Today, the Toronto Star published an editorial by prominent Canadian lawyer Clayton Ruby about the Ontario Government's efforts to undermine its Endangered Species Act and hide it in their budget bill.  Once you've read Clayton's editorial, tell Premier McGuinty to stop gutting Ontario's environmental laws.

Anti-environment measures tucked into Liberal budget bill


What is Premier Dalton McGuinty hiding in your budget bill? The legal ability to hurt Ontario’s most vulnerable species, that’s what.

Ontario appears to be echoing the mood of the federal government, which also used its budget bill to introduce significant changes to environmental protection laws, a move that had less to do with budgets and more to do with undoing transparency, accountability and environmental responsibility.

Likewise, the Ontario Liberals have buried several proposed changes in their new budget bill that strike at the heart of Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA), a piece of legislation this government proudly touted a mere five years ago.

The province’s backsliding on the protection of Ontario’s endangered wildlife is surprising from what has been a pretty darn good government. And it ignores reality: once-common species, like the barn swallow and the monarch butterfly, are now increasingly rare.

Here are the proposed changes that this government doesn’t want you to know about.

First, McGuinty introduces an open-ended list of exemptions to the law — rarely a good sign in legislation promising protection for Ontario’s most vulnerable plants and animals. Sweeping new powers permit the government of the day to exempt private landowners from the requirement to protect endangered wildlife or habitat. Yet most species at risk are found in southern Ontario, and most of southern Ontario is securely in private hands. In other words, protection will be exempt in the region where you find the highest concentration of endangered wildlife.

Second, right now if development harms a threatened or endangered species or its habitat, that work can only proceed if the owner creates alternatives so that the species is better off than before. This way, the wheels of economic growth can keep turning, but the owner has to make meaningful attempts to conserve declining species. The budget gives industry free reign to operate without regard to this protection. Habitat, we can do without you!

Third, the 2013 deadline to complete plans to protect and re-establish plants and animals whose populations have plummeted so dramatically they will disappear from the province — and in some cases the country — has been taken out. With no legal teeth, who could expect that such plans will ever move forward?

Ontario’s ESA was passed in 2007 with the support of almost all MPPs. It has gained international acclaim and helped build McGuinty’s reputation as a man who cares for our heritage. The act sets clear requirements for basing decisions on the best scientific information available, yet it provides a great deal of flexibility in how these protections are implemented.

Take the widening of Highway 400 near Parry Sound.

On the face of it, a wider highway would not be good news for the endangered animals in the area. But thanks to some fairly modest measures, like special fencing and crossing culverts, the new highway is significantly less lethal than the old highway. It’s also safer for drivers, who don’t need to swerve to avoid turtles or other creatures. Clearly, proper environmental planning does not bring development to a grinding halt.

Yet this gutting of the ESA is unrelated to any major budget commitment. They are just anti-environment measures tucked into a hefty finance measure solely to escape the scrutiny that would otherwise be guaranteed by the Environmental Bill of Rights, which requires public input into changes in Ontario’s environmental laws.

The Liberals used to tell Ontarians that they believed in collaborative planning designed to protect species and habitats and avoid problems down the road. If they’ve changed their minds, let them publicly wear it. We need that debate out in the open, not buried in the fine print of a spending bill.

Clayton Ruby is one of Canada’s leading lawyers, an outspoken proponent of freedom of the press, and a prominent member of the environmental community.

Tell Premier McGuinty to stop gutting Ontario's environmental laws.