrete monstrosity was not terminated until December 4, 2018 — an accomplishment requiring decades of environmental review.

In cancelling the Glengowan Dam, the UTCA issued an eloquent press release. It noted that, “The Authority has retired marginal farmland to trees and floodplain meadow in an effort to reduce erosion and improve water quality. The project area is now one of the healthiest and benefits water quality and flood protection.”

The UTCA now takes pride that, “Today, rather than attempting to keep the river’s floodwaters away from the people who have moved into the floodplain area, the conservation authority work to keep the human development away from the river, to leave the floodplain available to the Thames when it needs space for flooding. Regulating development near the river is a cost effective, environmentally sound, means of preventing flood damage... trying to copy nature allowing excess water stored and released more naturally over time after a rain event.” Protecting features such as swamp forests often coveted by developers, as in the Thundering Waters dispute in Niagara, are now appreciated as preferable to “costly engineered structures.”

It is important to get comments in quickly during these consultations. For the Environmental Assessment Act and Conservation Authorities Act write to:

Photo credit: Danny and Turtle in Killarney Ontaio photo by Alicja Rozanska.

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