One Week After Passing Omnibus Bill, Ontario Gov’t Wants to Talk Conservation

A little over a week after passing a budget omnibus bill that forced some sudden and substantive changes to the Conservation Authorities Act, the Minister of the Environment is now inviting everyone to take part in a working group to get input on developing new regulations for conservation authorities, and how best they should be governed.

“As we move forward together, we want to build stronger relationships with conservation authorities so we can work together to ensure consistent best practices, good governance and appropriate accountability to best serve the people of Ontario,” said Jeff Yurek in a statement Wednesday.

Starting in January, a group that will include representatives from Ontario conservation authorities and “other experts” will meet to discuss a variety of topics including what mandatory core programs and services that authorities should provide, delivery agreements between authorities and municipalities for non-mandatory programs and services, and more opportunities for public engagement.

The exact make-up of the working group will be announced “in the coming weeks”, but Hassaan Basit, the President and CEO of Conservation Halton, Halton Region’s conservation authority, was on-hand for the announcement, and voiced his support for the working group and its goals.

“Partnerships and collaboration are critical to ensure that conservation authorities can continue making watershed-based resource management decisions in the interest of the environment, health, and safety,” said Basit. “Alongside conservation authorities across Ontario, Conservation Halton is looking forward to working with the province, offering scientific expertise and leadership, in the development of regulations pertaining to recent amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act contained in Bill 229.”

At least one person though is not looking forward to working with Yurek and the working group, and is criticizing the government for putting the cart before the horse.

“After spending the last few months attacking conservation authorities, I find it ironic that the Ford government wants to set up a working group to figure out how to empower conservation authorities,” said Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner. “Ford should have set up the working group before gutting the ability of conservation authorities to protect us from flooding.”

Schreiner said that Ontarians should not be fooled by Wednesday’s announcement, and called it a “cover up” on the part of Premier Doug Ford who’s trying to undermine conservation authorities to make it easier to develop environmentally sensitive land.

“If Doug Ford was genuinely interested in working with conservation authorities and hearing public opinion, then he should have listened to the voices of Ontarians across the province who opposed Schedule 6 of Bill 229,” Schreiner added. “Rather than listening, the Premier doubled down on his attack on nature and gave full authority to the Minister to override science-based decisions to protect us from flooding.”

Bill 229 was passed last week with Schedule 6 intact. Many critics, including Schreiner, felt that the changes to the Conservation Authorities Act in the bill will allow developers to bypass the concerns of conservation authorities, reduce user fees at parks and trails, and will override the authorities’ ability to issue stop work orders, or issue fines for things like illegal dumping.

Over 150 local governments, conservation authorities and advocacy groups including the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) and Guelph City Council voiced concern that the changes to the Act came and went too fast to get proper, quality feedback to those changes.

“While the government took into consideration some of our feedback by making revisions to sections in Schedule 6 involving board governance and the ability for conservation authorities to issue stop orders, unfortunately, these changes don’t completely address our concerns,” said Grand River Conservation Authority chair Helen Jowett in a statement after the vote.

Despite the changes, and the fact that they were swiftly moved through the legislature only a month after they were first announced, Jowett said that she and the rest of the GRCA Board are ready take part in any working group or any engagement process mandated by the Province to update the management, policies, or regulations of conservation authorities in Ontario.

“We hope that they will work with us to ensure that the new regulations serve the best interests of the residents of the Grand River watershed and all Ontarians,” Jowett added.

Along with the formal working group, Yurek said that there will also be a public participation portion of the review, and more details on that will be announced sometime in the new year.

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