On July 8, the Government of Ontario introduced an omnibus bill (Bill 197) which proposes to amend 20 pieces of legislation with minimum debate in the Legislature and no public consultation. Ramming it through at lightning speed, the government may sneak the new law through as early as next week, minimizing any opportunity for public scrutiny.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. While Ontarians grapple with the social and economic impacts of a global pandemic, the government is fast-tracking a bill that will negatively impact the health of our communities and environment for years to come through changes to the Environmental Assessment Act, the Planning Act, and more. “For the most part, the proposed changes serve to speed up development at the expense of environmental protection and public participation rights,” says Theresa McClenaghan, Executive Director and Counsel at the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA).
2. With scornful disregard, the government is ignoring the legal requirement under the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) to provide at least a 30-day public consultation on changes to the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA), one of Ontario’s oldest and most important environmental laws. Using Bill 197 to make this unlawful amendment lawful after the fact by retroactively dispensing with the EBR consultation requirement is appallingly cynical.
3. Changes to the EAA would mean that no industrial or development projects are automatically subject to an environmental assessment, a measure in place to ensure an upfront public examination of potential impacts before projects proceed. Instead, the Act would cover only projects designated by Cabinet – and Bill 197 is silent on the criteria for determining what might be included. While the EAA has traditionally applied to landfills, incinerators, hazardous waste facilities, electricity projects, sewage works, roads and highways, Cabinet would have “unfettered discretion” to list which projects are subject (or not) to an assessment.
4. Changes to the EAA would disallow residents of Ontario (except for Indigenous communities) from seeking more robust environmental assessments of contentious projects (i.e., through “bump-up” requests). The government is consequently squashing opportunities for the public to bring forward concerns. It is also ignoring longstanding calls for a more appropriate and transparent approach to dealing with bump-up requests, for example by the Auditor General (2016) and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (Annual Report 2007-2008).
5. Changes to the EAA come on the heels of other legislative amendments constraining environmental assessments. For example, as recently as July 1st, the government exempted forestry activities from the requirements of the EAA, on the premise that it would reduce red tape by eliminating duplication with Ontario’s Crown Forest Sustainability Act. Yet, as CELA counsel Joseph Castrilli explains, the duplication theory doesn’t correspond with reality. The forestry exemption “will negatively impact Ontario’s forests, Indigenous people who depend on the health of those forests to protect their own health, and all the rest of us.”
6. Changes to the Planning Act will make it easier for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to unilaterally issue zoning orders which circumvent expected public participation in important land use planning decisions about the future of our communities. Minister’s zoning orders provide no opportunity for public input and are not subject to appeal. The amendment would allow the Minister to reach even more deeply into the planning process and overrule decisions by municipal councils and planning staff.
7. Omnibus Bill 197, titled the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, reflects an insidious pattern of environmental deregulation, set by three other omnibus bills tabled since the government came into power two years ago (Bill 66Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act; Bill 108More Homes, More Choice Act; Bill 132Better for People, Smarter for Business Act). As with the earlier bills, the government is proposing sweeping changes that would reduce or eliminate environmental protections and dramatically undermine public oversight and participation in environmental decision-making. Like the other bills, the promising title of Bill 197 poorly reflects the content of the bill and hides its negative environmental, social and economic implications. As noted by CELA, Bill 197 “largely ignores worldwide calls for a green and just recovery.”
Just last week, the United Nations released a reportlinking environmental degradation with future pandemics. With the government intent on pushing through Bill 197 with the utmost haste, it is urgent that Ontarians reach out to MPPs with equal speed to express our concerns about the regressive and damaging changes outlined above. For the name of and contact information for your MPP, click here. (Scroll down to search by postal code). Ask your MPP to stand up for environmental health and community well-being by voting against Bill 197.
Anne Bell has been directing Ontario Nature’s conservation and education programs since 2007. She loves to go birding, camping, swimming, and skiing and to play hockey with her family and friends.