Any respectable Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) requires some type of public involvement which is usually conducted in the form of public consultations (Sinclair & Diduck, 2001). In Québec, such public consultations are organized by the BAPE (Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement) which stems from the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks (BAPE, 2011). According to the BAPE’s website, it is an organization which allows citizens to gain information as well as express their concerns and points of view about projects which may have effects on the environment as well as their individual quality of life. The purpose of these consultations is to provide public perspective in an attempt to help the government reach decisions which will lead to sustainable development (BAPE, 2011).
Now, on paper this all sounds wonderful, but personally, I have some issues with the system. Recently I took part in one of these public information/consultation sessions concerning the expansion of the Boulevard Moïse-Vincent by the city of Longueuil. As a student of Environmental Assessment I thought this would be a great way to gain some insight into the handling of such public participation efforts.
From the very beginning, I was somewhat dismayed by how the event was being run. Clearly a significantly greater number of people showed up than was originally expected. Generally, one would anticipate this to be seen as a favourable sign for an organization whose main purpose is to try to involve the public in governmental decisions. Yet, the only feeling I got was that we were a burden: we were rushed into the room and ordered around in what I consider to be a fairly rude manner. In addition, I found that the Master of Ceremonies was rather curt; I even felt somewhat belittled.
Arguably, it also certainly did not help that many of the audience members were getting carried away with their emotions, speaking angrily, almost yelling, and practically insulting the project/proponents. Indeed, this may well be a case of a “vicious cycle” whereby the MC’s uninviting attitude was only fuelling the audience’s already present anger. Evidently, neither approach is one that favours open and honest communication.
I do feel as though the BAPE is making very good progress in its attempts to encourage the public to speak up about their concerns, as it was apparent from this one session that several public consultations sessions had already been undertaken at various locations and throughout various steps of the planning process. Nevertheless, respect and patience are the very basic elements required if the BAPE is truly seeking to have open and honest communication with the public. This would require not only a reform in the attitude of those conducting the consultations but also a change in the mindset of the public. However, as the latter is significantly more difficult to put into effect, providing BAPE personnel who can maintain a calm environment that invites the public to express their opinion in an equally calm manner would be a very important start.
Please note that I am well aware that my opinions are based on a single event and that perhaps others are not conducted in this way. All the same, it is not unlikely that this may well be the case for many other such consultations.
BAPE (2011). L’organisme. BAPE website. Retrieved September 21, 2011, from http://www.bape.gouv.qc.ca/sections/bape/organisme/index.htm
Sinclair, A.J. & Diduck, A.P. (2001). Public involvement in EA in Canada: a transformative learning perspective. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 21, 113-136.