Good morning, everyone.
Pursuant to the order of reference of Monday, April 16, 2018, we are studying Bill .
Before we begin today's meeting, I would like to ask the committee to observe a moment of silence, please, for the victims of the tragedy yesterday in Toronto.
[A moment of silence observed]
Today, appearing before committee in our first hour this morning, we have the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. Welcome, Minister LeBlanc. We also have with us, from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Philippe Morel, assistant deputy minister, aquatic ecosystems sector, and Mark Waddell, acting director general, fisheries and licence policy, fisheries and harbour management.
Mr. LeBlanc, I believe you have 10 minutes for your opening statement.
Thank you, Madam Chair. Thank you, colleagues.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before the committee again. I am always pleased to be here with you.
If you are having a hard time understanding me, it is because I have had a cold for about two weeks. My apologies.
Madam Chair, I want to congratulate you on being elected chair of the committee. You are very familiar with fisheries issues since the fishing industry is so important in your riding.
My sincere congratulations. I look forward to working with you and the members of the committee.
As you said, Madam Chair, I am joined today by two senior officials of our department, Philippe Morel and Mark Waddell. When you have very technical questions on particular sections of the legislation, rather than my trying to answer in a way that may mislead you, I would obviously want them to join in and provide you with that information.
On February 6, our government introduced in the House of Commons an anticipated piece of legislation that will bring some much-needed changes to one of Canada's oldest environmental laws.
Once again, I'd like to thank this committee for the study they did on the 2012 changes to the Fisheries Act. I have said before that I believe that a great deal of what our government has suggested as amendments was inspired by the work of this committee, so I want to thank you. Your hard work helped shape the legislation you have before you today, which was voted on at second reading in the House of Commons, and as a government, we look forward to working closely with this committee.
We reached out to all Canadians to hear their ideas about how to restore and modernize the Fisheries Act and I think we listened. The response was incredible. We received thousands of letters and emails and held hundreds of meetings with partners, stakeholders, and indigenous groups. Tens of thousands of Canadians participated in online surveys through two phases of public consultation.
We have worked very closely with our provincial and territorial partners and with indigenous groups across Canada to make sure we hear their concerns and take them into account.
In addition to protecting fish and their habitat, we recognize that certain fisheries management measures have to be modernized for the long-term survival of our fisheries. The amendments proposed in the bill before you are as follows:
new tools to conserve and protect important species and ecosystems through modernized fisheries management measures; measures that will help rebuild depleted fish stocks and make habitat restoration a priority prior to the development of major projects; and amendments that will help clarify, strengthen, and modernize enforcement powers under the act.
If passed, the proposed amendments will also provide the power to implement regulations on owner-operator and fleet separation policies in Atlantic Canada and Quebec and will give force of law to these essential policies, which have existed for over four decades. This in turn, as you all know, will support the independence of inshore and midshore harvesters, which is critical to their economic livelihood as well as that of the families and coastal communities who depend on these important economic actors.
Our government promised to listen to Canadians about how to update the Fisheries Act, and I believe we've kept that promise. We've also listened to the concerns expressed by our parliamentary colleagues, with an aim to further improve, clarify, and strengthen this legislation. During the debate in the House on February 13, I took note of some of the concerns that were raised by our colleagues in the House of Commons. They included but were obviously not limited to a heavier regulatory burden placed on industry and major natural resource development projects; a need to protect environmental flows, which refers to the quality and quantity of water in rivers and how it contributes to the ultimate protection of fish; an unease about DFO's dual mandate to conserve wild salmon while promoting salmon farming, especially on the Pacific coast; and once this legislation is passed, the need for strong regulations around the rebuilding of fish stocks that have clear definitions and also consider the impact of climate change and species interactions.
I'd like to express my hope that we can work together again in the spirit of co-operation that I think this committee has always exhibited. Your committee did, we think, important work in improving Bill , in which five opposition amendments were accepted and passed by this committee. Those, in my view, made the legislation better.
