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Shooting the messenger? Doug Ford’s proposal to downgrade Ontario’s environmental watchdog.

November 16, 2018

By Mark Winfield, Sheila Colla and Faisal Moola

Buried deep within the massive omnibus bill that accompanied the Ford government’s fall economic statement last week were a series of provisions that effectively fold of the role of the province’s Environmental Commissioner into that of the Auditor General.

Although on the surface this may sound like a bit of administrative housekeeping, the implications for Ontario’s environment, and the health and safety of its residents are potentially very significant.

The Environmental Commissioner’s office was created in 1994 through the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights. The Commissioner’s position was established as an officer of the Legislative Assembly, reporting directly to MPPs, and not to the government of the day. The intention was to provide an independent and authoritative voice that reported annually on the province’s environmental performance. Over years the Commissioner’s mandate was expanded to include additional yearly reports on the province’s progress on combating climate change, and on improving the energy efficiency of Ontario homes and business.

The Commissioner’s annual reports provided honest and detailed assessments of the province’s environmental performance, often to the discomfort of the provincial government, be it NDP, Liberal or Progressive Conservative. Crucially, the reports also highlighted emerging problems and gaps that needed to be addressed before they reached crisis proportions. Among other things, the Commissioner’s reports flagged breakdowns in the province’s drinking water safety system in the time leading up to the Walkerton drinking water disaster.

The Commissioner’s most recent report, also delivered last week, emphasized the province’s ongoing failure to deal with water pollution from agricultural operations and overflows of stormwater and sewage into the province's waterways, the lack drinking water source water protection for one-fifth of the province's population, the need for better monitoring of the health of wildlife, and for the improved protection of the province’s forests and wetlands.

Under the government’s proposed legislation, the Environmental Commissioner’s role would be downgraded from that of an independent officer of the Legislature to a mere “employee” of the Auditor-General. The proposed shift carries with it a significant loss of status, and potentially the independence to pursue the most pressing environmental issues facing the province. Importantly, the legislation also significantly curtails the Commissioner’s opportunities to report to the Legislature and the public.

Currently the Commissioner provides three major reports per year, dealing with environmental protection, climate change and energy efficiency. These reports are highly detailed, in-depth, evidence-based, multi-volume assessments of the province’s performance. Special reports can also be issued in relation to pressing issues.

Under the new legislation, the Commissioner would be limited to a single report per year. Even that report could be folded into the Auditor-General’s regular annual report, potentially reducing the Environmental Commissioner’s reports to a few pages per year, providing nothing approaching the detailed pictures of the province’s performance and needs that the Commissioner now provides. Other provisions of the proposed legislation would reduce Commissioner’s role in overseeing the operation of the Environmental Bill of Rights, particularly where Ontarians request reviews of the need for new laws and regulations, or request investigations of potential violations of the province’s environmental laws.

The government’s moves, coming on the heels of reports by the current Environmental Commissioner, Diane Saxe, highlighting the government’s poor performance on the issue of climate change, and the need to address other long-standing environmental problems, look suspiciously like a case of shooting a messenger bringing news Mr.Ford does not want to hear. That view is reinforced other similar recent moves by the government, including the elimination of the position of Ontario's Chief Scientist.

Such an approach will not make the underlying problems, being outlined in the Environmental Commissioners’ reports, go away. If anything it will leave the government, whose grasp of environmental issues is already widely seen to be shaky, less capable than ever of addressing these challenges. The Commissioners’ reports have provided vital early warnings of threats to the environment, health and safety of Ontarians, and have informed and enhanced the ability of the province to respond to these problems.

If the government is serious in its claims that its intention is to enhance accountability and transparency, withdrawing the provisions of Bill 57 regarding the Office of the Environmental Commissioner would be a good place to start. Otherwise the government will again be left looking far too quick to attack independent oversight, science, and evidence-based decision-making.