2022 Reports 6 to 10 of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the Parliament of Canada—Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s Opening Statement to the news conference

2022 Reports 6 to 10 of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the Parliament of CanadaCommissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s Opening Statement to the news conference

Good morning, and thank you for joining me. I’m Jerry DeMarco, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

I’m here today to discuss 5 reports and a backgrounder that were presented to Parliament this morning.

The main areas of significant concern in today’s reports relate to Canada’s failure to take sufficient steps to address the loss of biological diversity. Protecting nature for its own sake and for its importance to Canadians is at the heart of Canada’s Species at Risk Act, which was passed nearly 20 years ago.

Canada is famous for its diverse natural heritage and breathtaking landscapes. Among the estimated 80,000 species found in Canada are the caribou, polar bears, beavers, and loons, which are depicted on Canadian coins. But Canada and the world are facing what the United Nations calls the biodiversity crisis, or biodiversity emergency.

Our reports today demonstrate that Canada’s biodiversity is at serious risk, with the list of endangered, threatened, and special concern species growing longer every year. Some species, like the once abundant passenger pigeon or the Lake Ontario Atlantic salmon, are already gone. Each species that we lose to extinction further upsets the delicate balance of our ecosystems and breaches our collective duty to protect and recover species at risk.

The federal government has committed to protecting Canada’s biodiversity and has made specific commitments to protecting species at risk both on land and in the water. Canada’s Species at Risk Act aims to prevent any further extinctions by protecting and recovering species at risk across Canada, whether they are of commercial value or not.

As the biodiversity crisis is not as well‑known as the related climate change crisis, we have provided general information on biodiversity trends and commitments in Canada in a backgrounder today. It serves as the backdrop for 2 of today’s audit reports and others on biodiversity to come.

In our first audit, we looked at whether Fisheries and Oceans Canada, working with partners, protected selected aquatic species that have been assessed as being at risk.

We found that the department contributed to significant delays in listing species for protection under the Species at Risk Act. It had yet to provide advice to Cabinet on whether to legally protect half of all species assessed as being at risk.

In addition, the department avoided listing many species for protection if they had commercial value, such as cod.

For those species that have been listed for protection, the department did not have enough staff to enforce compliance. For example, the number of staff dedicated to the enforcement of freshwater species at risk in the department’s largest regions was low.

A bias against protecting species of commercial value under the Species at Risk Act, significant delays in listing species for protection, gaps in knowledge about species, and limited enforcement capacity all have adverse effects on ecosystems and communities.

Turning now to our report on departmental progress in implementing sustainable development strategies. This year, as part of a special focus on biodiversity conservation, we looked at how Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Parks Canada contributed to meeting the species at risk target under the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy.

Overall, all 3 organizations identified actions that they planned to take; however, it was unclear how these intended actions would support meeting the target of species at risk. This is because the organizations’ plans included only some of the conservation and recovery activities needed to track and demonstrate progress.

Measurable actions and clear reporting on progress are important for conveying to Parliament and to Canadians whether Canada is meeting its biodiversity commitments.

Reporting is important, but results are what really matter. Unfortunately, on that score, the picture is not a positive one. Over the past 8 years, results have stalled well below the target for species at risk recovery.

In related sustainable development work, I also tabled a report on the fairness of information contained in the federal government’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy progress report.

The federal government has a new draft Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, and this summer, I provided formal comments on the draft strategy to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change as I am required to do under the legislation. A summary of these comments is available on the Office of the Auditor General of Canada’s website. One of the key concerns I have about the draft strategy released for public input earlier this year is that it fails to properly incorporate the social and economic factors of sustainable development.

I am hopeful that the strategy will be significantly improved before it is finalized and tabled in Parliament later this year.

I’m going to move now to our third audit, which looked at how Natural Resources Canada, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and Atomic Energy of Canada managed low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste.

Overall, we found that all 3 organizations did a good job of managing both levels of waste, which make up 99.5% of Canada’s radioactive waste. The organizations managed this waste in accordance with both national and international standards that help protect the environment as well as the safety of current and future generations.

The report provides recommendations in some specific areas relating to public reporting, data management, and documentation.

This morning, we also released the annual report on environmental petitions.

The Office of the Auditor General of Canada acts as a bridge between Canadians and government organizations on concerns relating to the environment and sustainable development by managing the petitions process.

Over the past year, we received 14 petitions raising concerns in a number of areas, including compliance with environmental laws, toxic substances, and biodiversity protection.

Departments have 120 days to respond to a petition. This year, only Finance Canada failed to provide its response within the 120‑day statutory period.

In closing, Canada needs to step up its actions to address the global biodiversity crisis. Canada is blessed with an amazing natural heritage, but we have a history of failing to properly protect our biodiversity. Indeed, some of our once-most-common species, such as cod, bison, and now monarch butterflies, are at risk.

More must be done so that they—and all other species in Canada—do not suffer the same fate as the passenger pigeon and the Lake Ontario Atlantic salmon.

Commitments have been in place to protect Canada’s wildlife for over 100 years and legislation to protect and recover species at risk for nearly 20 years. But preserving what remains of this country’s biodiversity will require more than just words on paper. As with the climate crisis, which was the focus of my 5 reports earlier this year, action on the biodiversity crisis is long overdue.

Thank you. I am now ready to answer your questions.