Conservatives terminate funding to Environmental Networks

HALIFAX—Grassroots environmental groups and organizers were hit hard by the federal government's announcement on October 13 that the half-million dollars that funds Canada's environmental networks will be terminated. For people like Katherine Gagne of Gays River, NS, this means the opportunities she has had to engage with the province of Nova Scotia about the lead and zinc mine in her village have disappeared. But speaking at a press conference in Halifax on October 19, Gagne argued that the biggest loser in this deal is government.

"For this tiny amount of money, Environment Canada is shooting itself in the foot," she said, explaining that paid bureaucrats are obligated to use taxpayers' resources to respond to all citizens' correspondence and concerns. "NSEN [Nova Scotia Environmental Network] has shown us how to approach government and community in an intelligent way."

Gagne said that with support from NSEN, she and her neighbours formed the Gay's River Valley Environmental Protection Association, and have been working to ensure a nearby lead and zinc mine operates strictly within regulations of the Departments of Natural Resources and the Environment.

"A lot of people like me want to get involved, but we need some kind of structure to help form the relationships," she said.

The (Reseau) Canadian Environmental Network (RCEN) was established in 1977 to promote and streamline environmental work being done by grassroots organizations and to provide Canadians working on the ground a platform for engagement with Environment Canada and their provincial departments.

In fact, RCEN plays a critical role in democratic policy-building in Canada, functioning as the formal mechanism for federally-legislated consultations on environmental policy and projects; "meaningful public participation" is called for in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

"Small and often volunteer organizations take part in these consultations," said Jennifer McGowan from the Ecology Action Centre, another NSEN member group. Through the RCEN, "the environmental community decides who best speaks to a particular consultation topic, through a transparent application process," she said. In this way, community-sourced, scientific, Indigenous and traditional knowledge is filtered to provincial and federal policy.

"RCEN is not a special interest lobby group," said McGowan, who added, tongue-in-cheek, "This announcement only affects Canadians who breathe air and drink water and eat food."

"'Austerity measures' is code for 'spending priorities,'" said Angela Giles of the Council of Canadians, pointing out that these priorities were playing out the very day of the NSEN-organized press conference. While the panel addressed the Harper government's $547,000 cutback to grassroots environmental work across the country, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter was at the Halifax shipyards to congratulate Irving Shipbuilding on its $25 billion federal contract win. Media attention was painfully absent at RCEN's press conference (this volunteer reporter was the sole media person present). And the announcement that cut nearly $20,000 from Nova Scotia's environmental communities alone also came the day after Dexter announced a $10 million provincial investment in aerospace and defence jobs in Nova Scotia.

The nation-wide cuts amount to $547,000—the entire core budget for RCEN's Ottawa office, the 10 provincial networks and the Yukon network. Nova Scotia's allotment—based on population—would have been $18,000.

In an October 13 letter to RCEN, Environment Canada's Nancy Roberts wrote that the decision to cut the network's funding "reflects a broader shift away from providing core organizational part of Environment Canada's ongoing efforts to allocate its resources in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible."

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