Madam Speaker, this is a very interesting discussion and there have been some good speeches this evening.
I will start by saying there are two pieces of federal legislation aimed at protecting the quality of Canada’s fresh water. These laws implement Ottawa’s clearly stated constitutional jurisdiction and responsibility in two specific areas: navigation and the fishery. I am speaking of the Navigation Protection Act, formerly the Navigable Waters Protection Act and soon to be renamed the Canadian Navigable Waters Act by virtue of Bill C-69, which passed at report stage today and is on its way to passing at third reading. The second piece of legislation, of course, is the Fisheries Act. These two laws are really the basis of federal water policy. Often water policy comes more out of provincial jurisdiction, but the federal government has something to say about water policy, and it is through those two main pieces of legislation.
Navigation and fishing were key aspects of life at the time of Confederation and remain significant today in our diversified modern economy. This is no doubt the reason that jurisdiction for both navigation and the fishery were given to the central government, this plus the fact that, as Pierre Trudeau famously said, “Fish swim,” which means they cross provincial boundaries, as do marine vessels for that matter.
Based on the speeches I have heard here and on what I know to be the Conservative narrative, it is fair to say the Conservative opposition does not see these two laws broadly as environmental laws. This is despite the fact that both laws govern and protect the aquatic environments on which vessels traverse and in which fish live. The Navigation Protection Act and the Fisheries Act are part of a grouping of four federal laws that are the basis of federal environmental policy in Canada, a grouping that includes the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which is being renamed the Impact Assessment Act under Bill C-69, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which has just gone through its five-year legislative review at the environment committee under the very able stewardship of the member for King—Vaughan.
It was the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Fisheries Act that the Harper government targeted for revamping in order to restrict their scope and significance for the environment. The Harper government amended the Navigable Waters Protection Act twice, including at one point changing its name to the Navigation Protection Act. The first time it restricted the act’s scope was in a 2009 omnibus budget bill, and the second time in a 2012 omnibus budget bill.
I know members find it hard to believe that the Conservative government would ever do that, but yes it did use omnibus budget bills and they were not necessarily encompassing only financial matters. The 2012 omnibus budget bill by the Conservative government removed broad Fisheries Act protections for all fish habitats, stipulating that the act would from then on only prohibit “serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery, or that support such a fishery”.
Incidentally, Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative government used the 2009 omnibus budget bill, if I am not mistaken, to also weaken the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which is why the government had to bring in Bill C-69 to strengthen environmental assessment in Canada and to regain the trust of Canadians regarding the federal government’s commitment to protecting the environment.
I know the Conservatives are unhappy with government budget bills when they have too many pages, and call them omnibus bills, but there is no comparison—Madam Speaker, you will recall, you were in the House—to the blatant manner in which the previous government stretched the meaning of budget bill to effectively cover everything from banks to canoes and sailboats to trout, shellfish, and crustaceans. That is what the Liberal platform objected to: the Harper government’s semantic elasticity with regard to the notion of a budget bill.
Bill C-68 rolls back the changes the Harper government made to the Fisheries Act. As has been mentioned by others, the bill protects all fish and fish habitat. The definition of “serious harm to fish” is also being removed.
Those carrying out projects would be generally responsible for avoiding harmful alteration, disruption, and destruction of fish habitat. However, when proponents are unable to completely avoid harm to fish, an authorization permit with conditions may be issued by the minister to allow a project to proceed without contravening the act. I wonder if the opposition is critical of this ministerial discretion, given its criticism of ministerial decision-making power in Bill C-69.
It is important to note the distinction in Bill C-68 between designated projects and routine projects. I have not heard that distinction mentioned on the other side. Designated projects would always require ministerial approval. These are of course expected to be large-scale projects. Currently, under the bill the previous Conservative government was responsible for, projects requiring authorization are determined on a case-by-case basis, which adds complexity and uncertainty for business.
As for routine smaller projects, published codes of practice would provide advice to proponents on how to avoid project impacts on fish or fish habitat. Although the regulations defining designated projects have not been created, I imagine irrigation canals or flood canals on farms would not be considered major, large-scale projects, like dams. I believe they would be considered routine projects, and farmers could just avail themselves of a guide of best practice and do the best job they possibly could. There is a bit of fearmongering on the other side about what the impact of the bill would be on farmers, who are indeed very much the backbone of a large part of the Canadian economy.
Laws are all well and good, but enforcement is always the key. The government will invest $384.2 million to ensure the capacity to enforce the Fisheries Act. Among other things, this money would go toward increasing the number of front-line fishery habitat officers.
Also worth mentioning, Bill C-68 would empower cabinet to make regulations for the rebuilding of fish stocks. It would also empower the minister to make regulations for the purposes of the conservation and protection of marine biodiversity. Again, I am curious to know whether the opposition objects to ministerial discretion in these cases.
Significantly, the bill requires that the government consider the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge when making decisions about fish habitats. This supports the government’s priority on reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples.
Finally, Bill C-68 would ban the capturing of whales, dolphins, and porpoises for the purpose of keeping them in captivity. This should be welcomed by those who hold to the protection of marine wildlife. They are people like the beluga specialist, Dr. Pierre Béland, who is the world’s most well-known expert on the beluga whale, and who was actually involved in an aqua-hacking conference in Toronto this past weekend. Aqua hacking is a process by which we look for solutions to problems, like pollution affecting our waterways.
Lastly, it is worth noting that extensive consultation was undertaken to arrive at the measures we are debating today. There have been two rounds of online public consultations, and over 100 meetings with partners, stakeholders, and indigenous groups. In 2016, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans asked the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to review the previous government’s changes to the act. This review resulted in 32 recommendations, which helped shape Bill C-68. This is on top of all the debate that took place in 2012 around changes to the act undertaken within the context of a rather egregious so-called budget omnibus bill.