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COMMENT: Bill C-45 Continues Gutting of the Fisheries Act

Alex Atamanenko
By Alex Atamanenko
July 12th, 2013

The federal Fisheries Act was designed to protect aquatic species, including preventing the dumping of harmful materials into fish-bearing waters. In 2012 Bill C-38, the Budget Implementation Act, began the gutting of the Fisheries Act by the Harper Conservatives in earnest. Four former federal Fisheries ministers were compelled to speak out in opposition to the changes: Conservatives John Fraser and Tom Siddon, and Liberals David Anderson and Herb Dhaliwal.

Siddon, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in the Mulroney government from 1985 to 1990, commented, “The real scary part of this is that the one minister in Canada who has the constitutionality to protect the fishery is the Fisheries Minister. These amendments essentially parcel out and water down his fiduciary responsibility, to the point that . . . he can delegate his responsibility to private-sector interests and individuals.”

“It’s appalling that they should be attempting to do this under the radar.”

Now with Bill C-45, the 2013 budget bill, more changes are on the way. C-45 amends the Fisheries Act to remove most fish habitat protection, although some protections remain for fish of “economic, cultural or ecological value.” This narrow view of habitat protection threatens to undermine the fragile ecosystems of lakes and rivers and the very sustainability of the fisheries.

Changes to the Fisheries Act provide for certain amounts to be paid into an Environmental Damages Fund. While it is laudable that fines will be directed into reclamation or protection, massive cuts to Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff will limit the capacity to enforce these provisions.

Another amendment to the Act adds a definition of the “Aboriginal fishery” as fish that are “harvested by an Aboriginal organization or any of its members for the purpose of using the fish as food, [or] for social or ceremonial purposes.” This definition does not include any mention of Aboriginal commercial fisheries and the right of First Nations to fish for a living. Aboriginal fishing rights are already enshrined in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. There is concern that the new definition means that the Conservative government could be considering removing Section 35. If this is the case, indigenous Canadians could face further erosion of their democratic rights.

Section 36 of the Fisheries Act is the basis for the 2002 Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER), which oversee the deposit of waste material into natural fish-bearing rivers. A loophole in the MMER allows for the deposit of liquid effluent from pulp and paper production, mining, petroleum production and other industries. The loophole in the MMER is currently the subject of a court challenge.

Since 2006, mining companies have applied to use thirteen natural bodies in Canada as dumping sites or tailing impoundment areas. Five of these bodies have already been approved for this use. In the Chilcoltin region, the proposed New Prosperity Mine project would lead to the eventual destruction of nearby Fish Lake if the mine is allowed to go ahead. Critics point out that the planned tailings pond would destroy most of the lake’s feeder streams and 80 per cent of the lake’s fish spawning habitat.

With the latest changes to the Fisheries Act, the Harper Conservatives seem determined to authorize industrial water pollution, threaten Aboriginal rights and play fast and loose with fish species that do not meet their definition of “value.” These amendments are short-sighted and do little to protect or enhance Canadian fisheries.

Alex Atamanenko is the MP for BC Southern Interior.

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Categories: Op/EdPolitics