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Groups against threat to democracy

May 31, 2012

A dozen Hamilton groups, including CATCH, are joining a massive national fight against the Harper government’s omnibus budget bill that changes more than 70 pieces of legislation in one 452-page act. Cuts to environmental laws have attracted most attention, but the bill also clamps down on charities, eliminates the National Welfare Council, limits auditor-general reports, forces the unemployed into lower paying jobs, raises the pension age to 67, and eliminates world-famous scientific research.

The Hamilton groups – including the District Labour Council, Environment Hamilton, Council of Canadians, Civic League, and local chapters of the Council of Canadians, the Congress of Union Retirees, Blue-Green Canada, Occupy McMaster and political riding associations – have concerns with various specific portions of the omnibus bill, but all are emphasizing the threat posed to democracy and the operation of Parliament by combining so many different changes in one bill being reviewed only by the finance committee, and already subject to debate limitations by the Conservative majority.

The bill – nicknamed the Environmental Destruction Act by Green Party leader Elizabeth May – completely rewrites the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and gives cabinet the power to decide whether any assessment will actually be required. Nationally renowned EA expert Robert Gibson of the University of Waterloo concludes that the changes “virtually eliminate federal level environmental assessment”.

The “budget” bill also eliminates habitat protection clauses from the Fisheries Act, cancels funding for the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), repeals the Kyoto implementation act, and gives the government the authority to override decisions of previously independent review agencies such as the National Energy Board.

That board is currently holding hearings on the very controversial proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline to the Pacific Coast that will cross over 1000 streams and lakes to transport unrefined bitumen to foreign markets. The bill retroactively limits the length of those hearings to less than has already occurred and restricts all environmental assessments to less than one year.

The changes to the Fisheries Act – long considered the country’s strongest environmental legislation – are now being challenged by four former federal fisheries ministers – two of them Conservatives. Others say a $79 million funding cut to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will cripple response to oil spills and other ocean pollution threats.

International outrage has met the decision to end funding for the globally-unique Experimental Lakes Area program that has been running since 1966. Scientists say there is no comparable research facility anywhere else in the world.

"By shutting down the ELA facility, the Government of Canada is stamping out the ability of the world scientific community to conduct the research required to formulate sound environmental policies," wrote Dr. Assaf Sukenik, a senior scientist at Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research in a May 30 letter.

The full scope of the omnibus bill will not be clear until associated regulations are published by the government well after the legislation is passed later this month, but impacts on charities appear to be severe. In the wake of accusations by cabinet ministers that “radicals” in these organizations are using “foreign funding” to oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline and “attack Canada”, the proposed changes increase the government’s power to punish charities, restrict their activities, and suspend their operations.

Opponents of the bill say it is imposing a chill on charities that fear their efforts to reform legislation will make them targets of the government. None of the Hamilton groups holding a media conference against the legislation tomorrow morning (9 am at City Hall) are charities.

Other changes gradually coming to light include elimination of a “team of Environment Canada smokestack specialists” who track and prosecute toxic pollution. Allegations have also emerged that the shutdown of the NRTEE – set up by the Mulroney Conservatives in 1988 - is in retaliation of their recommendation that the government consider a carbon tax.

The scope of the changes and the growing opposition has even led one Conservative MP to break ranks with his party on the bill – at least briefly. In what may be a related development, another moderate Tory has resigned to work for the Alison Redford government in Alberta. Pickets outside the constituency offices of Conservative MPs are one of the tactics being adopted by opponents of the bill. A national “blackoutspeakout” by dozens of groups is scheduled for June 4.

CATCH is joining the opposition to the omnibus bill because it seriously erodes the role of elected representatives who should have adequate opportunity to speak on behalf of their constituents on changes to each piece of legislation.

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