Update March 29, 2012 4:56 pm: The federal budget contains cuts to Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as Environment Canada. The budget speech contains troubling references to changes to the environmental assessment process. Waterkeeper is now awaiting the Budget Implementation Act, which may yet contain changes to the Fisheries Act.
In 24 hours, the Harper government presents its budget. If the rumours and speculation turn out to be true, this budget will contain an enormous mistake.
Two weeks ago, we heard that the new budget would include serious cuts to the Fisheries Act. The cuts are said to dramatically weaken protections for fish and fish habitat across the country, presumably to facilitate industrial development.
This affects you.
This is not an "environmental" or a "legal" or a "policy" thing. True, scientists, environmentalists, and lawyers were the first to jump on the problem and to speak out. But we won't be the ones most hurt by the changes.
Fishing = Canada
Fishing is a quintessentially Canadian activity. First Nations communities thrived by fishing our nation's coasts, lakes, and rivers. Europeans chased fish across the Atlantic Ocean to the east coast of North America where they eventually settled. Commercial fisheries support numerous maritime and lake communities. Here in Ontario, recreational fishing is a $7-billion asset.
Every Canadian can connect his or her heritage to fishing. Even if you have never cast a net, never baited a hook, your community roots reach back to people who fished.
More likely than not, you have fished. One in ten Canadians is an active angler, and many more of us have fished at least once in our lives.
Chaos is coming
The Harper government wants streamline fish protection legislation to promote industrial development and economic investment and, theoretically, make things better for everyone. They think they can do that by slipping Fisheries Act amendments into the next budget.
Canada wants to step aside, to let provinces take control over regulating and protecting fisheries. They also want to do it quickly.
The Harper government's new approach replaces one single, established national standard with a patchwork of unknown provincial rules and policies. For a few years, it'll be the wild wild west of environmental law; new precedents will have to be set in every province to define what is acceptable. No development project will enjoy the certainty that government treasures.
The rushed approach will lead to chaos.
People are worried
In its haste to make changes, government did not consult experts at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. They did not consult scientists. They did not consult experienced environmental lawyers. They did not consult hunting and angling groups. It's not clear that they consulted First Nations.
The result has been a flurry of letters opposing the changes from diverse groups such as Canadian Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Canadian Aquatic Resources Section , Trout Unlimited, Council of Canadians, the environmental community, as well as more than 600 scientists
No one is happy. Not the anglers, not the scientists, not the government advisors who understand this issue better than anyone else. No one has been consulted, and it shows. The wise thing for the government to do now is to introduce its budget without these Fisheries Act amendments and launch a proper consultation process.
What will tomorrow bring?
Consultation is the wise route, but we have no idea what the government will ultimately do. The budget comes out in 24 hours. The countdown starts now.
If your Canada includes fish, please share this message.