Fort Albany First Nation is deeply troubled at the rapid and potentially illegal passage of Bill 197 (COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2019) by the Government of Ontario on the evening of July 21, in the face of significant outcry and opposition. This omnibus bill was introduced on July 8 and included changes to twenty pieces of legislation, including major changes to the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) that could significantly weaken environmental protections and impact our Inherent, Aboriginal, and Treaty rights, all under the guise of COVID-19 response.
The government passed Bill 197 in just 13 days, with little legislative debate and no Standing Committee consideration, and without public consultation on the changes to the EAA despite warnings from Ontario’s Auditor General that this violates the Environmental Bill of Rights. The Bill allows for major changes to the EAA while offering few concrete details, leaving important decisions to be implemented through regulations that are not yet known and which will not be subject to legislative approval.
The government says that these measures are about helping Ontario’s economy recover from the impacts of COVID-19. However, the changes to the EAA were proposed long before the pandemic began and have little to do with crisis response. Instead, the government appears to have taken advantage of this crisis to rush through controversial changes with as little scrutiny as possible.
On the same day that Ontario introduced Bill 197, it gave public notice of just 45 days to review and comment on a package of other proposed changes to the EAA and related regulations relating to mining, hydro transmission, municipal environmental assessments, flood and erosion control, waterpower projects, resource stewardship and facility development, transportation, public works, amendments to environmental assessments, land claim settlements, projects within provincial parks and conservation reserves, and two specific major transportation projects.
These changes are part of an ongoing effort by this government to overhaul Ontario’s environmental protection regime, in support of its promise to “cut red tape” in support of economic interests. Too often this has seemed to mean weakening protections for vulnerable species and ecosystems, based on the false idea that we can have a healthy economy without a healthy environment.
We have watched this with alarm, as our muskeg homeland in northern Ontario is one of the main targets of this government’s economic agenda, particularly through the Ring of Fire. The muskeg is the foundation of our identity and culture. It is also one of the most important and delicate peatland ecosystems in the world, with a critical role in storing carbon that would otherwise accelerate climate change.
As a community with a high poverty rate, Fort Albany understands the need for economic opportunity. However, development must be ecologically responsible and culturally sustainable. We already live with the consequences of irresponsible economic and industrial activity, including disturbances to our homeland such as melting permafrost, invasive species, pollution, and river erosion. At a time when the whole world is facing unprecedented climate change and biodiversity loss, development must be supported with more and better environmental protections, not fewer.
Any changes to environmental protections are important for us, because the exercise of our Inherent, Aboriginal, and Treaty rights is inherently connected to the wellbeing of the environment. However, the government is unilaterally introducing major changes with the knowledge that our community is under pressure and constraints due to COVID-19, and that we do not have the resources or capacity to meaningfully engage. This is not honourable, and it disrespects our relationship with our territory and our role as a Treaty No. 9 partner.
We call on the Government of Ontario to repeal Bill 197, and to design a more appropriate process for reform of the EAA in full partnership with Indigenous groups, with the principles of robust environmental protection, public participation, and respect for Indigenous rights at its heart.