I hope the legislation you currently have before you proceeds in the same spirit of collaboration. Obviously I would be happy to work with all members of the committee, if you have particular suggested texts of amendments. If there's any way that our department and the Department of Justice can work with you beforehand to ensure that, from our perspective, the text achieves what a particular member hopes, it's sometimes easier than having at the last minute some confusion whereby the Department of Justice says to us that a particular text, for whatever reason, is technically not achieving what the particular aim is. If any colleagues at this table want, in the spirit of co-operation, to share with us some ideas and we can help in any way, obviously we would be happy to do so.
As you have seen, Madam Chair, the proposed amendments in this bill that will have an impact on fish and their habitat are intended to better protect our natural resources for future generations, while preserving economic opportunities for the many individuals and their families and the communities that depend on those resources.
The proposed amendments will help reduce the regulatory burden on the industry while giving major project proponents greater certainty, which will improve the transparency and predictability of federal environmental assessments.
For small projects, the codes of practice will be published in part I of the Canada Gazette and will provide clear direction on how to avoid harmful effects on fish and their habitat. The same is true for agriculture and small municipal projects. People often say that they do not want to harm the fish and their habitat, and that they want to obey the law. So we are trying to find a simple way of balancing those aspects.
Another example is DFO's commitment to rebuild fish stocks. In 2017, our department launched a plan to put into effect rebuilding plans for 19 fish stocks on a staggered basis over four years. We have policies that set out requirements regarding stock rebuilding plans, including objectives and timelines aimed at rebuilding these stocks that take into account factors such as ocean conditions, species interaction, and habitat.
I believe that there are a lot of positive elements in this legislation that reflect input from numerous parties, including this committee, indigenous groups, industry, environmental groups, provinces and territories, municipal organizations, and the fishers themselves.
I've always thought that our collective responsibility as parliamentarians is to steward our environment with care and in a way that is practical, reasonable, and sustainable. I believe that the proposed amendments strike that important balance by safeguarding environmental protections for fish and fish habitat, something that Canadians are deeply concerned about, while also ensuring that mechanisms are in place for sustainable economic growth, job creation, and resource development.
As I look around the table, I see many colleagues here, Madam Chair, yourself included, who represent communities that depend, in some cases overwhelmingly, on the economic impact of Canada's fisheries. That's why this legislation, from our perspective, is an important piece of environmental legislation. It's also an economic piece of legislation in the sense that if we get that balance right, we can ensure the long-term economic prosperity of the communities that many of you represent, for generations to come.
Thank you, Madam Chair. Those are just a few opening comments, but obviously, I look forward to questions from colleagues.
Mr. Donnelly, thank you for your support of this legislation. You and I have had a chance to discuss it. I think the New Democratic Party can and should be an ally for us in trying to get the right balance and improve this legislation. Your support at second reading certainly was important for us. I want to honour that support by working with you if you have specific suggestions like that one.
As I said, I don't sit as a voting member of this committee, so I want to be careful when you ask if I'm open to amendments when this committee ultimately does its clause-by-clause work and considers amendments. It's more a question that should and can be put to your colleagues on the committee.
On the specific suggestion of the specific element you raised with respect to cumulative effects, I think one of the challenges in the past—and I saw this when I sat in that very seat on previous committees in the last Parliament—was that when colleagues had suggestions to improve the legislation and amendments, necessarily because of the legislative process and the House of Commons Library of Parliament staff who work with MPs to draft the text of amendments and so on, they often arrived at the last minute.
