Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
We are pleased to be here today to discuss chapters 5, 6, 8, 9 and 14 of our 2008 Status Report, which was tabled in Parliament on March 6.
Chapter 5 deals with protection of species at risk, chapter 6 with control of aquatic invasive species, chapter 8 with international environmental agreements, chapter 9 with strategic environmental assessments and chapter 14 with genetically engineered fish.
I am accompanied at the table by Andrew Ferguson who is responsible for our work on species at risk and aquatic invasive species. Behind us are Richard Arseneault and Paul Morse who are responsible for the other work that we may discuss this morning. I am delighted to have with me at the table Mr. Scott Vaughan, who was appointed Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development by Auditor General Sheila Fraser on May 5.
I have agreed with Mrs. Fraser to help manage the transition to Mr. Vaughan before retiring at the end of this month. This includes appearing before parliamentary committees such as this one to discuss audit reports that I have had the pleasure of presenting to Parliament while Interim Commissioner.
As the Committee knows, status reports from the Office of the Auditor General show what departments and agencies have done to address issues that the Office has raised in some of its past reports. In determining whether progress on an issue is satisfactory or unsatisfactory, the Office takes into account the complexity of the issue and the amount of time that has passed since the original audit.
This is the first time that a Status Report has been presented to Parliament by a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. It deals with the government’s management of environment and sustainable development issues. Of the fourteen chapters in our Status Report, five report satisfactory progress. Progress in nine areas is unsatisfactory—largely because the government did not follow through on commitments that it made when responding to past environment and sustainable development audits.
The first three chapters deal with chemicals management, and we were pleased to report satisfactory progress. Chapters 4 through 7 focus on ecosystems, and we rated progress as unsatisfactory. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 concern management tools, and once again we rated progress as unsatisfactory. Chapters 11 through 14 look at actions taken in response to environmental petitions; two of these audits reported satisfactory progress and two reported unsatisfactory progress.
I would like to now turn to the chapters that I understand the Committee is particularly interested in, beginning with two that deal with ecosystems.
The chapters in this section of our report deal with issues that affect the quality of the natural environment that we'll pass on to our children and to our grandchildren.
According to the government, degradation and loss of habitat is the major threat to plants and animals in Canada. The government committed to addressing these issues years ago, but it has yet to follow through on a number of these commitments.
In chapter 5 we observe that the federal government has not met the deadlines required by the Species at Risk Act, SARA, to prepare recovery strategies for species at risk. As of June 2007, the three departments responsible for producing recovery strategies had produced only 55 of the 228 strategies required under the act. Those departments are Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment Canada, and Parks Canada. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, for example, had produced 13 of the 40 for which it was responsible at that point in time.
The committee may wish to ask the responsible departments what they believe needs to be done in order for them to comply with the deadlines specified in SARA, and what their action plans and timelines for doing so would be.
As we point out in paragraph 5.7 of chapter 5, the federal government has made budgetary commitments of some $563 million for species at risk since 2000. The committee may also wish to ask the departments whether sufficient funding has been provided at the program level, and if not, what the shortfall would be.
Chapter 6 points out that aquatic invasive species are entering Canadian waters faster than Fisheries and Oceans Canada is able to assess the risks they pose to Canada's environment and to Canada's economy.
Experts point out that aquatic invasive species cause billions of dollars of damage to Canada's economy every year, and are second only to habitat destruction as a leading cause of biodiversity loss.
In 2006 Transport Canada introduced regulations for the control and management of ballast water to reduce the likelihood of introducing aquatic invasive species into Canadian waters. However, at the time of our audit, these regulations were not yet being enforced consistently across the country.
The committee may wish to ask Fisheries and Oceans Canada what needs to be done in order for the department to assess aquatic invasive species on a more timely basis, and whether an appropriate action plan, timeline, and funding are in place.
The committee may also wish to ask Transport Canada whether regulations to control management of ballast water are now being enforced consistently across the country, and if not, what actions are under way and planned to do so.
I would now like to turn to chapters 8 and 9, which deal with what we call “management tools”.
We believe the federal government should lead by example in managing environmental issues. In that respect, both of these chapters portray a disappointing picture.
