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Canada's 2012 Budget Bill Guts Fisheries Act, a Cornerstone of Environmental Protection: Critics

Scientists, aboriginal leaders and even Conservative and Liberal politicians are lashing out at the Canadian government over new provisions in the Fisheries Act that they say kicks out a cornerstone of environmental protection in favor of harmful economic development.
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Scientists, First Nations leaders and even former ministers are askance at provisions in the budget bill of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that would dismantle much of the country’s Fisheries Act, a cornerstone of federal environmental policy.

The policy in question is the current ban on any activity that harms, disrupts or destroys fish habitat. It is being replaced, the Vancouver Sun and other media report, by a focus on fish and their value rather than on habitat. The changes are part of the same bill that another chief already said is taking the teeth out of environmental legislation as a whole.

“No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery,” The Georgia Straight quoted the bill as saying.

"This revision will remove habitat protection for most of Canada's freshwater fish," wrote Dalhousie University professor Jeffrey Hutchings in a letter to Ottawa on behalf of the 1,000 scientists belonging to the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE). He also serves on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the independent advisory board federal government when it comes to species at risk, which he also once chaired.

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The measure has also received censure from Conservatives Tom Siddon and John Fraser and Liberals David Anderson and Herb Dhaliwal, who wrote of their concerns in a separate joint letter to the government as well. All are from British Columbia and once served as federal fisheries ministers.

"Migratory salmon and steelhead are icons of our home province," they wrote, according to the Vancouver Sun. "Our experience persuades us that their continued survival would be endangered without adequate federal regulation and enforcement, particularly in the area of habitat protection."

This was done without input from or consultation with First Nations, though rather than state the obvious, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo merely posted a list of 16 questions about the legislation on the AFN’s site, the first one being, “What are the plans and timelines for consultation with First Nations on changes to the Fisheries Act?”

Question number two queries, “How will the DFO involve First Nations in consultations on any regulatory or policy frameworks that may emerge from the proposed changes?” and number three wants to know, “What resources will be made available to First Nations to participate in the consultation or engagement processes?”

He also asked for specific definitions of “aboriginal fisheries” as referenced in the bill, and of the term “serious harm,” among many other issues he raised.