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No Mere Budget Cut

Posted on September 9, 2011
Written by Bob Sandford

Bob Sandford

Let us be clear. Unless you believe that contracting a flesh-eating disease is a reasonable way to lose weight, it is difficult to interpret what is presently happening to Environment Canada as a mere budget cut. To accept what we have seen happen to this crucial federal government department as mere fiscal belt-tightening is to fall for a public relations cover-up. Canada’s most important environmental institution is not being trimmed. It is not just going through temporary hard times. It is being hollowed out, gutted, dismembered alive. It is being destroyed.

What is happening to Environment Canada should be of great concern to water managers throughout Canada. Because of warming mean temperatures, the hydrology of every region of the country is on the move. The agency responsible for monitoring these changes on a national scale is being utterly incapacitated. We are about to lose the baseline against which we measure the meaning of such changes in terms of their effect on our economy and our environment.

The water management community in this country would do well not to underestimate the relevance of Environment Canada monitoring and research. Despite huge cuts to the department in the 1990s, Environment Canada researchers still managed to produce two of the most influential assessments of the threats to our country’s water quality and availability to appear to date in this young century. These reports remain the foundation of water management planning throughout Canada. Environment Canada’s capacity to serve this country in this and other ways in the future, however, is now is doubt.

That the impact of these cuts has not been thought through is particularly obvious in the case of the Mackenzie River Basin. The federal government evidently needed to be reminded that cutting 21 of 23 monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories did not quite square with its internationally publicized commitment to “world class” monitoring of the downstream hydrological impacts of the oil sands. After Territorial and Aboriginal governments expressed extreme displeasure, Prime Minister [Harper] himself reversed that decision. But cuts elsewhere in the department continue unabated.

In August of this year, 70 per cent of the staff of Environment Canada’s Adaptation and Impacts Research Section was advised that they were subject to “workforce adjustment.” The group had already lost all of its term employees working on climatic design criteria, scenarios, and hazards for infrastructure codes and standards. Now, most of the group’s university co-location agreements in Canada are vulnerable, which will affect regional and national collaborative research on adaptation related to water and other natural resources, green infrastructure, and decision support, as well as international work with other countries and multinational agencies, including the United Nations. As the careful management of water is considered one of the most important ways of adapting to climate impacts, the implications of these cuts are obvious.

Five years ago, the current government determined on our behalf that rather than focusing on climate change mitigation it would focus on adaptation. It appears that with the decimation of Environment Canada, we are not committed to adaptation, either. What then, one might reasonably ask, are we committed to?

Bob Sandford is the EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations Water for Life Decade and a member of Canada’s national Forum for Leadership on Water. This op-ed appears in Water Canada’s September/October 2011 issue.

4 Responses to “No Mere Budget Cut”

  1. Meirav Even-Har says:

    Thank you Bob for this piece. Many of us working in the environmental sector have noticed years of cuts and a progressively worsening state of Environment Canada, and to some extent Natural Resource Canada.
    In my professional life I’ve heard first hand from EC employees. At international meeting where a federal employee refused to contribute to a group discussion on energy reduction in buildings because there was ‘just no point’ (to paraphrase) due to the “mood in Ottawa” – no money was going to be invested and that was that. As an environmental activist I’ve seen the ebbs and flows in terms of support for Environment Canada, but I’ve never seen so much funding and entire programs removed since the Harper government came into power. Even during the first minority government we – ENGOs – felt it.
    The dismissal of scientists and especially those who work on climate issues is non other than heart breaking. In a recent article for the CWRA journal, Shawn Marshall et. al. write about the inevitable decrease of glaciers in the Rockies. What stuck with me the most is the need for more research, for more data to fully understand the effects downstream. Will we even have anyone left at Environment Canada to make sense of the little information we have? I fear the cuts are deep, the damage great… but our collective silence over this is outrageous.

  2. Hello Bob,
    I have just now friends from Saskatchewan visiting me here in Switzerland, one of them working for a lifetime in Environment Canada and he works in water quality. I heard from them cuts of 700 jobs … but the miserable underlaying disaster is accoridng to him , that it is not the jobs but the programs, such as pesticides. He said that the loss of the experts in the field is the disaster. In fact it will be impossible to do the job should you realize there is a pesticide toxicological issue as there is no expertiese to deal with it. I am canadian and sadened by what is happening. What could be done to stop this dismantling of the the leading role water quality expertiese Canada has had for a long time.
    Margarete

  3. Beth Petersen says:

    I read your article and the comments. This news is very upsetting to me. I am not a scientist, nor do I work in a government position. What can I do and others like me, as canadian citizens do to help stop these cuts from happening?If the studies aren’t done how do we know how best to protect our environment?

    Beth

  4. Brett says:

    We need to raise our concern as the Canadian public and let it be known to Harper that we are not okay with what is happening and how it will deeply affect all of us and our families. This is a sad moment for Canada.

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