In chapter 8 we report that Canada has signed more than 100 international environmental agreements over the years, but the information on Canada's compliance provided to Parliament and to Canadians is weak.
In chapter 9 we explain that strategic environmental assessments have been required of federal departments and agencies for the past 17 years. These assessments, together with sustainable development strategies that we reported on last October, are two fundamental management tools the government has put in place to protect the environment. Unfortunately, both tools are broken, and both tools need to be fixed.
The 1990 cabinet directive on strategic environmental assessments was to ensure that the government would assess the potential environmental impacts of its policies, plans, and programs before approving them. This is our fourth look at the issue, and we found that departments are still not complying with the directive.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is leading an evaluation of the strategic environmental assessment process, and results are expected a bit later this year.
Let me conclude, Mr. Chairman, by saying a few words about environmental petitions.
Last October our retrospective study of petitions over the last ten years showed that petitioners value the process. It provides a forum for voicing their concerns about the environment and assures them of a formal response from ministers.
In prior years we have audited whether the government has followed through on certain commitments made to petitioners by ministers. This year we took a second look at four of these commitments to assess the government's progress on addressing recommendations and findings from our earlier audits.
In chapter 14 we report that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has still not developed regulations on genetically engineered fish, even though the minister committed to doing so in 2001 and again in 2004.
The department now says that genetically engineered fish would be captured under the new substances notification regulations of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. However, we believe that some weaknesses exist in these regulations, which need to be covered off in some manner. For example, under the existing notification regulations, there is no requirement to disclose research activities, and there is no mandatory reporting of accidental releases of research and development organisms.
The committee may wish to ask Fisheries and Oceans Canada and related departments--Environment Canada and Health Canada--what actions are under way to address these weaknesses and the action plan, timeline, and funding required to do so.
Mr. Chairman, I hope that these remarks and suggestions have been of interest to the Committee. Perhaps it might make sense for the Committee to invite departmental officials to a separate hearing or hearings in order to explore with them whether actions are underway and planned to address the issues we raise in our Status Report. We would be pleased to participate in any such hearings.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my opening statement. We will be happy to answer any questions that the Committee members may have.
Mr. Chairman, I'd certainly be pleased to answer that.
The one thing I should say, though, is that in chapter 9 we looked at something called strategic environmental assessments, not at what you're referring to, I think, which are environmental assessments. They're quite a different thing. Our chapter dealt with a different management process.
If I may just be permitted to comment on what we did look at, strategic environmental assessments are one of the fundamental tools of good environment and sustainable development management in the Government of Canada. They just simply aren't working. Now, we don't know why they're not working. We can speculate. One of the reasons, perhaps, is that nobody has even been either promoted or fired for doing a good or a bad one. Nobody really seems to care whether they're done or not. That's not a very good situation.
What's good about this at this particular time is that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency realizes that this fundamentally important ENSD tool isn't working, and they're leading a review right now to get to the bottom of this, to find out why the tool isn't working. We're very hopeful that by the end of the year they'll come up with some recommendations to have it work.
Now, on the issue you're raising of practicality, one would hope that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency would be aware of that and would be taking that into account as its broader review that would go beyond the SEAs.
I don't know whether that's answering your question, sir. I suspect it isn't, but--
Thank you very much for that question.
Aquatic invasives is an interesting situation. There's a paragraph in our chapter 6 that I'd direct your attention to. It's paragraph 6.8. In there--I'm an accountant, so forgive me for talking in numbers and dollars--there's an allocation through DFO to look at aquatic invasive species of about $10 million a year. A little over $8 million of that goes to looking at one aquatic invasive species. There are, at last count, 184 others that the department knows about. So when you think of it, what's left is $2 million to look at 184.
Now, it's not up to us, and certainly we can't say there's not enough money allocated to this, that, or the other thing; that's actually the parliamentarians' job, and we don't want to get into that. But when you do the math, it does make you wonder. I think if you were to have DFO here, I would certainly ask them how they are able to take care of this issue, which is growing, with that amount of money. It's growing faster than they're able to look at it.
There are also a couple of other issues that we raise in the chapter. In addition to their coming in quicker than the department is able to assess them, there's also the issue of a rapid response that we point out at the top of page 3 in our chapter. We say that DFO doesn't yet have plans in place for early detection of these things or a rapid response to them once they have been identified.
