I remember the first time I sat around a kitchen table in a rural community giving environmental law advice. I was speaking with a farmer who was beset by pollution running across his fields and destroying his fish and hunting camp along the Rideau Canal.
The family had asked my law firm what we could do about the landfill leachate from a major Ontario city dump that was destroying habitat. No one from the City, the waste company or government had offered to help them. Now everyone in the room — his wife and mother at the wood stove, his sons and daughters and grandkids around the table — was keenly awaiting what I had to say.
I asked: Are there any fish in the fields, ditches or nearshore? The family told me the bay was once the best fishing area around and that fish still spawned in the fields and ditches every spring.
I asked: Can I get access to the water draining from the dump to sample as it runs onto your land? The family told me the exact locations where the water bubbled up on the dump walls and ran year-round onto their property.
I answered: I can help.
We documented the fish in the ditches and the bay. We sampled the leachate (it was toxic). We contacted government authorities and the company, alerting them that we had evidence the dump was in contravention of the Fisheries Act. Immediately, they took action to stop the pollution. To this day, that area on the river is protected from landfill toxins.
My story is not unique. It has been played out across Canada thousands of times. When evidence of a Fisheries Act contravention was compiled, the harmful acts were almost always stopped.
Even when government or industry did not act, the Fisheries Act allowed citizens to enforce the law independently. In fact, the Fisheries Act says that, if convicted, a polluter pays half of the fine to the individual who brought the charges. This is meant to “encourage the public to participate in the protection of community resources.”
Such citizen-led actions form an important part of Canada’s environmental protection laws. In the past 16 years, I have personally been involved in investigating legal actions against the Cities of Kingston, Hamilton, Moncton, Montreal, and Toronto as well as the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Ontario Hydro, OPG, DTE and other polluters for Fisheries Act violations. That work resulted directly or indirectly in clean-ups on the Cataraqui River, Humber River, Moira River, Petitcodiac River, St. Clair River, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River and other waters across Canada.
All of this was possible because the Fisheries Act made it illegal to pollute or destroy fish and fish habitat in Canada. The offenses under the Act were criminal in nature, meaning enforcement was free from political interference or economic lobbying by industry. The laws protected every community, regardless of the size of the project, the abundance of fish, or the “economic value” of nature.
That is all about to be wiped out. The budget implementation bill that Parliament is considering now radically changes the Fisheries Act. Under the new law, cabinet ministers and industry will have unprecedented influence over fish and fish habitat policy.
Under the new law, decisions about which Canadian communities deserve protection will be made based on political and economic factors. There is no role for science or the rule of law.
The consequences of the changes will be felt immediately. Will Lake Ontario’s fish be protected? Or will our small commercial fishery be deemed “insignificant”? Will we see sewage treatment plant upgrades in Vancouver, Victoria, or Halifax? Or will environmental benefits be deemed “insignificant” in light of the cost? Clean-ups like the ones we saw at the dumpsite beside the farmers field will most certainly be things of the past.
When I read about the changes, I know that every farmer, hunter, angler, and community member who loves access to swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters will lose out.
I know that, if I was a young environmental lawyer sitting at that kitchen table today, I wouldn’t be able to offer the same help I did all those years ago to the farmer and his family. That breaks my heart.
Photo: Mark Mattson conducting water samples in the Grand River. Photo Credit: Barb Davidson