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Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development Strategies

(Chapter 7 - 2005 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development)

17 November 2005

Johanne Gélinas,
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Good afternoon. Mr. Chairman, thank you for your invitation to appear before the Committee to discuss Chapter 7 of my 2005 report concerning sustainable development strategies.

With me today is Neil Maxwell, the audit principal responsible for our sustainable development strategy monitoring.

I will focus my remarks on the single most important message from Chapter 7. Despite its many recent environment and sustainable development initiatives, the government does not have an overall environment and sustainable development plan. As a result, parliamentarians and Canadians have no clear idea of where the federal government plans to go, or how it intends to get there. And departments do not have the direction needed for their own environment and sustainable development efforts.

Such a plan, in the form of a federal sustainable development strategy, has been promised, by the government many times and was recommended in your committee's report on climate change and in Chapter 7 of my report.

In response to our recommendations, the government has recommitted to develop a federal sustainable development strategy for mid-2006. It has indicated that this will be the responsibility of the Ad Hoc Committee of Cabinet on Sustainability and the Environment, supported by the Privy Council Office and the Committee of Deputy Ministers on the Environment and Sustainability. Further, the Prime Minister has given the Minister of the Environment the responsibility of leading, guiding and co-ordinating departmental sustainable development strategies.

To me, the key question is, "How will this effort succeed where others have failed?" Indeed, the government faces several significant challenges that your committee's scrutiny can help overcome.

Developing a good plan takes time, which makes the mid-2006 deadline ambitious. We understand that work is just now getting underway. Time will be required to consult government officials, stakeholders, and ministers. Fortunately, past work on a federal sustainable development strategy can be used as a starting point. It is critical that Environment Canada and the Privy Council Office have a comprehensive work plan to ensure they meet this time commitment and give departments direction for their December 2006 strategies.

Previous efforts to develop a strategy have suffered, in part, from a lack of staff and resources and leadership by the responsible deputy minister committee. Roles and responsibilities have been unclear. The government needs to demonstrate it has finally addressed these problems.

A federal sustainable development strategy could create confusion and duplication with the Project Green and Competitiveness and Environmental Sustainability Framework initiatives. In my view, a single overall government environment and sustainable development plan is needed to integrate all three or, at least, clear links among the separate plans.

Earlier this week, you learned about two models for an overall environment and sustainable development plan—the United Kingdom 's sustainable development strategy and the Suzuki Foundation's Sustainability within a Generation.

These, and other models show what is needed in a federal sustainable development strategy:

  • a compelling vision of the sustainable Canada that the federal government seeks;
  • a forthright discussion of the key sustainability challenges and opportunities we face;
  • the government's key sustainable development priorities; and
  • specific commitments to action stemming from the priorities, with outcomes and responsibilities identified.

The plan must also explain how implementation will be assured, namely

  • government's expectations of departments, including how departmental strategies will be used to respond to the federal sustainable development strategy;
  • overall government targets, where appropriate, on which departments would base their individual targets; and
  • the way the government will demonstrate the results to Parliament and Canadians.

Most importantly, a good plan will drive new initiatives, not just catalogue existing ones—one of my main criticisms of previous departmental strategies. And this will take strong leadership. For example, as you heard, in the UK, the sustainable development strategy has been led by the Prime Minister and ministers.

I will close by saying how pleased I am that this issue has been getting attention in different quarters. The Suzuki Foundation has recently talked about the need for an overall environment and sustainable development plan. So has your Chair, in his recent article in the Hill Times. Minister Godfrey is pushing the need for overall sustainability plans at the community level. I believe that a strong message from this committee could go a long way to ensure that the plan becomes a reality. Given the poor track record in this area, regular progress reports to this committee will be important.

Thank you. I would be pleased to answer any questions.