Blog Entry

"Sustainable Development" in the Canadian Government

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead

In 1995, the federal government issued a "Guide to Green Government" and the Auditor General Act was amended to made sustainable development an integral part of federal policy. All 28 federal departments were asked to develop and table sustainable development strategies in accordance with the Act. The first three-year departmental sustainable development strategies were tabled in Parliament in 1997. The 1995 amendments also established the office of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, whose rôle is to help Parliament and the Canadian public monitor implementation of sustainable development strategies and federal commitments to action.

All departments must update their sustainability strategies for the next three year period, and some are now holding public consultations. So far, we have focused on Environment Canada (EC) and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), both of which have provided draft documents for public "consultation". Neither of these documents provides a definition of sustainable development as development that is essentially constrained by ecological boundaries. Neither, as a result, attempts to provide a baseline from which to measure whether our activities are becoming more or less sustainable. They do not address the question whether human activity, "development," is still within the boundaries of global ecological health or whether we are already threatening the environment that sustains us. Both documents advance a model of "balance" between social, environmental and economic needs of present and future generations. This definition does not recognize the fact that balance based on perceived needs may lead to ecological collapse.

Both EC and NRCan seem to include in these documents much of what they are currently doing, without making a clear linkage to how these programs further sustainable development. Of particular concern in the NRCan document is the fact the department is using government money to fund research into the impacts of marine disposal of mine tailings, a project the industry strongly supports. Yet submarine tailings disposal contravenes the Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulations, threatens fish habitat, and contravenes Canada's Fisheries Act. On the other hand, Environment Canada's attempt to arrive at a "true value of Canada's natural capital: water, air, nature and wetlands" seems quite constructive. This project will certainly encourage debate about the economic value of healthy natural resources and may lead to a deeper debate about the value of healthy ecosystems for human health and survival.