Bill C-57, an Act to amend the Federal Sustainable Development Act

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development

Bill C-57, an Act to amend the Federal Sustainable Development Act

5 December 2017

Julie Gelfand
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Madam Chair, it is a pleasure for us to be here today to share our views on the Federal Sustainable Development Act. I am joined by senior colleagues from the Office, Andrew Hayes, Kimberley Leach, Jim McKenzie, and Andrew Ferguson.

As Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, I feel a special responsibility to support your review of Bill C-57. My remarks are informed by our Office’s 20 years of audit work on the federal sustainable development strategies and will cover the following issues:

Expanding the “environmental” focus of the Act to include social and economic matters

I was pleased to see that the purpose of the proposed new Act is to provide for a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy that makes decision making related to sustainable development more transparent and subject to accountability.

I understand from section 3 of Bill C-57, and the Minister’s comments before this Committee, that the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy required under the Act must respect and support Canada’s international commitments. These include the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals; the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and the Paris Convention.

Although some of the amendments to the Act appear to embrace the three aspects of sustainable development, I am concerned about the limited scope of section 10.1, which is focused solely on environmental impacts.

In addition, it is my view that the implementation of the Federal Sustainable Development Act will require a whole-of-government approach. In this regard, strong governance is crucial.

I would recommend that the Committee consider whether an amendment can be made to section 10.1 to authorize the Treasury Board and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to establish policies and directives relating to the sustainable development impact of government operations and to reporting on sustainable development progress.

The Principles

I am pleased to see that the new bill introduces several principles that must be considered when the federal sustainable development strategy and departmental sustainable development strategies are prepared. My office will use these principles when we audit the Federal Sustainable Developmental Strategy and the 90 departmental sustainable development strategies.

That said, we anticipate that we may have difficulty assessing whether the principles have been put into practice, because several are open to interpretation.

In accordance with the principles that are set out in the amendments to subsection 5(a), the Committee may wish to consider the merits of entrenching the Cabinet directive on strategic environmental assessment in the Federal Sustainable Development Act. This could be a tool to support the consideration of economic, social, and environmental impacts of all decisions.

Reporting on sustainable development progress and improving accountability

I support the amendments, which will require more than 90 departments and agencies to prepare, implement, and report each year on their sustainable development strategies. I see this as a positive step toward the integration of sustainable development considerations across government.

I plan to assess the departmental sustainable development strategies against the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, the principles outlined in Section 5 of the bill as well as the international commitments as outlined in Section 3, the Purpose, of the bill. I will be looking to see how departmental sustainable development strategies support Canada’s international commitments, in particular the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. I expect that most departments will need to go beyond greening of government operations; I will be looking to see how departments assess their policies and programs to achieve these international commitments and how they apply the principles of the bill to all of their activities.

With these amendments, I will continue to fulfill my statutory role with respect to monitoring sustainable development strategies. That said, I would have nearly 70 more entities to audit. The committee should be aware that this change will have significant resource implications for the Office.

As a result of the increase in the number of entities that will be preparing progress reports, I highly recommend that reporting on departmental sustainable development strategies be standardized across government. By “standardized,” I mean that the results for all departments and agencies should be presented at the same time each year, and in a common format, so that Canadians can understand the results that have been achieved, and so that my Office can provide a meaningful assessment of those results for parliamentarians.

As auditors, we support the idea of strengthening accountability for results. One way to achieve this would be for the Act to specifically require deputy heads or ministers to acknowledge their accountability by signing off on the completeness and accuracy of their progress report on their sustainable development activities.

Another mechanism, which was discussed at length during the Committee’s previous study of the Federal Sustainable Development Act, would be to incorporate accountability for sustainable development results in the performance agreements of deputy heads.

Madam Chair, I commend the Committee for its work and hope that my suggestions will be helpful to you.

This concludes my opening remarks. We would be happy to answer the Committee’s questions. Thank you.