Back in 1970, 20-million Americans participated in the first Earth Day activities. It was the largest public demonstration in U.S. history.
The success of Earth Day and the public's appetite for clean air and water motivated governments to pass the world's strongest environmental laws. The U.S. Clean Water Act promised swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. The Ontario Environmental Protection Act promised to protect environmental resources for all users. The Government of Canada promised to review the environmental effects of its decisions.
Over four decades, Earth Day became a global event, celebrated in 170 countries and involving 1 out of every 6 people on the planet.
True, critics voiced concerns in recent years that Earth Day was being co-opted by corporations interested in "greenwashing" their image. But the original Earth Day legacy remained intact: Canada and the U.S.A. had some of the world's best environmental laws on the books.
That legacy is fading in Canada.
In the last month, the federal government has taken steps to undo nearly every one of our nation's environmental protection programs. The Natural Resources Minister calls it (without irony) "Responsible Resource Development".
Three key safeguards that ensure your right to safely swim, drink, or fish Canadian waters is protected are all being dismantled:
1. Environmental assessments will virtually disappear. The number of agencies who conduct assessments will go from about 40 down to 3, and will not include Environment, Natural Resources, or Fisheries departments. Provinces will be allowed to substitute their own approvals for federal approvals, even though they do not cover important federal matters such as fisheries and navigation. Individuals and organizations may be prohibited from participating in the assessment process.
2. Independent voices will be silenced. Not only will individuals and organizations be prevented from participating in some environmental assessments, environmental charities will be under close surveillance by the federal government. The Government of Canada is allocating $8-million to monitor environmental charities' political activities.
"We’re seeing a very difficult period of time in terms of the rhetoric and the tone of what’s coming out from the government. And why we find this alarming is that environmental groups and organizations, we think, provide a really valuable input into discussions in our society, things that Canadians value," Mr. Robinson, the Suzuki Foundation’s chief executive, told The Globe and Mail.
3. Fisheries protection rollbacks are coming. Rumours of Fisheries Act changes started swirling before the budget was released in late March. While habitat and water quality protections remain intact for now, there is compelling evidence to suggest it is a matter of time before Canada opts to protect only "fish of significant economic and ecological value."
Martha Hall Findley, a former Liberal MP, calls this an "opportunity". She says environmentalists need to learn how to "co-operate". With due respect to Ms. Findley, that's not the problem. Earth Day 1970 was about making sure that citizens had a voice when decisions were being made that would affect the environment. It was about ensuring that there would be clear rules in place so that no one person or institution could take clean air or water away from a community. Environmentalists have been fighting for the ability to co-operate for 40 years.
Now, Canada is saying that there are no more seats at the table for anyone other than a handful of special government and industry interests: no more independent assessment process, no more clear and consistent enforcement of laws, no more science, no more scrutiny. In the name of "modernization" and "growth", we've gone back to 1969.