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Blocking Bill C-311 and the Need for Democratic Reform

Halifax environmental groups speak out on Senate's sacking of Climate Change Accountability Act

by Steve Caines

Blocking Bill C-311 and the Need for Democratic Reform

It was another turbulent weather day in Nova Scotia as Gretchen Fitzgerald, director of Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, spoke about the sacking of Bill C-311. Storm surge and wind warnings had been issued for the region; ninety kilometer gusts and heavy rains had knocked out power for thousands across the province. It was an ironic backdrop for a discussion on the now defunct Climate Change Accountability Act.

“I am appalled, saddened, ashamed...and I am frightened by this action” said Fitzgerald. “All of the passion that we saw from youth and activists in the lead up, the decisions of the people we all voted for, have been denied without debate by unelected people”.

On November 16th, the Senate of Canada killed Bill C-311. First introduced to the House of Commons in October 2006 and passed earlier this year, the proposed Climate Change Accountability Act would have required government to enact regulations and policies to ensure the country:

  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and
  • reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050

“The Climate Change Accountability Act was a fantastic initiative and a wonderful step, developed with science-based targets to establish necessary emission reductions for the country. And it aimed to go a step further, by legislating accountability on the part of government, to provide extra clout so that no government could wiggle out of it” Fitzgerald said. “A real plan on climate change has the support of many folks in industry, because they want a level playing field”.

The Act, which also would have included mandatory reporting mechanisms for government, was approved by the House of Commons on May 5th 2010. But for the first time in some 70 years, the unelected Senate simply blocked a piece of legislation that had been passed by the House.

“Yet again now we will go into climate talks with no real plans” lamented Fitzgerald, referring to the scheduled international meeting in Cancun. “We are asking people to write the Governor General and tell him that legislation should reflect the majority of Canadians. We need this process fixed”.

Many MPs who voted for the legislation have expressed shock and disappointment with the actions of the Senate on November 16th. Megan Leslie, MP for Halifax, voiced concern over the events in an email dated December 6th: 

“With the guidelines for emission control as set out in Bill C-311, Canada was given an opportunity to be a leader in the fight against catastrophic climate change. From the outset the Conservative government has been vocal and unabashed in their opposition to this piece of legislation. By subverting the will of the House and using his appointed Conservative Senators, Prime Minister Harper has once again demonstrated his lack of commitment to honouring the wishes of Canadians. As a result of the vote by the Prime Minister’s stacked Senate, Canada’s already shaky position on the world stage has further been tarnished”.

Leslie, elected to the House in the 2008 federal election, vowed “to not let this issue lie without a fight”. But it is unclear what recourse if any the NDP has to argue the Senate's decision.

Brennan Vogel, Energy and Climate Change Coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, expressed his views on the demise of the Bill.

“What happened to Bill C-311 is a function of systemic problems that exist in Canada's democratic system.” he said. “Until the systemic problems are addressed, until we have Senate reform and reform within the electoral process, I don't think we're going to be getting the policies we need at the federal level.”

“Stephen Harper has done what he promised never to do, and his government is providing a good case study for how dysfunctional this country is. This government does not represent the majority” he said.

Without any formal debate of the Bill in the Senate, citizens can't even be certain why it was in fact defeated. However, it is likely that the Senate's justification for the defeat is the same as the Conservative Party's justification for opposing the Bill: implementing such ambitious emission targets would hurt Canada economically. Is there any truth to this claim?

“Anyone who has looked into the issue knows that it is not a matter of environment versus jobs, but about choosing which kind of jobs and which industries we want to support” said Fitzgerald. “Do we want to be part of the clean energy future or not?”.

Vogel also feels the argument is without merit. “Any forward-thinking government that knows what the challenges of the 21st Century are will be looking at a plan like this as an opportunity, not a detriment. By not viewing legislation like this as an opportunity Canada is being left behind on the issues of improving energy efficiency and other aspects of the green economy”.

What can environmentalists and climate justice activists in NS do now that Bill C-311 has been ignored?

“There are systemic problems impeding progress at the national level. While we should continue to apply pressure there, the province still has progressive goals that are consistent with Kyoto, and we can continue to work at that level” Vogel said. 

Fitzgerald expressed the same urgency to continue working at the provincial as well as municipal levels. And “now is not the time to lessen the pressure” on the federal government she said, despite the Senate’s killing of the Bill.

She summed up her views on the current situation succinctly: “We've all changed our light bulbs. Now we need to change how our political system works”.

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Topics: Environment
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