The Department of Justice, in advising my department of the government, identify technical problems, and then colleagues—colleagues in this room—may decide that because of a technical problem a particular amendment shouldn't be considered or supported at that time. What I'm saying to you, and I'm saying to all members, is that I certainly am sensitive to strengthening those provisions if it can be done in a proper way, as you and I have talked about before. If there's a way that we can work with you, I will be able to ask the Department of Justice to give me, and I would share it with you, that technical advice on how a particular amendment may interact with other clauses of the bill, and then you can consider, obviously, how you want to factor that advice into whatever amendments a colleague would choose to propose. If it, in a sense, short-circuits that last-minute confusion, where amendments may be defeated or not considered in a proper context, and if I can in any way work with you and other colleagues in a transparent way before the clause-by-clause process would begin, or notice has to be given, I would be happy to do so.
Whether I'm open or not will not be relevant when your committee is voting on these amendments.
I'm very proud, obviously, of owner-operator fleet separation policies, and the impact it's had on Canada's Atlantic coast. I've said before that it applies in Quebec. Politics has made Quebec a central Canadian province. Geography makes it an Atlantic Canadian province as well. I often say that to our colleagues from Quebec.
You're a member of Parliament from British Columbia, and we have colleagues at this table, as well, who serve from that province. I'm open to understanding how we can create the circumstance for the industry. Harvesters who have spoken to me from your province are interested in benefiting from those policies.
I want the legislation—and that was our suggestion in the amendments you have before you—to be permissive if the circumstances in your province are appropriate for those policies to apply or to be phased-in over time. The legislation contemplates that, because it would be a regulatory provision made under the act.
In a sense, we have contemplated that, but we wouldn't presume that it would be the first place we'd apply it. We'd apply it where it has existed, I would argue, successfully, namely on the Atlantic coast. I'm wide open to figuring out how some of those benefits, which would be appropriate to British Columbia, could be applied to your province as well.
You're right, Mr. Hardie, that the oceans protection plan from our perspective is a very significant historic investment. A great deal of the work is obviously focused on the west coast. The same thing would apply on all of Canada's coasts.
In terms of the proper development of industries that necessarily use, for example, marine navigation and ocean transport, we think Canadians and the global community expect us to have world-leading safeguards to protect coasts, to prevent any environmental damage, but also to, for example, improve access of indigenous communities to search and rescue assets, to environmental response circumstances, and to improve the Coast Guard's capacity to respond to a whole series of incidents. There are search and rescue examples from the west coast and Newfoundland and Labrador, with real concerns expressed around search and rescue capacity that we've sought to improve.
All of those things, from our perspective, might.... The “crosswalk”, to use the bureaucratic phrase that my colleagues at the table will be pleased to hear me use, would probably be around modern safeguards. If we say that the legislation should have modern safeguards, we think that the government needs to have the tools to make those modern safeguards real for Canadians. It necessarily involves expenditures, and $1.5 billion in the oceans protection plan is a significant investment.
I would point out to colleagues that almost $300 million in additional dollars were also assigned to Bill and Fisheries Act modernization, so this legislation necessarily comes with an investment as well of almost $300 million.
I remember some of the discussion. As you say, in the months that followed the election, I think was Minister of Fisheries and Oceans at the time. I remember those discussions around Comox and colleagues from your province certainly raised it in our caucus and spoke to me about it. I have insisted that the Canadian Coast Guard respond to the concerns of British Columbians and ensure that the facilities that I visited in Sidney are able to provide the highest level of service necessary for people navigating on the west coast. I acknowledge there were some concerns around outages or service gaps, radio towers or electrical outages, in some circumstances. These were raised as perfectly understandable concerns.
The Coast Guard has assured me that the investments they're making, have made, and are committed to continuing to make, will provide the highest level of service possible and it will be a better level of service and reliability than would have existed with the technology in the previous MCTS circumstance.
Mr. Hardie, we don't have a senior official from the Coast Guard here, but I'll ask Philippe Morel to make sure that the commissioner of the Coast Guard gives you the details of the circumstances, the investments we're making, and how we believe the Sidney facility can provide the appropriate coverage in British Columbia. If you have specific questions or concerns, obviously, I would ask the commissioner of the Coast Guard to be available to respond to them, but we'll get back to you with specific examples of concerns we've heard and what we've done to remedy them. If you would like to have a further conversation, I'd be happy to do so.
