Should Canada’s unelected Senate weaken environmental laws?

Canada’s unelected Senate has turned what could have established Canada’s signature pieces of environmental legislation into a Bill that, if passed, would allow for decades of avoidable climate disruption.

Bill C-69—which contains amendments to three flagship environmental laws on impact assessment, energy regulation and navigable waters - was far from perfect before the Senate got involved. But it did advance a number of important environmental protections - including expanded protections for Canada’s navigable waterways. It also contained a provision ensuring major industrial projects in Canada would have to undergo a climate impact assessment (aimed to ensure industrial growth is kept in-line with international climate obligations) before gaining federal authorizations. This critical provision on climate action was just erased in amendments passed by the Senate Committee reviewing the Bill.

This committee of Senators recently took Bill C-69 on a ten-city national tour where they purported to hear from Canadians on the Bill.  Unfortunately, they heard mostly from industry voices, which made up nearly 50% of all witnesses appearing before committee. Governments, First Nations, and NGOs together only comprised 40% of the voices heard. The voices of impacted communities like the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation in British Columbia and Keepers of the Athabasca, an NGO in Northern Alberta co-led by indigenous and non-indigenous voices, were refused time before the senate. If Senate tries to rationalize their amendments based on what they heard in their cross-country tour, our response is clear: they heard what they invited, which was industry voices. Voices that have a vested interest in maintaining Canada’s weak environmental laws.  

And for these reasons, environmental groups, including us here at the Freshwater Alliance, are forced to retract support for the Bill - should it proceed as amended by the Senate committee.

If you have been following our involvement in Bill C-69, you will recall that part 3 of the Bill contains amendments to Canada’s navigable waters law which could return important protections lost to navigable waters when the Act was last amended in 2012. However, Senate amendments would, unfortunately, further weaken laws intended to protect navigable waters. By recommending the elimination of phrases such as “future use” and “water flows”, Senators have said that only those waters currently used for active navigation are covered under the act and projects that inhibit navigation by altering water flows have been expressly removed from the Act - a deeply concerning move.

We know that some of the biggest threats facing freshwater in Canada are those wrought by climate change - and when it comes to water it is water flows that are first impacted.Therefore, any Act that is stripped of its ability to robustly respond to and regulate climate-changing activities in Canada is failing to protect the health and long term sustenance of waters in this country.

The fight for Bill C-69 is not over.  The Senate committee’s amended Bill will return to the Senate chamber for a vote before being sent back to the House of Commons where elected Members of Parliament will have a chance to accept or reject the Senate’s version of the Bill. Should they stand up to their election commitment to fix Canada’s environmental laws, then they have no choice but to reject the amended Bill. This will invariably start a political game of hot potato in the dying days of this Parliament. As we head into a summer already fraught with forest fire threats, priorities should be clear: Now, more than ever, we need to stand up for strong climate action.  

Should Bill C-69 die on the order paper—or possibly worse, if the House accepts the terrible Senate amendments—then we are saying we are ok with laws that fail the climate test. As young people stand up across the country calling for a Green New Deal and striking for climate action, it’s never been more clear what future we see before us and it’s one where climate action is robust and where our waters are clean and flowing.