2018 Fall Reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development

2018 Fall Reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

4 October 2018

Julie Gelfand
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Mr. Chair, I am pleased to be here today to discuss our fall 2018 reports, which will were tabled in the House of Commons last Tuesday, along with our annual report on environmental petitions. I am accompanied by Kimberley Leach and James McKenzie.

Our first audit dealt with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which describes the federal government’s responsibility to protect Canadians from the risks of toxic substances, such as mercury, lead and polychlorinated biphenylsPCBs. This audit is the fifth one we’ve done on toxic substances since 1999, and we continue to find concerning gaps.

The government has identified 138 toxic substances, such as mercury, lead and PCBs, which need to be controlled through either regulations, pollution prevention plans, codes of practice or some other mechanism. We found that Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada had not assessed whether their action plans were reaching their overall objectives. This means that the government does not know how well it is meeting its goal of protecting Canadians from the risks of toxic substances.

The government has developed 39 regulations to control these risks. Environment and Climate Change Canada conducted some 10,000 inspections over 3 years, but many regulations covering substances such as flame retardants received few or no inspections. About one-fifth of inspections focused on a single substance used by dry cleaners, without any evidence to show that it presented a higher risk to human health or the environment.

As far as public information is concerned, both Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada play a role in informing Canadians about risks from toxic substances. We found that most of the information available on their websites was often hard to find and very technical. Content was not presented in a way that made it easy for the average person to find out about the risks of toxic substances. These weaknesses make it difficult for Canadians to get the information they need to make informed decisions.

Let’s turn now to our second audit, which looked at what the government has done to protect marine mammals from the threats posed by vessels and commercial fishing. In Canada, there are over 40 species of marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals, and 14 populations are on the endangered species list.

We found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in collaboration with Parks Canada, Transport Canada, and Environment and Climate Change Canada, was very slow to take action to reduce threats to marine mammals. Departments have several tools at their disposal to protect these animals. For example, they can establish protected areas, set speed limits for vessels, close or restrict fisheries, and set distances for whale watching boats.

We found that most of these tools were not used until the situation became severe: 12 endangered North Atlantic Right whales—representing 3% of the world’s remaining population—were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017. It was then that the departments took actions to protect a few whale species by, for example, closing certain fisheries and introducing speed limits for ships in some areas.

We also found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada lacked the resources and guidance to effectively respond to distressed marine mammals. There are around 900 incidents of distressed marine mammals each year, and very few people are trained to help.

The measures recently put in place have been reactive, limited and late. The clock could well be running out for certain species, such as the West coast’s Southern Resident Killer Whale which has been listed as an endangered species for 15 years, and whose population is now down to 74 individuals. There needs to be continued action from the departments to manage threats for all marine mammals.

I want to draw your attention now to the results of our third audit. It examined whether federal organizations were taking the required steps to ensure that environmental considerations were included in the information provided to government decision-makers.

This is an area that we have been auditing for the last 5 years. In 2012, our Office started a multi-year plan to audit all 26 government organizations who are required to assess the positive or negative environmental impacts of their proposed policies, plans, and programs.

In 2015, we found that the organizations we audited assessed less than half of their proposals. Results were even worse in 2016 and 2017.

This year, given past poor results, we decided to re-examine all 26 organizations to once again assess their progress. We were happy to find that they had carried out strategic environmental assessments for more than 90% of the policy, plan, and program proposals they submitted to Cabinet. This is marked progress over previous years.

Let me close with environmental petitions. These petitions are an important mechanism that Parliament put in place to give Canadians a way of getting answers from federal ministers to their questions about environment and sustainable development.

Last year, we received 10 petitions from individuals and organizations. Topics included the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and nuclear waste disposal and management. Case studies on past environmental petitions are also included and they address: nuclear operator liabilities, marine protected areas, shipwreck oil spill cleanup and the 2030 Agenda.

We also surveyed petitioners about their experience. The vast majority of respondents were not satisfied with the answers they received from departments. However, they stated that they were likely to use the petitions process again.

So, to recap: the government still has work to do to on toxic substances and marine mammals, but there is a bit of a bright light when it comes to integrating environmental considerations in government decision-making.

Mr. Chair that concludes my opening remarks. We are happy to answer any questions you may have.