Is the federal government protecting Canada’s national heritage? Fall 2013 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Is the federal government protecting Canada’s national heritage? Fall 2013 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Is the federal government protecting Canada’s national heritage?

Fall 2013 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development


Earlier this month, the Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (the “Report”) was released.   This Report is the first issued since the departure of Scott Vaughn from his role as Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development last year.

The Report focuses on two themes: the protection of nature and sustainable development.  In examining these themes, the Report looks at:

  • goals of the International Convention for Biological Diversity;
  • conservation of migratory birds;
  • protected areas for wildlife;
  • funding programs for species at risk;
  • recovery planning for species at risk;
  • ecological integrity in national parks; and
  • federal and departmental sustainable strategies.

As usual, the Report also includes a review of environmental petitions over the audit period.

In his report, the Interim Commissioner concludes there is “a wide gap between the government’s commitments and the results achieved” (page 3).  The Report highlights several examples that illustrate the government’s failure to meet its key legislative responsibilities, deadlines and commitments.

Species at Risk Act

The Report finds that legislative requirements under the Species at Risk Act have not been met.  In particular, requirements to establish recovery strategies, action plans and management plans for species at risk have not been met (146 recovery strategies are outstanding; only 7 of 97 action plans are in place; and management plans have not been completed in 42% of the cases).   It is estimated that, at the current rate, it will take 10 years to complete the backlog of recovery strategies required under the Species at Risk Act.

Conservation of Migratory Birds

Environment Canada has completed less than half of the 25 Bird Conservation Region Strategies that it committed to completing by 2010.  For those plans that are complete, there is a failure to identify who should contribute to the proposed actions, timelines and required resources.

In addition, there are many gaps in monitoring bird populations. Environment Canada estimates that monitoring for 30% of the bird species in Canada is insufficient to determine whether those species are at risk.

Wildlife Protected Areas

According to analysis completed by Environment Canada, more than 70% of wildlife areas and about 55% of migratory bird sanctuaries are considered to have less than adequate ecological integrity.  The purpose of the protected areas is to maintain ecological integrity for the benefit of wildlife.  For most of the national wildlife areas, Environment Canada is operating with outdated management plans.

In addition, little progress has been made in monitoring activities, conditions and threats for the protected areas that Environment Canada manages.  There is a lack of proper inventories and insufficient data on species at risk.

Ecological Integrity in National Parks

The Report states that – while Parks Canada has developed a solid framework of policies, directives and guidelines – it has been slow to implement systems for monitoring and reporting on ecological integrity.  In the ecosystems that Parks Canada has assessed, less than half are considered to be in good condition.    The Report notes that spending on Heritage Resources Conservation at Parks Canada has decreased by 15%, overall staffing has declined by 23% and scientific staff has been decreased by over 1/3.

What does this mean?

Once again, the federal government is failing to meet environmental challenges (see our post on the Fall 2012 Report).   The Report recommends that the federal government use collaborative approaches, reliable information, sound management practices, and transparency and engagement to “break the pattern of unfulfilled commitments and responsibilities” (page 4).

These recommendations are a stark contrast to the current federal government approach, which includes slashing funding of scientific research and on the ground work that supports the protection of Canada’s environment, and bundling significant legislative change into unwieldy omnibus budget bills.

The Federal role in environmental assessment has already been drastically reduced.  In a few weeks, protection of Canada’s fisheries will be seriously curtailed (limited to only aboriginal, commercial and recreational fisheries).  Changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act – passed and awaiting proclamation – mean that Act will no longer apply to the vast majority of Canada’s water bodies.

Given that the federal government is already struggling to keep pace with environmental challenges, it is difficult to see how weakening our core federal environmental laws will help protect Canada’s natural heritage.




The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) has been seeking strong and effective environmental laws since it was founded in 1982. The ELC is dedicated to providing credible, comprehensive and objective legal information regarding natural resources, energy and environmental law, policy and regulation in Alberta. The ELC’s mission is to educate and champion for strong laws and rights so all Albertans can enjoy clean water, clean air and a healthy environment. Our vision is a society where laws secure an environment that sustains current and future generations.

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