It's a question of what does need to happen to get DFO ahead of the curve and ahead of this growing problem.
Mr. Chairman, I noticed that this committee is looking at revisions to the Fisheries Act. As I understand it, there's a section in that act that deals with aquatics. If it becomes law, it would give more legal clout to the department, but that's legal clout. What's needed underneath that is management clout. That's what DFO is going to have to develop an ability to deliver on. They're going to have to have the right people, enough money, and the right organization to use the clout that they might be given under this new act, if it comes through, or to use now under existing situations.
We have asked, and the answers coming back aren't very satisfactory.
Let me give you the bad news on this and then the optimistic news, because I think there is some optimism here. The bad news is that nobody seems to care whether they're done or not. SEAs, strategic environmental assessments, are really not part of the management culture in this government, and they should be. The same thing can be said of sustainable development strategies and that process. They're not part of the management culture either. These are two fundamental tools of good environment sustainable development management, which, if they didn't exist, would have to be created. The fact is they are in place; they're just not being used.
Now, there is some good news to this. We've shone a light on this in the last year, and the government is well aware of it. There are two very important studies under way right now. There's a study of the SDS process, which Environment Canada is leading with other departments, to find out why this tool is broken and what needs to happen to fix it. That's due for report at the end of October this year. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is leading a review of the other tool, the SEA tool, and it is due to report by the end of the year. We're very hopeful that these two reviews will be well done and will indicate a way forward so that these management tools can be put into play in a proper way.
The other thing I think is extremely important is that parliamentary committees are now taking an interest in this. It has been my experience over 31 years as a legislative audit official that if parliamentary committees get behind an issue, change will happen. If they don't, things aren't going to happen, quite frankly.
You're concerned about these SEAs. There are two or three other parliamentary committees we've had the pleasure of appearing before that are similarly concerned about them. With these two reviews that are under way, plus parliamentary interest, I'm very hopeful that in a year's time we'll be looking at quite a different way that the government will go about managing the environment and sustainable development file.
So there has been some movement there.
You also brought up and talked a little bit about . I'm just wondering, has your department given any assessment to you now? Of course, if you take a look at the bill, which is not law yet, it basically empowers the minister or the Governor in Council to make regulations pertaining to aquatic invasive species. But is there anything further you can elaborate on insofar as any potential changes to the Fisheries Act or a revamping of the Fisheries Act are concerned when it comes to dealing with aquatic invasive species?
Could you comment on any shortfalls in the current legislation or the current regulations dealing with them? Is it a legislative problem? We talked a little bit about whether or not it's a financial problem or a manpower or a resource problem. We talked a bit about whether or not it's an interdepartmental issue. Your report documents quite clearly the way ballast water works, and it's no secret that ballast water is one of the key contributing factors to the movement of aquatic species.
The other thing we talked about is the $8 million out of the $10 million, the 80% of the money that's basically going to the sea lamprey. From a biological perspective, there are some things you can control and some things you can't control. You can chemically control things. You can use biological controls, but what you usually end up doing is inviting in another non-native species to control the original non-native species. Sometimes, if you ask people in Australia what they did to control rabbits, it just goes on and on from there.
The last thing I want to talk about is the socio-economic impact. Has any analysis been done of that? If you take a look at just the Toronto area alone, there are four million people who live right on the shore of one of the Great Lakes. If you take a look at the number of people who live in southern Ontario, which borders on most of the Great Lakes, you could say that roughly 37% of the population of Canada lives along those lakes. And if you take a look at the economic impact of the sea lamprey, which has moved into the freshwater lakes, and the impact it's had on those lakes, maybe from an economic perspective the money is being spent where it has the best economic impact.
I'm just wondering if you could speak to any of those types of concerns.
Let me, if I may, talk a bit about each of those.
Certainly on and the act that's now in place, we would not be in a position to comment on the pros and cons of a piece of legislation, either an existing act or one that is being proposed, unless it had sections in it that dealt with our particular office. Otherwise, we stay away from that, because if we get into it, we'd be heavily into policy. Debating the merits of a particular piece of legislation is your purview, and certainly not ours. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to duck that, if you don't mind, other than to say that it was interesting to see that aquatic invasive species are in this draft bill.
