2010 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

The Commissioner’s Perspective


Over the past two years, the world’s attention has been largely focused on the turbulence in the global economy. At the same time, evidence of the rapid deterioration of the planet’s environmental quality has continued to mount.

Two examples illustrate the worrying global environmental trends. First, in this, the International Year of Biodiversity, several scientific assessments have painted a bleak picture of our impacts on the animals and plants around us. Globally, we have failed to meet the 2010 United Nations target of slowing the rate of biodiversity loss. Second, the evidence about the speed and nature of human-caused climate change has grown steadily. Earlier this year, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report—to which Canada contributed—that contained compelling evidence that climate change is well under way. The report reinforces the conclusions of numerous comprehensive scientific assessments, including that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. . . .”

My job, as Commissioner, is to provide objective reports to Parliament on how well the federal government is managing environmental and sustainable development issues such as these, and to provide members of Parliament with the information they need to hold the federal government to account.

This year, our report covers the following three topics in detail:

  • How the federal government responds to oil spills from ships
  • How it monitors the quantity and quality of our fresh water
  • How it supports adaptation to climate change impacts

In addition, the report summarizes the environmental petitions that my Office received between 1 July 2009 and 30 June 2010.

Identifying common weaknesses

The chapters in this report point to some common weaknesses in how the federal government is managing environmental and sustainability issues. Specifically, this report identifies a pattern of unclear and uncoordinated actions. This has been aggravated by the overriding problem of a lack of sustained leadership.

The concerns we have raised in this report are hardly new. About 20 years ago, the federal government acknowledged that the impacts of climate change would pose significant, long-term challenges throughout Canada, from more frequent and severe storms in Atlantic Canada to changes in the amount of rain available to farmers. And today, the federal government still lacks an overarching federal strategy that identifies clear, concrete actions supported by coordination among federal departments.

Also 20 years ago, the federal government recognized the need for a national strategy to respond to the risks of spills from vessels transporting all kinds of hazardous and noxious substances. The volume of such substances—from industrial chemicals to solvents and pesticides—transported in Canadian waters continues to increase. Yet Canada still does not have a national plan to ensure the federal government is ready to respond to major incidents.

Environment Canada has been running the federal water quantity and water quality monitoring programs for about 40 years without knowing who—if anyone—is monitoring the quality of fresh water on federal lands. As a consequence, there are unacceptable gaps in the federal monitoring of fresh water—notably, that Environment Canada has water quality monitoring stations on only 12 of some 3,000 First Nation reserves. Federal leadership for water monitoring needs to be revisited, and Environment Canada needs to set out clearly how it will meet its responsibilities. In my view, this is long overdue.

Sustained leadership begins by knowing what the major environmental problems are, setting out a concrete plan with sufficient resources to tackle them consistently over time, and having the management systems needed to direct the work and monitor the achievement of those goals. Acquiring reliable environmental data and information is the first step in addressing the most pressing environmental priorities.

Solid, objective, and accessible information is essential to identify and respond to the quickening pace and complexity of environmental change, in Canada and globally. Managing Canada’s environment without scientifically sound environmental information is akin to trying to steer the country’s economy without using indicators such as the gross domestic product, unemployment rates, and trade balances. As noted in previous reports to Parliament, critical gaps in the federal government’s environmental information hinder both its capacity to inform Canadians about key environmental conditions, and its ability to know if the billions of dollars it spends each year on environmental protection are making a difference. This year, I was encouraged by the government’s commitments to expand the suite of federal environmental indicators and to use those indicators to track federal programs intended to make progress on what matters most: improving Canada’s environmental quality.

The chapters in this report describe additional gaps and document the consequences of those gaps for the federal government’s ability to manage several critical environmental issues. For example, we found that the Canadian Coast Guard has unclear, incomplete, and unreliable data about oil spill responses. This means that the government cannot accurately determine the actual size of spills, how many spills required onsite responses, how many spills required the use of Canadian Coast Guard equipment, and the results of the cleanup efforts.

In her 2010 Spring Report, Chapter 4—Sustaining Development in the Northwest Territories, the Auditor General of Canada documented other gaps. She noted weaknesses in how the cumulative effects of project development are monitored. For example, the basic environmental baseline information needed to understand Canada’s fragile northern ecosystems is incomplete. Northern communities, co-management boards, and the territorial government need to have a full picture of the environmental consequences of their economic development decisions.

