Tories' attitude on environment not just dismissive, but inept

Monday, March 06, 2017
By Eric Reder
Winnipeg Free Press,  January 19, 2017
This past December, we witnessed the first loss of protected lands in Manitoba under our current provincial government, as Pemmican Island in Lake Winnipegosis — which had been protected for 15 years — was opened up for mineral exploration. In addition to regressive thinking on the environment, the Pemmican Island episode also displayed a lack of competence and leadership.
A decade ago, I began a full-time push for protection of the lands and waters of this province when I became the Manitoba campaign director of the Wilderness Committee. The first campaign I led was to maintain protection for several interim park reserves, including undeveloped islands in Lake Winnipegosis.
Since then, we have witnessed a growing amount of our wild and natural Manitoba receive protection, as we pressed our leaders to meet global goals of protecting lands and waters from development. As the scientific understanding of the need to preserve nature has increased, so, too has our protected area in the province. We are making progress.
The new Manitoba government, though, has shown signs they are lacking leadership on the environment and, therefore, the loss of protection of our lands and waters should not be a shock to anyone.
But it isn’t right. It goes against what we know about the essential role healthy wilderness plays in supporting human life on this planet. And Manitobans have asked for better than this. We have reason to be worried.
The first signal against environmental protection was changing the name of the government branch from Conservation and Water Stewardship to Sustainable Development when cabinet-minister positions were first announced. Prioritizing development over conservation will not keep our lives in this province rich and healthy.
The second blow to this new ministry was the contents of the transition binder prepared for the new sustainable development minister. It failed to follow up on three major initiatives well underway before the election: a revision of the Environment Act, a Nopiming Provincial Park management plan and new surface-water-management legislation.
These three policies are being asked for by Manitobans of all stripes, not just environmentalists. Businesses want clarity about filing Environment Act proposals, farmers want clarity on wetlands and drainage and hunting outfitters want to know how development is going to proceed in Nopiming Provincial Park.
Even a file they did address from the transition binder, woodland caribou, has the province missing the federally required deadlines for the completion of action plans. The Species At Risk Act — Canada’s strongest remaining environmental law — requires the Manitoba government to have 15 caribou action plans in place by October, yet the government says they’ll get five done in 2018 instead.
Just recently we also saw another signal of environmental neglect as the Manitoba government refused to sign the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, instead holding out with the fossil fuel dinosaur Saskatchewan.
Pemmican Island will forever stand out as the first measurable loss for the environment from this government. Five-year temporary protection terms for the island had been in place since 2001 and had been renewed in 2006 and 2011 when thousands of Manitobans voiced their support for continuing protection. Interim protected status was allowed to expire Dec.14, 2016.
When questioned by reporters after the fact, the government said it was investigating opening up Pemmican Island for mineral exploration.
The Pemmican Island incident displayed the lack of leadership and competence in the Sustainable Development Department. Two other island groups in Lake Winnipegosis had temporary protection as well — Goose Islands and Grand Island — which was to expire at the same time.
After getting hounded by reporters, the government finally mentioned it was considering protecting two island groups. It would have shown leadership to include a news release from the government informing Manitobans of the decisions and shown competence if the government had celebrated the continued protection of at least some of these valuable natural island environments.
Public comments from local First Nations indicate there was little, if any, communication to these communities about this decision in their traditional territory, as is legally required. This puts the government’s ill-conceived plan at risk of being stopped by First Nations and further demonstrates the department’s capabilities.
What we require is leadership and action on the environment. Polls consistently show Manitobans want government to protect our lands and waters as well as act on climate. Years of hard-fought progress toward preserving our healthy environment are at risk not just from a dismissive attitude on the environment but ineptitude as well.
Eric Reder is the Manitoba campaign director of the Wilderness Committee.