In terms of the complexity of the issue, I don't think anybody is suggesting there's a quick fix to all of this stuff. If there were, it would have been fixed years ago—and maybe $2 million would be enough to fix it. But again, what we're not finding when we do our audit is DFO doing the kind of risk analysis and assessment that would maybe get to the bottom of what could be fixed, and what could be done in a more thoughtful way. I think that's where one would want to have them here to talk to them and explore with the officials why they're doing what they're doing and not doing something a bit more.
On the socio-economic impact, absolutely.... I have a cottage north of here, and a cottage is a cottage, but I remember very well three years ago when our lake was suddenly full of Austrian milfoil, I think it was, and you could almost walk across the lake—and it's a big lake. Now the milfoil is gone, but when you think of the effect it has on just weekend warriors like me—who are really very small potatoes, in a sense, though it's very personal—these things really do have a huge impact on people's enjoyment. They have a huge impact in the dollar sense on industry. It's into the billions—not the millions, but the billions—every year. You're right that the Lake Ontario region is heavily affected by them.
This is an example where—and Mr. Vaughan certainly knows about this better than I do—the concept of sustainable development really comes into play, the merging together of the various aspects of this concept of sustainable development. There are economic aspects of these aquatics, there are social aspects of the aquatics, and there certainly are economic aspects of them. And somebody, somewhere should be doing an analysis to determine what the right decisions should be in addressing them, because you probably can't do everything at once with these aquatic invaders.
But you can't just look at the environmental concern; you really should be looking as well at the economic effects and at the social effects. That's the essence of sustainable development, and that's something that we would hope government departments like DFO would be practising in a very proactive way.
Thank you very much for that question.
The follow-up is an interesting process. We have a methodology we use, which we communicate to all departments, to go about assessing whether we, as auditors, are satisfied with the progress. We take a look at what actions have been taken since we made our recommendation or raised the finding, and we place them on a scale of one to five. Five would be fully implementing a recommendation; two would be partway along, and then there is three, and so on. We then sit back and take a look at how difficult it would be for the department to actually implement the recommendation or address the finding. Some of them are devilishly difficult to do.
At the end of the day, we sit back and look at those two factors and ask if we are satisfied or not. Now, if it's a very complicated issue, we might be satisfied with progress at the three level, if that's all we could reasonably expect would be done by that time. We would report to you that we're satisfied with progress on it. So that's a bit of the process.
We send our teams out to actually re-audit the issue that gave rise to the recommendation in the first place. So all the rigour we would apply in doing a performance audit in the first instance we repeat when we audit a second time.
We communicate to departments what we've found, generally in point form. We will sit down with them and say that we've looked at these ten recommendations, for example. We don't try to put words around our findings at this point. We simply say that this is where we're satisfied and this is where we're not satisfied and why. And we have a good discussion, right up to the assistant deputy and sometimes the deputy minister level.
We generally find, in those discussions, that there are no surprises. Departments know how they've done in implementing recommendations, and they're generally not surprised. Sometimes there's a bit of a surprise in seeing it all in one place, but beyond that, there's not a whole lot.
Then we put some words around it and send the words back to the departments to have a look, because sometimes we can use words that we think communicate fairly the finding, but they in fact do a disservice to the department. So we want to be sure that we're using wording that is going to help move this file along rather than hinder it. At the end of the process, if we have made a new recommendation in a report, we ask the deputy minister to respond to us in writing.
The process works well. It takes about a year. Our relations with departments are really very good. They are very cooperative with us. All the departments we audited this time for the status report have been extremely cooperative.
I'll just give you one last example of what we do subsequently. We haven't done much since we issued the report on March 6. In getting ready for this hearing I went over to see officials at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and they were very good about it. We talked about issues that might come up. I warned them that I was going to try to suggest to the committee that you might call them as witnesses at some point. They laughed and said that they were sort of expecting that. We asked them whether anything new had happened since we issued the report, but since it was only two months ago, there wasn't very much.
So that's a bit about the process and a bit about relations. It works well, and relations are sound.