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Canada’s Federal Court has just issued a ruling that grants the federal government complete latitude to block development projects in order to protect at-risk species. The species in question in this case is the western chorus frog, a one-gram amphibian listed in Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). It can be found, among other places, in La Prairie, the south-shore suburb of Montreal at the centre of this particular dispute.
Such a decision establishes a troubling precedent that could have wide-ranging negative consequences for the Canadian economy. This is especially true for regions that depend on the development of our abundant natural resources. For example, if the same logic were applied by the federal government to protect the woodland caribou, also listed in the SARA, thousands of Canadians jobs would be threatened.
Environment and Climate Change Canada recently published a report criticizing the measures taken by the provinces to protect the woodland caribou from coast to coast, and imposed on them a deadline to put in place its proposed recovery plan. This plan would significantly reduce the area where human activity can take place, without necessarily reaching its population protection targets.
In light of this Court decision, a unilateral intervention by the federal government in the case of the woodland caribou is more likely than ever. The consequences wouldn’t be benign.
For instance, roughly half of Ontario’s forestry activity takes place in woodland caribou habitat and could therefore be affected. This portion of Ontario’s forestry industry represents $2.6 billion in economic activity and 18,300 direct jobs in communities that depend on it, such as Kenora, Thunder Bay, and Cochrane.
The Montreal Economic Institute has also estimated that a moratorium on forestry activity in woodland caribou habitat would eliminate over 5,700 jobs in the province of Quebec and cost the forestry industry $740 million. In a nutshell, for every woodland caribou saved in Quebec, 72 jobs and $9 million in economic activity would be wiped out.
The economic impact would not be limited to forestry. Recreational tourism activities like hunting and fishing, as well as mining activity and the presence of various sorts of infrastructure, would also be targeted by the recovery plan. It would raise the economic costs considerably.
Everyone agrees that Canada’s biodiversity is a precious gift that must be preserved. Conservation efforts are not automatically a hindrance to economic development. This is why the federal government must go forward with a balanced approach when pondering appropriate action to take to protect at-risk species. That means it should also cooperate with each province that actually has its own equivalent of SARA.
In fact, the Species at Risk Act itself requires that the socioeconomic effect on communities must also be considered in the implementation of habitat protection measures.
The Court’s decision, if it is upheld, could have a profound effect on development projects across this country for decades to come. The federal government must not be given a free pass to ignore the impact of its decisions on jobs and economic activity across Canada.
What this ruling appears to allow is tantamount to the complete disregard of the legitimate concerns of provinces, and of private property itself, by Ottawa. Provincial decision-makers and economic stakeholders would be well-advised to take heed, and indeed to fight back against this regulatory overreach.
Alexandre Moreau est analyste en politiques publiques à l’Institut économique de Montréal. Il signe ce texte à titre personnel.