Opening Statement to the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources
2007 Annual Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development
29 November 2007
Ronald C. Thompson, FCA
Interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We are delighted to be here to discuss my 2007 annual Report that was tabled in Parliament on October 30th. I am accompanied by Andrew Ferguson and Richard Arseneault.
This Report covers two issues that are fundamental to the mandate Parliament gave the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development 12 years ago: Sustainable Development Strategies and Environmental Petitions.
Chapter 1—Sustainable Development Strategies
Sustainable development strategies deal with issues that concern all Canadians—protection of the environment, economic prosperity, and social issues such as health.
These issues are not mutually exclusive. For example, it is increasingly understood that Canada’s economic health depends on its environmental health.
Sustainable development strategies were introduced by Parliament a decade ago to encourage government departments to green their policies and programs. They were to do this by integrating protection of the environment with economic and social issues when developing policy proposals for the future and when managing programs and activities of the day.
We have been monitoring sustainable development strategies for more than a decade. Unfortunately, the ambition and momentum that existed in the early stages of sustainable development strategies have faded. The strategies are a major disappointment.
We found little evidence in our audit this year that the strategies have improved or that they have encouraged departments to integrate protection of the environment with economic and social issues in a substantive or meaningful way. This year, I call on the government to carry out a thorough review of what needs to be fixed. The review should result in a concrete action plan to ensure that the government delivers results that will meet Parliament’s expectations.
I am pleased that the government has agreed with our recommendation to carry out a review and has made a commitment to complete it by October 2008. I would hope that this Committee would take an active interest in this review.
I believe that a separate hearing with Environment Canada, who will lead the review, to discuss objectives, approach and work plan, could be quite helpful.
There has never been a better time to carry out this review. Canadians are highly interested in environmental issues, and there is time for government to adjust its approach before the next round of Strategies is tabled in 2009.
Chapter 2—Environmental Petitions
The second chapter in my Report deals with environmental petitions, and houses much more positive results.
Petitions are letters sent by Canadians to the Auditor General as a way to present their environmental concerns and questions to specific ministers of the federal government. Ministers are required to respond in writing within 120 days. The Commissioner administers the process on behalf of the Auditor General.
Our retrospective study of petitions shows that petitioners value the process, which provides a forum for voicing their concerns and assures them of a formal response. We found that petitioners and departmental officials believe that petitions have had an impact on the government’s management of certain environmental and sustainable development issues.
We also identified opportunities to improve the process, which includes making Canadians more aware of it.
Environmental petitions are a unique feature of our democracy. They contribute to public engagement, transparency, and government accountability in environmental matters that concern Canadians.
I would like to conclude my remarks this morning with a word or two about future work.
In February of next year, we are planning to provide to Parliament a status report that will include some 14 chapters that focus on whether the government has made satisfactory progress on issues that we have audited in the past—issues such as toxic substances, species at risk, contaminated sites and strategic environmental assessments.
Many parliamentarians find it useful when we provide them with a status report because it clearly points to areas where there has been insufficient progress since our original audits. If some of these chapters turn out to be of interest to this committee, we would be delighted to appear before you to discuss them.
Looking further ahead, we have audits that are just beginning that deal with issues such as air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, severe weather forecasting and water quality.
That concludes my opening remarks, Mr. Chairman. We would now be very pleased to respond to any questions that senators may have.