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Who Ya Gonna Call?

The Commissioner of the Environment takes your questions

by Justin Ling

Scott Vaughan listens to questions from the audience.
Scott Vaughan listens to questions from the audience.
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Who Ya Gonna Call?

Some might call Scott Vaughan a modern-day Chicken Little.

But Vaughan is the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. He would know better than anyone if the sky really is falling.

At a talk and roundtable organized by the Nova Scotia Environmental Network, Vaughan blasted the government's lack of preparedness to protect citizens from, well, just about everything.

On oil platforms, like the ones that are plentiful off Nova Scotia's coast: “Does the government know the risks? No...Does the government have adequate data? The answer is no,” he said.

The principal in Vaughan's office, Jim Mackenzie, riffed on the same theme. “The federal government is not ready nor prepared for a major [oil] spill.” He said.

Together, they laid out what they perceived as a nearly all-encompassing failure on the part of the federal government to monitor, plan, prevent or deal with a range of environmental catastrophes, from oil spills to climate change.

Even at the most basic level, Vaughan said the government is not doing its job. “The government doesn't know enough about groundwater,” he said, pointing to the 1987 federal water strategy, which hasn't been updated since.

His assessment of Aboriginal reserves is even more grim. Of the 3000 reserves in Canada, he said, only 12 have their fresh water monitored by the federal government.

Government has, he said, done a good job of identifying the risks of climate change. They haven't, however, done anything substantive about it.

Vaughan works in the Auditor General's office in Ottawa. He reports to the speaker of the House, and therefore his office is supposed to be apolitical.

But, he points out that it's not always easy playing watchdog to the Harper government. “There's not many independent voices in Ottawa right now,” he says.

Vaughan remarked that there was certainly a silence from the general public on environmental issues. “Either Canadians are largely content,” he said as the four dozen people in the audience broke into laughter, “or they've given up on what's going on in Ottawa.”

Vaughan is hoping to solve that. He is heavily advertising a petition system through which Canadians can submit queries to his office, to which he will ensure that the appropriate officials respond. (They are required by law to respond within 120 days.)

Nova Scotians have made a number of enquiries through the system, including the very first. Unfortunately, while many Canadians were very satisfied with the process, 85% were dissatisfied with the response. That may have led to the drop in enquiries; from over 200 last year to just 18 this year.

The three panelists that spoke after Vaughan all fawned over the process, but disparaged the political willingness to take action.

Karen Casey is on the steering committee for the Coastal Coalition, a group that advocates for strategies to help those along shorelines deal with climate change. She lauded Vaughan's work on researching the issues at hand. “This is not nice-to-know research...this is need-to-know,” she said.

Mark Butler, policy director for the Ecology Action Centre, spoke about his involvement in extending the George's Bank Moratorium and received a round of applause for his accomplishment. “It's not sexy work,” he said. It involves trying to monitor, report on and prevent oil spills off the coast of Nova Scotia. “It's a bit of a lottery – At some point [a major spill] is going to happen,” he said, adding that it would be catastrophic.

Butler pointed out that small spills happen off the province's coasts all the time, including 75,000 litres of diesel that sank with the Shovel Master. The Irving ship, he said, set sail without having had proper inspections, and in bad weather, knowing full well the risks.

The last panelist was Deborah Carver, the executive director of East Coast Environmental Law. She spoke on Bill C-469, the so-called 'environmental bill of rights,' which would afford every Canadian the basic right to be safe and healthy in their environment. Furthermore, she said, it would allow Canadians to apply to have legislation reviewed, or even rescinded, if it contravenes their rights. It would also allow Canadians to apply for investigations if they believe that the government is not doing enough to ensure that everyone is abiding by environmental regulations.

Gretchen Fitzgerald, chair of the Nova Scotia Environmental Network and organizer of the event, said she wants to remind everyone how environmentally vulnerable we are as Nova Scotians. By doing so, she hopes to encourage people to take action.

“[This is] a federal government that has fallen down on many fronts,” she said.

She did note that progress is being made by environmental activists, however, and that those activists now have a vital resource in Vaughan.

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Topics: Environment
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