Canada’s new federal budget includes some big changes to the country’s environmental protections for things like fisheries, endangered species and national parks. Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with reporter Peter O’Neil of the Vancouver Sun about the reasons for the changes and the government’s ongoing frictions with environmentalists.
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Lisa Mullins: The shutdown of research at the Experimental Lakes area comes as Canada’s conservative government is making big changes in environmental policy. Peter O’Neil is the Ottawa correspondent for the Vancouver Sun. He’s been reporting on these developments. Tell us exactly what’s going on there, Peter. We understand that some of the changes are contained in Canada’s new budget, a budget that just passed against the objections of a lot of the country’s environmental activists. What are they upset about?
Peter O’Neil: Well, the budget, Lisa, is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s 425 pages, it’s hard to pick up. It changes 70 pieces of legislation, but the one thing that has people’s blood boiling are the various changes to for instance, environmental reviews, the Fisheries Act, the species at risk and it’s taking away the authority of a particular agency to rule on major projects like pipelines to the west coast.
Mullins: Give us one particular example of something that has a certain sector of the population upset.
O’Neil: The fisheries is the one I’m most interested in because the conservative government in Canada right now, they’re rather angry at President Obama for postponing the Keystone XL Pipeline to the Gulf Coast. So anyway, they want to build a pipeline like the Keystone all the way to the west coast to sell oil sands to China. And this pipeline will go over 1,000 waterways, some of them very rich salmon-bearing streams to Kitimat on the west coast, which is right in the middle of a protected Great Bear rainforest. So they are very concerned that these laws that have been changed will allow the company to build this pipeline over these streams and hurt the fish and the fish habitat, because the government is really taken the term habitat out of the key section.
Mullins: The government says it is streamlining and that the environmental standards themselves will not be compromised. Is this part of a pragmatic economic strategy?
O’Neil: Well, a big part of it is economics. Canada, like everyone in the world, is in a precarious financial situation, so Harper is trying to expand trade to Asia, which is booming and they want our natural resources, so they want to build these pipelines, get this oil off to Asia. And they think that that will boost the Canadian economy in time for the 2015 federal elections. So there’s an economic driver here.
Mullins: A lot of this is coming amid growing friction between the government of Canada and environmentalists there. The government has accused some environmental groups of taking foreign money to “highjack” the country’s economy. What’s it referring to?
O’Neil: Well, it’s rather bizarre, Lisa. There’s a blogger in Vancouver who has written for the newspaper I write for on occasion, who has concocted this conspiracy theory that environmental groups are being funded by US trusts as part of a conspiracy to block oil sands exports to Asia to advance the US economy. And the Harper government is really grasped this, as have a lot of people in the resource sector. And they have said ah-ha, this is proof the environmental groups are against the Canadian interests.
Mullins: Where to Canadians themselves stand? I mean this is a government that has been elected and reelected by Canadians. Is there any kind of a groundswell one way or another on these issues?
O’Neil: I haven’t really seen it, Lisa. We see pockets of it, like the protests yesterday here in Ottawa. Canadians are electing the Harper government be cause it is viewed as the most competent to deal with the economy, but in my province of British Columbia, which is the third biggest province in Canada, the conservatives have lost about 10 or 15 points in the polls since the election. And that suggests that the Harper government may be paying a price for its actions against environmentalists and according to the critics against the environment.
Mullins: All right, thank you, Peter O’Neil, Ottawa correspondent for the Vancouver Sun.
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This interview was originally broadcast in a sequence with reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro’s story: Closure of Lakes Laboratory Spurs Protest in Canada.