In the past few months we’ve seen Ontario’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic unfold as one big harmful mess. The government has managed to anger teachers, nurses, and doctors, and the public generally by ignoring science and expert advice when it comes to responding to the pandemic, which is now in its third and most deadly wave. The government failed to implement adequate sick leave, appropriate lockdown measures and had no plan to prevent the long term care home outbreaks, where many deadly outbreaks occurred.

It’s fair to say that the government’s preparation and response was nothing short of a disaster. Yet the government’s absolute ignorance of science, political gambles and tactics go far beyond its pandemic response. It’s a pattern of behaviour.

Although they have often been hidden behind the scenes, the government has played these exact same games with our climate future.

When Doug Ford became Ontario’s Premier and his provincial government took over in 2018, he was open about his intentions to dismantle Ontario’s existing climate plan. In fact, his election platform promised that his government would repeal Ontario’s Cap and Trade Agreement as soon as he took office, killing $3 billion dollars in revenue. True to his word, the government almost immediately did exactly that and within the first year in office cut many environmental and climate initiatives including electric vehicle incentives and renewable energy projects. We even took them to court for scrapping cap and trade where the majority of the court agreed that their actions were unlawful.

And then, his government has cut species-at-risk protection, shut down the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s office (a nonpartisan environmental office upholding the Environmental Bill of Rights), repealed the Toxics Reduction Act which requires companies to track and report toxic chemicals they create or use in their industries, and further weakened the authority of conservation authorities among a slew of other cuts.

Slashing environmental laws during the COVID-19 Pandemic 

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the passing of the sweeping omnibus Bill 197 titled the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course the Bill had little to do with COVID-19 recovery and was primarily a cover for slashing environmental regulations.

Many of the changes the Bill made have attracted widespread negative attention. 

The government expanded their ability to override or circumvent local government land through Municipal Zoning Orders (MZOs) and through this power has greenlit controversial projects that threaten wetlands and heritage sites. Other changes made under the Bill make it easier for the government to expropriate land in conjunction with a new highway expansion that will, if approved, pave over wetlands and send chemical runoff into Lake Simcoe. 

Of course we can’t forget the overhaul of Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act under the Bill.  Despite the EA needing to be modernized to address issues like climate change and better public participation, the government went ahead and made changes that reduce public participation and oversight, and  less rigorous assessments that could lead to detrimental environmental impacts. To add insult to injury, the Bill was rushed through without meeting its public consultation requirements under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights.

On May 17th, with Ecojustice as our legal representation, Greenpeace Canada and Wilderness Committee will be going to Court challenging the government’s failure to consult with Ontarians before ramming through major changes to environmental assessments and planning laws in Bill 197. Greenpeace could not standby while they pushed through significant environmental changes without allowing the public to have their say on these important changes. Our case will be heard alongside two other separate lawsuits brought by a coalition of other ENGOs and a coalition of First Nations.

Two Lake Simcoe area environmental groups released a report called Lake Simcoe Under Pressure in 2021: Key Stressors and Solutions, outlining their concerns a few key projects could have on Lake Simcoe.
Lake Simcoe, the health of which is threatened by several new projects. Image Credit: Bradford Today

Using the Courts to fight against climate action

Despite the Province using distracting buzzwords like “modernizing,” “creating,” “updating,” or “sustainable,” to describe their harmful cuts, what is the Ontario government actually doing to protect our environment and mitigate climate change? 

Well, spending Ontarians public money fighting against federal climate and environmental legislation in the Courts, of course.

While Ontario’s justification for overhauling the EA is to have a consistent approach with the federal government’s EA framework in order to eliminate unnecessary burdens and duplicative requirements, the Ontario government has been supporting Alberta’s court challenge against the federal impact assessment to essentially remove its obligations to comply with federal EA obligations as well. The government has been deregulating it’s provincial EA laws, while at the same time removing federal oversight of EAs.

The lack of regulations and oversight monitoring the environmental impacts of industrial projects could lead to harmful environmental impacts and could lead us to another situation like the Walkerton E.Coli outbreak, or much worse.

The province also publicly fought the federal government’s carbon tax, Canada’s plan to fight emissions through a carbon pricing system. Doug Ford’s government committed to spending $30 million dollars of taxpayer money to fight it in Court. And Ontario lost this battle. The case was recently heard at the Supreme Court of Canada with Ontario on the losing end. Part of Ontario’s argument at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada  for rejecting the federal government’s carbon tax plan was that the province would take its own approach through 2018 “Made-in-Ontario” climate plan by reducing Ontario’s emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 and finding ways to “slow down climate change and build more resilient communities to prepare for its effects.”

In another case, the province has been fighting against being held accountable for this very same climate plan.

In Mathur v. Ontario, 2020 ONSC 6918, a Charter challenge accusing the province of failing to uphold its climate goals and therefore leading to climate harm, the Ontario government has been arguing that neither their Plan nor targets are binding and that they are merely “aspirational.” So on one hand they are rejecting a federal plan to fight climate change and on the other hand refuse to be held accountable through their own. The government’s position is a confusing slap in the face to Ontarians who expect and believe that their government is protecting them and taking action against climate change.

So far, our so-called “Made-in-Ontario” Plan has cost twice as much as the federal carbon tax and has made next to no progress in cutting emissions. In fact, carbon emissions are going up across Ontario. Without incentives for citizens or industry to fight climate change, without climate accountability from our provincial government, and without rigorous environmental legislation, all we have is our government parroting the right language and greenwashing their death by a thousand cuts. Ontarians are left with only empty promises and empty solutions. Just like in the pandemic.