McGuinty Government promises a Great Lakes Protection Act

By Dan McDermott, Chapter Director

Premier Dalton McGuinty’s commitment to enact a Great Lakes Protection Act (GLPA) was the one new environmental commitment put forward by the Liberals during last fall’s election. The environmental community responded positively to the pledge while noting that the funding component mentioned by the Premier was a modest one. It was also noted that the commitment contained no specifics as to what McGuinty saw as priority Great Lakes issues.

Skepticism regarding the promised legislation increased somewhat in the context of the Throne Speech reference to the GLPA. The promised target date of 2015 was a red flag on several levels as the Government’s minority reality brought into question their commitment to bring forward this bill within their current mandate. As well, environmental advocates remembered the Premier’s earlier bold commitment to phase out all Ontario coal-fired electricity generators by 2007. After first extending the deadline to 2009, this pledge was extended yet again to the current deadline 0f 2014.

With these cautions firmly in mind, a succession of developments has engendered optimism regarding the opportunities that the GLPA may present to the environmental community. Premier McGuinty’s appointment of Jim Bradley as Environment Minister sent a strong message of his government’s environmental commitment. Bradley had previously been Environment Minister in the 1985-1990 Peterson Government and was widely credited with breaking the impasse that led to the Canada-US Acid Rain agreement. To many, his reappointment to the environment portfolio was long overdue.

As 2011 came to a close word circulated through the ENGO community that Minister Bradley had been given responsibility for the GLPA. Soon after the Minister’s staff issued invitations to a January meeting in Toronto to discuss the many Great Lakes environmental issues in the context of the promised act. Sierra Club and other ENGOS weighed the possible priorities and determined that there were three dominant ones:

·         The reauthorization of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

·         Ontario regulation of water diversions between Great Lakes watersheds

·         Action to address the consistently low water levels of the upper Great Lakes

The January 11th meeting was productive and highly collegial. SCC Executive Director John Bennett and I attended representing the Club. Both of us had been privileged to have known and worked with  Jim Bradley for many years. Other ENGO leaders present had the benefit of this experience as well. Everyone present had the confidence that we are working with a minister with a strong environmental commitment and track record.

The discussion covered the gamut of Great Lakes environmental issues. All present came away with a sense of having been listened to. Follow up with specific MOE staff was arranged and committed to.  Our collective faith in Minister Bradley provided all of us with optimism re the fulfillment of Premier McGuinty’s Great Lakes pledge, as well as the knowledge that this Minister will do all he can for the Great Lakes within the framework of his mandate and budget.

These last two qualifiers must be taken seriously. Everyone in the room acknowledged the fiscal constraints that will limit what can be done and when. Until the GLPA becomes law and has defined place in the Ontario budget, the promise of the act will not be fulfilled. The next indication of the priority of the GLPA commitment will come with the release of the 2012 budget in March.

This stepped up McGuinty Government commitment to the Great Lakes is much needed and overdue. We know from the onset that the financial resources available to accomplish this mission will not be adequate to accomplish all that must be done. The elephant in the room, or more accurately not in the room, is the lack of a meaningful Great Lakes commitment on the part of the Harper Government. Successive Federal Governments have backed away from the Great Lakes stewardship responsibility that is obvious in the context of binational responsibility for the largest fresh water lake ecosystem in the world. The Ontario Government is now the sole Canadian Governmental voice speaking for Canada’s Great Lakes interests. The lack of a federal Canadian commitment to Great Lakes restoration work stands in stark contrast to the two billion dollar commitment of the US feds.

The enormity of the task and the meager resources available to meet it are sobering thoughts for Sierra Club as we work with the Ontario Government to advance the mission of protecting the Great Lakes. Our starting point is our faith in any environmental partnership involving Jim Bradley. Our caution is that Minister Bradley alone will not determine the scope of the Government’s commitment or the resources allocated to accomplish it. All that said, it must be remembered that a long journey begins with a single step. This first step toward an Ontario Great Lakes Protection Act is a firm one indeed.

   

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