The city of Hamilton was charged and convicted under the Fisheries Act of polluting a local creek and Hamilton Harbour with toxic chemicals, and was forced to pay a record fine a decade ago and spend millions to fix the problematic leaking landfills. Now the federal government is poised to drastically weaken that legislation apparently to speed approval of a pipeline across British Columbia that would carry Alberta tar sands bitumen to foreign refineries.
The widely reported planned changes to the Fisheries Act referred to in the recent federal budget could also prevent prosecution of parties responsible for other pollutants entering local waterways including the chemical contamination running off Hamilton’s airport. Whether charges should be laid on the latter contamination is a specific question now before the federal auditor general as a result of a petition filed last month by Environment Hamilton board member Joe Minor.
While specific amendments to the Act have not been released, but federal fisheries minister Keith Ashfield has confirmed that “the government is reviewing fish and fish habitat protection policies to ensure they do not go beyond their intended conservation goals”, and stated that the existing policies “do not reflect the priorities of Canadians”.
The current legislation is considered the strongest environmental law in Canada. It bans the release of “a deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish” and “any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.” The expected changes would allow damage to waterways that provide habitat to fish as long as it didn’t "result in an adverse effect on a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value."
That would likely exclude the fathead minnows that were the basis of the Fisheries Act charges laid in 1999 by Lynda Lukasik that resulted in $480,000 in fines against the former City of Hamilton and a $24 million cleanup of the Rennie and Brampton landfill sites that were leaking PCBs and other chemicals into Red Hill Creek and Hamilton Harbour. It would also probably eliminate protection for most of the 600 lakes and rivers that would be crossed by the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline proposed to carry tar sands bitumen to the port of Kitimat and strongly backed by the Harper government and apparently the main reason for the planned weakening of the Act.
The changes have been denounced by two former federal Conservative fisheries ministers and by hundreds of fish biologists and other scientists in petitions being circulated across the country.
“It's like saying as long as we have a happy lifestyle and can go to the rec centre and keep fit, it doesn't matter what the air is like that we breath or the water that we drink,” said Tom Siddon, the fisheries minister in the Mulroney government. "If we want to preserve and protect our fish stocks it's more than a commercial equation.”
His concern was echoed by John Fraser, another Mulroney-era fisheries minister.
“To take habitat out of the Fisheries Act is a very serious error because you can't save fish if you don't save habitat, and I say this as a lifelong conservative,” said Fraser. “People who want to eliminate the appropriate safeguards that should be made in the public interest, these people aren't conservatives at all. They're ideological right-wingers with very, very limited understanding, intelligence or wisdom.”
A recent review of the existing legislation by the federal auditor-general emphasized that it is one of the government’s most important pieces of environmental legislation and noted that “about one quarter of all petitions sent to our office by Canadians related to fish habitat issues.” However, the main findings were that the rules are being poorly enforced and need strengthening, not weakening.
“Fish habitat represents assets that are important not only for fish, but also for human health and recreational use. Healthy habitat—places where fish can spawn, feed, grow, and live—is a fundamental requirement for sustaining fish, providing food and shelter for aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, and contributing to water quality for human consumption and other uses,” states the report. “Fish habitat is under constant pressure from population growth and urban expansion. Many studies have indicated that damage to habitat is one of the key factors in threats to fish stocks.”
World famous water ecologist David Schindler slammed the proposed changes as “exactly like eugenics” where some fish are deemed more valuable than others.
“It's a stupid idea,” he stated “What do they think all these commercially important fish eat? Did they ask the fish who is fit and unfit and which fish is of ecological value? They should just scratch this wording out and improve the act, not gut it.”