Photo by David Wilson (CC BY 2.0) Photo by David Wilson (CC BY 2.0)

With a new Climate Change Plan just released by Queen’s Park, Ontarians will naturally look for expert and independent analysis of its merits. Until now, they could reliably turn to Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner for non-partisan evaluation whenever governments came out with new rules for water, air, forests or climate. Unfortunately, the Environmental Commissioner is about to be silenced and the office shut.  

So far, the public has not heard much about the implications, with media focused more on the simultaneous scrapping of the Ontario Child Advocate and the French Language Services Commissioner.  Ontarians deserve a clear tally of what’s at stake when the Environmental Commissioner shuts its doors. Two groups have an outsized stake in the outcome – the business community and rural Ontarians. The trouble is, they may not think through the full consequences till it is too late.  

And curiously, they are the very groups the Conservative government is most hoping to satisfy.  

The long-term interest of business is strongly aligned with a competent, independent voice for the environment at Queen’s Park. Ontario’s economy still runs (more than we may think) on resources held in common stewardship – the Great Lakes, groundwater, forests, sand, gravel and minerals, to name just a few.  But commonly held resources are prone to misuse. So running a resource-based economy safely and long-term requires safety valves and warning signals.

A worthwhile irritant

The Environmental Commissioner has provided both. For almost 25 years, this small agency has shone a bright light on the province’s environmental challenges and opportunities. It has served the Legislature, MPPs of every stripe and the public with careful research, clear language and early warnings on issues ranging from air quality hot-spots through groundwater allocation to mine rehabilitation. This service has cost Ontarians about thirty cents per person, per year.

Rural Ontarians will lose disproportionately when the Environmental Commissioner closes its doors.

Sure, in the short-term, the warnings of the Environmental Commissioner may irritate some – just like a fire alarm can irritate. But as grown-ups, we know what can happen when we disable fire alarms. And today’s corporations cannot afford to think of the short-term only. To gain and hold the long-term trust of customers, and especially to be granted social licence to operate in a community, companies need to take the long view. Whether they want to pump groundwater, run trucks down rural roads, apply pesticides or vent emissions near neighbourhoods, companies need social license. They need to be able to point not only to their own actions, but also to a trustworthy overarching government framework of strong rules and effective oversight.

That oversight is in grave jeopardy now in Ontario.

Businesses and rural Ontarians will suffer most

So far, Ontario business leaders have been silent on the scrapping of the Environmental Commissioner. Indeed, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce issued a news release praising the government’s November 15 package of cuts as  “reasonable steps” and “cutting cumulative red tape.” But enlightened business leaders know that customers and the most talented young employees are watching closely. Their loyalties will go with businesses that have the courage to speak up and step on core issues like environmental governance.

Rural Ontarians too will lose disproportionately when the Environmental Commissioner closes its doors. Resource extraction often happens just across the road from their homes, and so rural communities have been appreciative users of the Environmental Commissioner’s work. Over 90 percent of rural Ontarians rely on private wells, for example, and are directly affected when groundwater quality and quantity is mismanaged. The Environmental Commissioner has drawn attention to multiple systemic problems with groundwater management in Ontario, and has tracked the topic over the years.

Similarly, noise and dust from gravel pits, fly ash from aging cement plants, landfill seeps and unexplained flaring by chemical plants are all health and quality of life issues that rural Ontarians struggle with, far more than city dwellers. Such issues have been the bread and butter of the Environmental Commissioner’s reports, and their scrutiny has helped nudge dialogue forward in numerous site-specific disputes.  

The Auditor General, who has been tapped to pick up some (by no means all) of the Environmental Commissioner’s work, does not focus on site-specific problems, and has a markedly different mandate and evaluation lens – to watch over the administration of the province’s finances and to carry out “value-for-money” audits.

Now the widespread shuttering of small town newspapers means that reporting on local environmental concerns is also drying up. Once societal safety valves such as independent oversight and independent reporting are gone, brace yourself for costly court battles and much more ugly fights in Ontario’s countryside.

Ellen Schwartzel served three Environmental Commissioners over her career, and was Deputy Environmental Commissioner of Ontario from 2013 until retiring in mid-2018.

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