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Ford’s grab bag of bad environmental law | David Israelson

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 @ 11:21 AM | By David Israelson

David Israelson %>
David Israelson
Ontario is seeing a lot of Premier Doug Ford leading the way to fight COVID-19; less noticed is how the Ford government is destroying the legal underpinnings of the province’s environmental protection.

It has been happening before and during COVID-19 and — unless there’s an outcry, presumably after the pandemic. Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has been systematically dismantling, repealing, weakening and destroying the laws, policies, programs and the regulatory underpinnings that the province has put in place since the environmental movement first got noticed in the late 1960s.

Even before Ford got started with this anti-environment push, the law has struggled to keep up with polluters and threats to endangered species, forests and wildlands. When it comes to addressing climate change, the province was just getting going a few years ago — now we’re not, thanks to the Ford government’s handiwork.  

How is it that Ford seems listen so well to scientists and experts and follow up on COVID, yet does so much to allow open season on the environment?

Perhaps the most egregious move was in the summer, when Ford’s PCs pushed through a new law, Bill 197, that effectively guts the rules requiring environmental assessment before a construction or industrial project can be built. It just got harder to resist that gas plant or sewage treatment facility in your neighbourhood.

Ostensibly, the law, called the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, is supposed to streamline the process, for example, by moving the procedures online. Certainly, it does that, and there is room for streamlining and speeding up decisions.

The fancy name is simply cover for what the legislation really is — an omnibus bill.

As someone with a background in law, when I see an omnibus bill these days, I reach for the sick bag.

Omnibus bills are used by the governments of all stripes and different levels across Canada; they’re supposed to bundle changes to different statutes into a single bill, so legislative housekeeping can be efficient.

This may be okay when the subject matter they’re amending is related but in different bills. But as University of Ottawa Law School dean of common law Adam Dodek has written, when omnibus bills stretch the meaning of “same subject matter,” they “make it difficult for parliamentarians to properly scrutinize a bill’s content and exercise their function in holding the government to account.”

And really, it’s quite a Pinocchio nose-stretcher to connect “COVID economic recovery” to destroying environmental law as “same subject matter.”

That’s the connection Bill 197 seeks to make to environmental review though. Now cabinet will decide if a project merits a full environmental review.

This is Make Ontario Great Again-style protection like we had before the environmental movement was even a movement.

It enables cabinet to okay a smokestack next door after some vague “consultations.” Significantly, the Ford government waived the usual 30-day time for consulting the public before even passing this dog’s-breakfast omnibus legislation.

It would be nice if we could persuade Ford and his cabinet to decide whether that new factory on your street is environmentally safe. But Ford has been making anti-environment moves long before he got serious about COVID-19.

In 2019, the Ford government gutted the province’s endangered species protection laws. Now it’s easier for developers to destroy species at risk if the little varmints or plants get in the way.

Ford also repealed the Toxics Reduction Act, which required companies to track and report on the toxic chemicals they create or use in their industries. In addition, his government has loosened or eliminated environmental safeguards that govern aggregate extraction. Hello gravel pits.

Before that, the Ford government cancelled 758 clean energy projects, including solar electricity for schools, hospitals and arenas and projects that would take manure from farms and turn it into fertilizer.

One of Ford’s early anti-environment moves was to close the office of Ontario’s environmental commissioner, which was set up in the 1990s to review and oversee protection in the province.

The Ford government does profess to be concerned about the environment and climate change. But its climate change plan is about as clear as the air in a western-U.S. forest fire.

For example, one of the first moves Ford made was to cancel the programs that support trading in your gas guzzler for a zero-emission electric vehicle or a new hybrid car.

Ford also cut funding for conservation authority flood control — which has got to alarm climate change experts, insurers and mortgage lenders.

And the Ford government cancelled Ontario’s program to plant 50 million trees — compelling the federal government to restore the program using funds from the still-tiny national carbon tax.

This is the same carbon tax that the Ford government has committed up to $30 million of Ontario taxpayers’ money to fight in court. Ontario has been losing this case so far but so far persists in pursuing it. This is $30 million that could be spent on fighting climate change and caring for the environment.

The Ford government also lost in court when Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan ruled that those misleading anti-carbon tax stickers Ford ordered to be put on gas pumps are unconstitutional; they violate business owners’ freedom of expression.

All this is unfortunate because during COVID-19 Ford has shown us another side, and that he is capable of responsible leadership.

Just not when it comes to the environment, it seems.

David Israelson is a non-practising lawyer, author and journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @davidisraelson or on Linkedin

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