Leef defends Ottawa’s fish protection plans

The federal government's goal is to strengthen fish habitat protection, not weaken it, says Yukon Conservative MP Ryan Leef.

The federal government’s goal is to strengthen fish habitat protection, not weaken it, says Yukon Conservative MP Ryan Leef.

He was responding to recent accusations by the federal NDP, which says it has leaked documents that show the government plans to gut the federal Fisheries Act.

The leak alleges the government plans to take “habitat protection” out of the federal act – without any public discussion.

“That’s absolutely not the case,” said Leef in an interview from Ottawa this week.

He sits on the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.

“I’m a bit bemused by the idea that anything was trying to be snuck under the radar because the (Fisheries) Minister (Keith Ashfield) attended committee and answered questions and, I think, has been pretty forthright in saying some comments he won’t make because the consultation process hasn’t been completed,” said Leef.

That consultation is currently going on with conservation organizations and fish and game associations and industry, among others, Leef added.

But the former Yukon conservation officer emphasized that the policy changes being considered will only ensure more time and attention is available for big projects in environmentally sensitive areas.

“Our aim is to have a stronger fisheries habitat protection system with the objective, obviously, of supporting fish population, conservation enhancement, but really to look at any policies that would be irritant,” he said. “Where policies are so broad and so generalized that we see unintended consequences from them. When you focus on the unintended or irritant application of (the Act), what we’re able to do then is maximize the time and quality spent on the projects that are most important.”

Leef then went on to the flooded fields and ditches example already used by Ashfield.

A couple of sucker fish in a flooded field should not slow down a road or construction project for “years and years and years or months and months and months,” said Leef.

Federal NDP fisheries critic Fin Donnelly isn’t convinced. He sees the example of flooded fields and ditches as an intentional distraction ploy to reduce the environmental assessment on major industrial developments, like Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to the Pacific coast.

But Leef believes there is a trend within big industry to be more willing and patient with environmental and aboriginal law and involvement in development.

It is really only with smaller projects that the section of the Fisheries Act that deals with habitat protection becomes too time-consuming and onerous, he said.

In the Yukon, the “big projects” that would see stronger environmental assessment would be “mines and big, big construction projects that are occurring in environmentally important areas,” said Leef.

The goal is to stop Ma and Pa operations from having to “re-route a tailings pond … to protect one fish,” said Leef, adding he thinks that’s something most people can agree with.

On the other hand, the government will be careful to not “open up Pandora’s box to big industry either,” said Leef.

But no matter what changes lie in the Fisheries Act’s future, nothing will erode regional regimes, Leef said.

“No policy change would be designed to impact the role that YESAA plays or the role that territorial environmental laws play at all,” he said.

“What we’re hoping to do is complement them, streamline them, so you have policies that people can negotiate and understand and apply properly.”

While the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment board refused to comment on the leaked documents, Donnelly, a B.C. MP, said removing “habitat protection” from Canada’s strongest environmental law would indirectly weaken regional assessment regimes and laws.

For example, when a project comes before YESAB, biologists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans do their assessment of possible problems. Because of the federal Fisheries Act, they can even apply for decision-making power on certain projects, which could allow their department to stop a project if it felt it would be too harmful to fish.

Even Leef admitted that the overlaps, strength and protection the federal act provides for the territory’s regime is undeniable.

If habitat protection is “gutted” from the federal law, the act will be effectively neutered, said Donnelly. It is the call to protect habitat that usually prompts environmental assessment.

The destruction a mine causes to a riverbed is obvious to see, assess and stop, he said. But fish stocks and samples take years to show obvious signs of change, and even then, proving a direct link to the cause is more than difficult in a court of law, he added.

“I have never seen anything as fundamentally disastrous as this,” Donnelly said of the Conservatives’ alleged plan.

And he’s not the only one.

John Fraser and Tom Siddon, two consecutive Conservative fisheries ministers under the Tory’s Brian Mulroney have spoken out about the leaked information.

The two former B.C. MPs have called it “a very serious error.”

Like Donnelly, they also suspect it was instigated by big industry wanting to move ahead with pipelines and mines.

Concerns from both sides of the issue are being heard loud and clear, said Leef, repeating Ashfield’s refrain that no decisions have been made yet.

And there are no plans to tack the changes onto the budget bill on Thursday, said Leef.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at