Auditor General's and Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development's opening statements

Fall 2009 Report Press Conference - 3 November 2009

Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Good afternoon. My Report examines a number of areas critical to effective environmental management, starting with the importance of solid information.

Informed decision-making is at the heart of sound policy-making. The federal government needs science-based environmental information that is timely, robust, and accessible in ways that both identify patterns of environmental degradation and help programs concentrate on the most urgent environmental problems.

Until data programs are woven together to track major changes over time in the quality of Canada’s environment, we are left with piecemeal approaches to protecting the environment.

Applying the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act

The importance of good information is clear in our chapter on Applying the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. More than 100 federal organizations are required to apply the Act to projects that could impact the environment.

Assessing the possible effects of projects early in the planning phase is a cornerstone of good environmental management. Identifying potential impacts such as pollution or habitat destruction before they occur allows for corrective action to avoid or reduce environmental problems.

In half the files we examined, the rationale or analysis was too weak to demonstrate if environmental effects of projects had been considered appropriately and whether actions were taken to mitigate them.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which administers the Act, has not established a quality assurance program for assessments, although the Act requires it to do so.

Roughly 80,000 environmental assessments have been initiated since 1995. Yet because it lacks a quality assurance program, the Agency does not know how good the assessments have been and whether they have contributed to environmental protection.

Risks of Toxic Substances

Another chapter of my Report looks at the risks that certain toxic substances pose to the environment and human health. We note a number of significant control and monitoring systems to reduce toxic emissions and check levels of exposure among Canadians. We also note the need for improvements in how risks are managed.

Lead and mercury, for example, continue to present risks. New research indicates that exposure to lead at levels currently considered safe may, in fact, be too high, underscoring the need for an overall risk management strategy.

It is critical that the government take stock of how well its actions are working and also consider new research and the results of monitoring in order to protect human health and the environment from the risks of toxic substances.

Current product labelling does not fully disclose the chronic risks posed by toxic substances in some common household products. As a result, Canadians are not fully informed about these risks and may not be taking appropriate precautions to protect themselves.

National Pollutant Release Inventory

The third chapter in my report looks at the National Pollutant Release Inventory, or NPRI. Created in 1992, the NPRI provides Canadians with information about key pollutants in their communities.

The NPRI is important because it helps to track releases and transfers of substances that can have a negative effect on the environment and on the health of Canadians.

Environment Canada does not provide NPRI users with enough information to help them understand what the data can be used for and where caution needs to be applied.

Environment Canada has taken measures to improve NPRI data quality. However, these actions must be guided by an overall strategy and plan to improve data accuracy so that pollution tracking and environmental monitoring can rely on the best possible information.

Environmental Petitions

The fourth chapter in my Report is my annual report on environmental petitions. We received 28 petitions this year. The issues most commonly raised include health, biodiversity, fish habitat, and environmental assessment.

I will be pleased to answer your questions after the Auditor General presents her findings.

Auditor General

Thank you, Scott. The issues covered in this report are typical of the challenges facing government today. Our findings underscore the importance of thinking through the implementation challenges when policies and programs are developed or changed.

Having a complete picture of what needs to be done, by whom, how other programs will be affected, and what risks are involved can make the difference between a program that delivers results for Canadians and one that does not.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Programs

Program evaluations can be a valuable source of information for decisions to change, improve, or replace programs. But departments we audited said they are concerned about whether they can meet expanded requirements under the 2009 policy.

In the departments we examined, evaluations covered only a relatively low proportion of total program spending. In addition, inadequate data limited the assessment of program effectiveness. Despite four decades of efforts, evaluations are still not providing enough reliable evidence about whether program objectives are being met.

Selecting Foreign Workers Under the Immigration Program

Chapter 2 of my Report looks at how foreign workers are selected for admission into Canada. Citizenship and Immigration Canada has to design and deliver foreign worker programs that meet the needs of the labour market.

We found that the Department has made a number of key decisions in recent years without properly assessing their costs and benefits, potential risks, and likely impact on other programs. Some of these decisions have caused a significant shift in the types of foreign workers being admitted permanently to Canada. There is little evidence that this shift is part of any well-defined strategy to best meet the needs of the Canadian labour market.

We also found that when work permits are issued for temporary foreign workers, there is no systematic review to ensure that job offers are genuine and that employers have complied with previous permit terms and conditions such as wages and accommodations. The problems we noted could leave temporary foreign workers in a vulnerable position and pose significant risks to the integrity of the immigration program as a whole.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada needs to develop a clear vision of what each program is expected to contribute to Canada’s overall objectives for immigration.