I want to correct the record, Minister. I was on the fisheries committee when the review took place, and many people and groups were very much opposed to changing our Fisheries Act. Ron Bonnett, the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said,
|| The experience that many farmers had with the Fisheries Act, unfortunately, was not a positive one. It was characterized by lengthy bureaucratic applications for permitting and authorizations....
He went on to point out how much better the new Fisheries Act was. I was pleased to hear you talk about the sensitivity to rural areas, and that you want to do a better job.
The other thing that was discussed at that time was the need for quick reviews of damaged infrastructure to ensure this infrastructure could be repaired. However, I'm going to bring up a specific matter to you, a specific issue, because talking in generalities is not as helpful as bringing a specific example.
The Assiniboine River flows through Manitoba and the community of Portage la Prairie. That area is represented by the Manitoba Minister of Education, the Honourable Ian Wishart. He was doing some constituency work regarding an obstruction on the Assiniboine that, because of the low water now, the water is going around this obstruction and tearing away at the banks and has the potential to damage a housing development there. He called your department on September 29, 2017, and was told that the landowner in this particular case had to fill out a request for review form from the Government of Canada.
Being good citizens and because it is in-stream work to pull this obstruction out, they wanted to do the right thing. As of April 20, there has not been a response from your department whatsoever. That is shocking to me to have all those months go by with a serious infrastructure issue in place right now and your department has not responded to a Manitoba cabinet minister who is personally involved in this constituency issue. How can you let that happen under your watch?
Thank you, Mr. Morrissey. I think your question is germane in the sense that the codes of practice.... There are other jurisdictions—municipal organizations—that have successfully used this approach.
For the smaller municipal works projects and agricultural drainage operations, and where somebody wants to extend a particular dock by a few feet in an existing structure, we all have in our minds and our imaginations examples of what we would think of as small low-risk projects that necessarily need to be looked at in terms of ensuring that fish and fish habitat are protected. Canadians want to do the right thing when they're undertaking these kinds of works, as we've heard with respect to the minister from Manitoba.
We think that codes of practice, developed collaboratively with Canadians, with groups that have experience and interest in these particular structures, would say to Canadians that if they follow publicly available codes of practice...and we're looking at a way to ensure that we would be available to offer advice and support to people who say, “I want to undertake this particular local work project and I want to make sure I understand how a particular code of practice applies.” We need to be transparent and available to provide that advice and support, but if Canadians follow these codes of practice, then they're entirely compliant with the legislation, and the regulatory burden of requiring the authorizations, which necessarily take more time, would be alleviated.
We think that's the right balance between respecting the environment, fish, and fish habitat and also acknowledging that extending a dock or fixing a drainage facility in an agricultural operation in your province of Prince Edward Island or in western Canada is not necessarily the same thing as expanding a $200-million port operation on a particular river that has some of the most sensitive habitat and spawning grounds in the country. They're necessarily different discussions.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thanks for being here, Minister, and staff.
On your response to Mr. Rogers at the start about staying out of farmers' fields, I'm very happy to hear that. That's one of the reasons the changes in the Fisheries Act were made. It started at previous rural caucus with concerns brought forward by SARM, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities.
Mr. Minister, I have a question specific to my riding. I gave you a letter about three weeks ago, through Mr. Beech. The Municipality of Meaford leases a harbour off of DFO or the federal government. They have an agreement in writing that says for any damage to that harbour, the government or DFO is responsible for 100% of the repairs. A big storm took out a wharf last fall, in September, and DFO is coming back to my municipality saying they'll cover 50% of the costs up to $40,000, which means for anything over $80,000, in total, the municipality is supposed to pick up 100% of it. It's wrong. It's in writing.
Mr. Minister, if you haven't already, are you going to order DFO to follow the agreement they have with the Municipality of Meaford?