What Does the Liberal Federal Government Mean for Environmental Issues?

Mairin Gettman, OWC Intern and Political Science Student at the University of Lethbridge, shares insight into what we can expect and her hope for an active citizenry. It is inspiring to see young watershed residents getting involved in politics and we encourage Mairin’s continued initiative!

A change in government is always exciting but can also make us anxious: what kinds of changes will this new regime make? Will they be positive changes? How well will they collaborate with the provinces? A looming issue, largely disregarded by the previous federal government has been climate change and the associated practices that contribute to the warming of the Earth, such as carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Canada’s new Liberal government’s environment policies thus far promise to reinstate environmental protections that were place prior to 2012, and take action on international and domestic climate change goals. While municipalities take care of water supply and sanitation under provincially legislated guidelines, jurisdiction over water is a collaborative effort between provinces and the federal government; more specifically, provinces take the lead on water management and protection, while the federal government is responsible mainly for conservation and protection of oceans, resources, fisheries, navigation, and international relations.

While both provincial and federal areas of jurisdiction can participate in shared activities on any environmental issue, they typically share responsibility for: agriculture, health, and national water related issues. In the past, this collaboration has been realized through the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment. This institution conducts research, helps link science with policy, helps set water quality guidelines, as well as links water monitoring networks. It is a joint consultation process between provinces and the federal government and legislated under the Canada Water Act (1985), which states that governments may enter into joint agreements regarding federal waters, or any waters which require greater, national attention.

This means that health and management of our water begins at the federal level, and after ten years under the previous government, a political window has now opened for environmental change. This paper will attempt to show that although the Liberal platform regarding environmental promises rests largely on repealing decisions made by the previous government, those wishing to move forward with watershed protection legislation, a window of opportunity has opened – providing that citizens hold the new representatives accountable.

Environmental Changes Made to Bill C-38

In 2012, as part of a new federal budget act, the Jobs, Growth and Prosperity Act, or Bill-C38 – an omnibus bill, a practice that was frowned upon by all Opposition parties in the House of Commons, media, policy experts, and the public - was passed through the Senate despite controversy and criticism. This 450 page bill made changes to over 50 Acts, even repealing some, and was largely criticized for changes made to Acts that had little to do with the measures it reported to be reforming. In the case of water and the environment, several Acts such as the Fisheries, Canadian Environmental Protection, Species At Risk, Seeds, Kyoto Protocol Implementation, National Energy Board, and Navigable Waters, to name a few, had their regulations and restrictions loosened, encouraging a relaxed approach to conservation and protection of areas such as rivers and oceans.

Major changes to environmental policy under the previous federal government include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Environmental Impact Assessments are no longer required by law unless otherwise proposed by the federal government. 
  • It is no longer a requirement to have an independent panel review. -
  • The definitions of “environmental effects” was narrowed – limited to site specific impacts vs. location (the entire area in which a site, such as a river crossing, is situated). -
  • Decision-making now formally conducted by Cabinet instead of the department that is responsible for environment management and oversight. -
  • There is no longer any implementation plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. -
  • Removed the time limits on activities that affect species at risk, such as logging in certain areas (previously time limits were between 3-5 years).

Many of these changes pave the way for some energy groups to proceed with projects without due process - this includes consultation with stakeholders such as First Nations. It is sometimes assumed that regulation costs more money, while some argue that it is relatively inexpensive to implement. Despite which approach may be more financially accurate, environmental protection and conservation is a salient, nuanced issue in Canada considering our wealth of natural resources and various functions it provides for our communities.

When experts and the public discovered that many of the protection laws for our water were relaxed or abolished outright, there was public outcry against these policies, seemingly ignored by the government of the time.

Regime Change: What Will Come Next

It’s important to first note that the Liberal Party of Canada has historically been a centrist, “broker” party. For example, the Prime Minister designate, Justin Trudeau, has extended an invitation to all of the provincial premiers to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this November, as well as federal financial assistance for provinces to develop their own emissions reductions plan, targeted at their specific industries.

This has been hailed as a return to the “old” Canadian democratic convention of inclusion. In fact, the new Liberal government has a wide variety of environmental and climate change proposals, but many of their policy changes which affect water conservation, protection, and management largely include amendments of the legislative changes made under the previous federal government. Justin Trudeau has pledged to strengthen our environment laws, better protect marine habitat, reinstate the $40 million dollars previously cut from the ocean science and monitoring departments, and to remove federal subsidies for energy sectors.

These promises cannot help but instill some hope in those wishing to restore or enhance our environmental protection laws. The Liberal party also pledged to encourage more community engagement and participation:

“We will conduct a wholesale review of these changes and restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards. The protection of our freshwater resources will be an imperative. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples will be included in the reshaping of federal environmental laws and policies to ensure respect of rights and to reflect Indigenous values in federal legislation and regulations.”

From the Liberal Party Platform on Environment and Economy

However, some of the Liberal pledge includes policies that many people disagree with - this is the plight of a “broker” party in its attempt to best appease all sides of an issue. Thus far, not much criticism has been administered by the other parties, perhaps due to two main factors.

First, the election is still fairly recent, and the losing parties took a huge blow with major losses and a sweeping Liberal majority. Second, the environment and climate change is a very relevant, universally agreed upon issue, with a majority of the Canadian public and most politicians in agreement that action needs to happen swiftly and effectively. Elements of the Liberal environment platform can be found distributed amongst the other federal parties: Conservative focus on provincial regulation vs federal, and NDP and Green Party carbon pricing (tax).

On the other hand, environmental advocates such as David Suzuki have criticized Trudeau for being “too all over the map” regarding pipeline endorsement, while GreenPeace Canada has issued a formal statement of mixed review, claiming that the Liberal platform is too vague yet admiring Trudeau’s commitments like banning oil tankers off the west coast. It will be interesting to note other parties concerns and criticisms as they begin to surface.

For the Future

The previous government was in power for ten years, and is being critiqued by some as having the worst environment policies on record, reducing environmental protection laws, failing to meet reduction emissions, and even abolishing certain protection laws altogether. A new government has the ability to represent a window of opportunity in an open political system such as Canada’s. It is also our civic duty as stewards of the watershed to hold our new government responsible. By being as well informed as possible, we the citizenry are best able to hold our new government accountable for its promises and policy action. The democratic process of electing government representatives is the best way to have our voices heard, but if we are silent, the democratic process becomes irrelevant. The health and management of our watershed depends on it.


Real Change: A New Plan for Canada’s Environment and Economy: https://www.liberal.ca/files/2015/08/A-new-plan-for-Canadas-environment-and-economy.pdf Retrieved on October 27, 2015.

Real Change: Protecting Our Oceans: https://www.liberal.ca/files/2015/09/Protecting-our-oceans.pdf Retrieved on October 27, 2015.

Bill C-38: What you need to know: https://politicsofevidence.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/c-38-factsheet.pdf Retrieved on October 27, 2015.

Canada Water Act: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-11/index.html Retrieved on October 28, 2015.

A Rough Guide to Bill C-38: http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/a-rough-guide-to-bill-c-38/ Retrieved on October 28, 2015.

Election Issues 2015: A Maclean’s primer on climate: http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/climate-primer/ Retrieved on October 28, 2015.

Justin Trudeau’s environmental announcement too weak, vague: http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/Global/canada/pr/2015/06/Reaction-to-Trudeaus-announcement-ontheenvironment.pdf Retrieved on October 29, 2015.

Why David Suzuki called Justin Trudeau a twerp: http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/why-david-suzuki-called-justin-trudeau-a-twerp/ Retrieved on October 29, 2015.