Income Tax Legislation

Let’s turn now to the chapter on tax legislation. The Income Tax Act is one of the longest and most complex pieces of federal legislation. Taxpayers have the right to expect clear guidance on how to interpret the Act so they can determine how much income tax they owe.

Problems arise when the wording of the Act is unclear or does not adequately reflect government policy. There is now a backlog of more than four hundred technical amendments that are needed. It has been eight years since Parliament passed a technical bill to amend the Income Tax Act.

When there are delays before proposed technical changes become law, taxpayers do not know the exact form the change will take, when it will apply, and how it will affect the tax transactions they have already completed.

The Department of Finance needs to do more to bring the urgency of the problem to the attention of the government and Parliament. It ought to review the way it manages this process.

Electronic Health Records

We also have a chapter on electronic health records. Canada Health Infoway Inc. was created in 2001 as a not-for-profit corporation to lead the development and implementation of electronic health records across Canada.

Infoway has accomplished a great deal in eight years. It identified the key requirements and components of electronic health record systems and developed a blueprint for their design. It also ensured that projects put forth by the provinces and territories were designed to comply with its blueprint and standards for compatibility.

Infoway has made a considerable effort to report on progress, but the meaning of some figures it reports is not clear. For instance, it reports that 17 percent of Canadians live in provinces or territories where a complete electronic health record system is available. However, having a system available does not mean health care professionals are using it.

This is a highly complex initiative. Meeting the significant challenges that lie ahead will take the collaboration of Infoway, all provinces and territories, and other stakeholders.

Acquiring Military Vehicles for Use in Afghanistan

My Report today also looks at how National Defence purchased vehicles that were urgently needed to protect Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. National Defence and Public Works and Government Services Canada worked together to fast-track the purchase of these vehicles.

In three of the four projects we looked at, National Defence has determined that the vehicles have met operational needs. The fourth project is nearly two years behind schedule and is projected to cost at least double the amount originally approved by the government.

National Defence needs to develop a process geared to managing urgent acquisitions. It should also examine whether there are lessons from these projects that can be applied to its regular acquisitions.

Land Management and Environmental Protection on Reserves

We also examined how Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and Environment Canada have carried out the federal government’s responsibilities for land management and environmental protection on reserve lands.

There are few federal regulations that apply to environmental protection on reserves, and the federal government has taken little action to change this. As a result, people living on reserves have significantly less protection from environmental threats than other communities.

We found that most landfills on reserves operate without permits, monitoring, or enforcement by Indian and Northern Affairs, as do sewage treatment and disposal.

We also found that despite the Department’s commitment to transfer more control to First Nations over the management of their lands and resources, access to land management programs and training is limited.

A healthy environment and control over the management of land and resources are critical to sustainable economic development. Without them, opportunities for First Nations to improve their quality of life and approach the standard of health and well-being enjoyed in other communities are severely restricted.

Emergency Management—Public Safety Canada

Turning to emergency management, the government must be ready to respond quickly and effectively when emergencies arise. Canada needs to have a planned and coordinated approach in place so that federal, provincial, and municipal agencies know what part they will play in managing a crisis.

Public Safety Canada was created to coordinate the federal government’s response to large-scale emergencies. It has developed an interim Federal Emergency Response Plan to coordinate activities in an emergency. We found that the Plan has not been formally endorsed by the government or other federal departments. Until it is adopted, it will be difficult for Public Safety Canada to fulfill its assigned role.

Until it is clearly established how Public Safety Canada will work with other departments, it will be difficult for it to truly coordinate the federal response to emergency situations.

Strengthening Aid Effectiveness—Canadian International Development Agency

The last chapter of the Report examines how the Canadian International Development Agency is implementing its commitments to key principles of aid effectiveness.

Donor partners and recipient countries told us that CIDA staff in the field are highly regarded and their efforts are appreciated. However, the complex and lengthy processes required to obtain approval for project funding have long been criticized within and outside the Agency. We also found that the Agency has failed to concentrate on fewer priorities, despite a commitment to narrow its focus.

Donor partners, recipient governments, and program staff are unclear about the Agency’s direction and long-term commitment. The nature of international development calls for stable, long-term programming, and CIDA needs a comprehensive plan for going forward.

The Commissioner and I would now be happy to answer your questions.