The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development will soon begin its examination of environmental assessments, which are an important instrument for obtaining and using environmental information. The Committee is scheduled to complete its review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in the spring of 2011. I hope that our recent chapters, including the audits of the implementation of the Act and of the Policy for the Management of Fish Habitat, will be useful during the Committee’s review.

Planning for sustainable development

It has been almost 25 years since the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development outlined the key aspects of sustainable development in its report, Our Common Future. The value of sustainable development lies in its ability to reform decision making that isolates the economic, environmental, and social dimensions. In August 2010, the Secretary General of the United Nations formed a senior panel to review and renew sustainable development, particularly given the accelerating threats posed by climate change. The panel’s mandate underscores both the relevance of the idea of sustainable development, as well as the need to ensure it remains pertinent to new challenges.

In March 2010, my Office released a study on sustainable development. The study provides practical, concrete examples aimed at the federal government to help it move sustainable development from an idea to everyday practice (Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1—Managing Sustainable Development: A Discussion Paper by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

In the spring of 2010, we released a discussion paper that outlines some of the core management practices used daily to advance sustainable development. We focused on the following two specific challenges:

  • How can managers assess and compare the environmental, economic, and social effects of government policies, programs, and plans?
  • How can they take into account effects that may last for decades?

The paper describes some useful concepts and tools for measuring and reporting on sustainable development. In addition, we note that federal frameworks and directives already exist to guide managers as they work toward their sustainable development objectives. I hope that the study, together with some outreach activities with senior officials and future work, will contribute to putting Canada on a sustainable footing.

In Canada, this year marked a significant milestone. After receiving repeated criticism from my predecessors, the government released a single, overarching federal sustainable development strategy. In my view, this is an excellent opportunity to correct a long-standing weakness in the federal government’s approach to sustainable development, by providing a set of coherent objectives and a clear vision to help put Canada on a path toward long-term sustainability.

As required by the Federal Sustainable Development Act, we reviewed the draft strategy that was released on 15 March 2010. We noted several concerns, including its failure to explain how it would enhance transparency and accountability of environmental decision making for Parliament. Instead, the draft strategy listed environmental protection goals and hundreds of existing environmental programs and strategies, grouped into four themes:

  • addressing climate change and air quality,
  • maintaining water quality and availability,
  • protecting nature, and
  • shrinking the government’s environmental footprint.

These issues are clearly critical in tackling Canada’s environmental challenges. However, the draft strategy did not identify how the four themes are linked or how they integrate economic and social factors. Moreover, the strategy did not explain how it would advance the long-term challenges of sustainability.

The final strategy was released on 6 October 2010. We noted that several adjustments were made in the final version, including

  • added details on the plans for several key federal departments, notably the Department of Finance Canada and Industry Canada;
  • pledges to strengthen strategic environmental assessments, to better assess the environmental implications of economic and social policies; and
  • plans to expand the set of environmental indicators used to measure progress.

Using petitions to promote accountability

Chapter 4 summarizes the status of one of my other areas of responsibility: the federal environmental petitions process. The process, which was established in 1995 through amendments to the Auditor General Act, remains a unique and valuable way for Canadians to inform federal ministers directly about their environmental questions and related concerns about federal policies, programs, and actions to safeguard the environment. Since 1995, we have received more than 350 petitions, and each one has represented a significant statement of interest by individuals and groups. Over the years, petitioners have obtained information and, in some cases, a commitment to action.

My Office received 18 petitions last year; each raised substantive and timely issues. For example, petitioners asked questions about the federal government’s management of salmon fisheries, the expansion of the ski area in Jasper National Park and its potential impact on biodiversity, and the health risks associated with using sewage sludge on agricultural land.

The Act requires federal ministers to respond directly to each petitioner within 120 days—an important step in democratic accountability. This year, federal departments and agencies improved their performance in meeting the legislated deadlines.


The chapters in this report highlight several areas where, unfortunately, the federal government is not doing what it said it would do to protect the environment and move toward sustainable development. There is little in our findings to offset a discouraging picture, as most suggest underlying problems in how these federal programs are being managed. In short, the two fundamental problems we identified are a lack of effective and sustained leadership, especially when responsibilities are shared, and inadequate information.

I look forward to continuing to support Parliament in its work.


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