Most Canadians probably agree that governments of all levels in Canada should obey the laws of the land.
Alas, there are numerous documented cases at all government levels of blatant flouting of the laws of the land — in some cases because the current governments disagree with the laws and in other cases because the agencies tasked with upholding those laws have been deprived of adequate funding to do so. We’ve all heard the old adage “you can’t fight city hall.” Well, it turns out you can fight city hall and the federal government and win.
One law in particular routinely ignored by the federal government is the Species at Risk Act (SARA), passed by Parliament in 2002. The purpose of the law is to prevent wildlife in Canada from disappearing and to provide for the recovery of those species that are already endangered and to help prevent other species from becoming endangered. That seems pretty straight-forward and certainly something that most Canadians would feel good about.
This law mandates the timely identification and protection of species at risk, and the creation of recovery strategies for those species, but therein lies the problem. As of January 2014, there were more than 160 recovery strategies overdue, many by more than five years. For species on the brink of extinction, five years can be a lifetime.
In 2014, Ecojustice lawyers went to court to force the federal government to produce recovery strategies for four species. The endangered species won and the court rebuked the federal government for chronic unlawful delays in producing recovery strategies. Unfortunately there are just too many endangered species in Canada to make it practical to sue on behalf of each one. Would a class action suit on behalf of all endangered species be the way to tackle this?
There have been numerous other lawsuits under SARA and in all cases the federal government has been found to be not performing as required by law. Lack of funding for the agencies involved is one of the problems. You would think that any government would want to uphold the law when that law involves the use of chemicals that are known to be dangerous to humans and other organisms. Under Canada’s Pest Control Products Act, if another member country of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (basically most of the developed countries of the world) bans a pesticide ingredient for health or environmental reasons, our minister of health is required to undertake a review of all the products registered for use in Canada that contain that ingredient and then decide whether to ban that ingredient in Canada. In 2013 Ecojustice filed a suit against the minister of health alleging that the minister acted unlawfully. After the lawsuit was filed, the government agreed to carry out the review and then later reneged. The lawsuit has since been reactivated.
It seems to me rather incredible that we need groups to sue the governments to uphold our laws and as you will see it is not just the federal government that requires this oversight. Very eye-opening, indeed.
Bob Handfield is past-president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Club.