Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on September 19, 2012 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Ontario ministries need to stop thwarting public’s ability to participate in environmental decision making

Dr. Anastasia Lintner

Ecojustice commends today’s report from Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, who said that the government is failing to notify and consult Ontarians about decisions that affect the environment.

Commissioner Miller released Losing Touch, part one of his annual report, this morning. The report highlights a disregard for legal requirements under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, legislation designed to help Ontarians protect and restore the natural environment and to give Ontarians the tools to ensure government hears and responds to their concerns. “A number of ministries are frustrating the public’s right to know and be involved in environmental protection,” Miller said.

That needs to change.

Why is that a problem?

Ontarians must be able to participate in discussions and environmental decisions that will affect their community. Only then will they be able to hold their government accountable and protect the air, water and land they need to enjoy life.

Knowing is half the battle

Earlier this year, the Ontario government kept some of its plans for the environment hidden from scrutiny. It tucked a number of amendments that would have had significant environmental impacts into an omnibus budget bill. Because budget bills are exempt from the Environmental Bill of Rights, the government didn’t have to consult with Ontarians. Ontarians had no say in whether those changes would improve or harm the environment. That’s not fair and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario is right to point out that these actions are returning us to a time of less transparency and less public participation.

Miller also sounded the alarm over the fact that several government ministries are not telling Ontarians about environmentally significant proposals. If these ministries fail to post proposals or approvals, there is no opportunity for Ontarians to comment on, and potentially appeal, the decision, which is every Ontarians’ right under the Environmental Bill of Rights.

First-hand experience

Ecojustice, an environmental law organization that enables concerned Canadians, often advises our clients on the use of the Environmental Bill of Rights protections to defend their right to a healthy environment.

One of our clients, Wildlands League, has been denied the ability to challenge unsustainable development in Ontario’s Boreal forest. Why? Because the Ministry of Northern Development has denied their four EBR requests to review how development is being planned and pursued. And, there is no chance to comment on any proposed new developments, preventing Wildlands League from seeking to appeal the Ministry’s decisions through the EBR, no matter how much environmental damage will result.

I’ve personally experienced the frustration Miller mentions in another situation where there are laws to protect the public’s right to know.

Who’s taking water from Oak Ridges Moraine?

When Ecojustice and Earthroots wanted to know who was pumping water from the Oak Ridges Moraine and how much they were taking, we requested info from the Ministry of the Environment. Standard processing time for these requests is 30 days, but we were told that our request would take 300 days. We received the information, but only after 450 days. And the info was in a format that made our analysis next to impossible.

We’ll be revealing that experience in project that will launch on Oct.

A list of some of the other ways government ministries are shirking their duties:

  1. Changing the names of ministries, which are then not subject scrutiny under the Environmental Bill of Rights until the EBR regulation is updated (Ministry of Infrastructure used to be the Ministry of Energy and Infrastucture, but until a regulation is updated the Ministry of Infrastructure is exempt from the EBR);
  2. Some ministries (Municipal Affairs and Housing and Northern Development and Mines) have denied all of the public’s request for review and investigation since the EBR came into force in 1994.

In conclusion

Ecojustice shares the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s deep concern for the reduction in transparency and accountability to the public regarding environmental decision-making. We will be working to ensure that public’s right to a healthy environment is fully respected.

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