The weakening of Canada’s environmental protection laws – an obsolete NAFTA to blame?

On 27 January 2015, the Council for the Commission of Environmental Cooperation (CEC), NAFTA’s environmental arm, unanimously elected to prevent an investigation meant to assess Canada’s poor environmental management record as it pertains to the continuous leaking of tailings ponds into the Athabasca River1. Two non-governmental organizations and three private citizens filed the complaint with the CEC in September 2010, alluding to the federal government’s failure at enforcing the Federal Fisheries Act1.

Dale Marshall, National Energy Program Manager with Environmental Defence, explains2:

“The blow is to the people who are being affected by toxic pollution and whose government just turned their back on” Dale Marshall, Environmental Defence2

The CEC’s recent decision to thwart public scrutiny of an ecologically devastating issue of long date is the third occurrence of its kind within the last year3. The irresponsibility, lack of transparency, and political biases introduced by the inability of NAFTA’s signatories to see this investigation through hints not only at the federal government’s conflict of interests with the tar sands industry, but also at NAFTA’s growing ineptitude and obsolescence with respect to the enforcement of existing environmental laws in Canada.

Established in the wake of NAFTA’s inception in 1994, the CEC is a tripartite inter-jurisdictional review body mandated to support the protection, conservation, and enhancement of environmental concerns4,5. It does so through the production of citizen- and NGO-driven inquiries, called factual records, into Canadian, Mexican or American governmental behaviours deemed neglectful of their environmental policies5. The CEC was created as a safeguard to ensure the free trade agreement did not result in the creation of pollution havens, a race-to-the-bottom for environmental standards, and an increase in environmental impacts6.

As multiple examples suggest, however, NAFTA is riddled with inherent weaknesses which, taken together, have strongly contributed to the regressive environmental platform that now typifies the federal Canadian context.

Alberta’s booming oil and gas industry is the poster child of post-NAFTA economic growth in Canada, with industry pressures routinely exerting their stronghold over Canadian federal policy direction. The budget cuts of 2009, 2010, and 2012, introduced under alluring aliases like Jobs and Growth, have repeatedly gutted key environmental acts, introducing changes that proposed the elimination of the “legal protection of navigation on 99 per cent of Canada’s lakes and rivers”7, that exempt “certain pipeline projects from the requirement to respect reasonable measures to protect critical habitat of species protected under SARA [Species At Risk Act]”6, that have weakened the CEAA, and that eased tolerable levels of harm incurred to fish or fish habitat as per the Federal Fisheries Act6. Canada formally abandoned its Kyoto obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in 20116, and repealed the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act in 20127. Environment Canada’s overall funds were cut by nearly 30 per cent by the 2014 budget8.

The CEC’s decision thus comes with much frustration but as no surprise. In its twenty years of generating factual records, the CEC has put forth 29 votes on petitions9. Only five of those votes resulted in the outright rejection of an investigation – three of which have befallen Canadian practices in the last 12 months10. In 2014, motions registered with the CEC to report on the lack of protection of polar bears under the Species at Risk Act and on the violation of the Federal Fisheries Act through harmful fish farming practices off the coast of British Columbia were successfully vetoed with the same nonchalance seen with the Alberta tailings case10. Perhaps the time has come to recognize the obsolescence of our trade agreements, their affiliate organizations, and the policy space they occupy.



1 Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Alberta Tailings Ponds. Registry of Submissions. Update 27 January 2015. Available from Accessed 8 February 2015

2 Global News. NAFTA Watchdog Won’t Investigate Oilsands. Released on 29 January 2015. Available from Accessed on 8 February 2015.

3 Schindler, D.W. (2014). Unravelling the complexity of pollution by the oil sands industry. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science, 111(9), 3209-3210.

4 Garver, G. & Podhora, A. (2008). Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment as Part of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 26(4), 253-263.

5 Commission for Environmental Cooperation. (2014). About the CEC. Available from Accessed on 8 February 2015.

6 Garver, G. (n.d.). Forgotten Promises: Neglected Environmental Provisions of the NAFTA and the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. Available from Accessed 8 February 2015.

7 Johnston, A. Canada Gutting its International Reputation Along with its Environmental Laws. West Coast Environmental Law. Posted on 14 November 2013. Available from Accessed 8 February 2015.

8 Nikiforuk, N. Facing Millions in Cuts, Environment Canada Prepares to Get Lean. The Tyee. Posted on 15 March 2014. Available from Accessed on 8 February 2015.

9 Skene, J. (2015). Failure to Investigate Tailings Ponds Sends the Wrong Signals on NAFTA Environmental Oversight. Tar Sands Solution Network. Available from Accessed 8 February 2015.

10 McDiarmid, M. NAFTA scrutiny of oilsands tailings ponds opposed by Canada. CBC News, Politics. Posted on 12 January 2015. Available from Accessed on 8 February 2015.

11 Libby, H. & Linnitt, C. (2013). Fort McMurray, Home to 176 Square km of Tar Sands Tailings Ponds, Overwhelmed by Floods. Desmog Canada. Available here Accessed 9 February 2015.


The Boreal Connection: The Role of Canada’s Northern Forests in Mitigating Climate Change

By Rox-Ann Duchesne

“[Humanity’s] collective actions have brought us into uncharted territory. A growing number of scientists think we’ve entered a new geological epoch that needs a new name – the Anthropocene” [1].

Increases in the intensity and rate of human activity since the dawn of the industrial revolution has effected unprecedented change on the environment, illustrated amongst other things by the cataclysmic shifts in climatic patterns whose repercussions now characterize our news feeds. These shifts exert pressure on countless environmental variables. Diligently considering, integrating, and mitigating the significance of these environmental changes within impact assessment practice is key in developing sustainable business standards, but requires an understanding of both the sources and the corollaries of climate change. An oft-forgotten ally in the climate change discussion is none other than Canada’s vast expanse of boreal forest. What exactly is its role in the global climate equation?

How does the Boreal Forest Affect Climate Change? 

Forests are central in the local and global regulation of climate and weather patterns through their ability to sequester carbon. Canada’s boreal region, which encompasses nearly 75% of Canadian forested land [2], is the most important contiguous and ecologically unspoiled forest on earth, spreading 1.3 billion acres wide [3]. It is thus one of the earth’s biggest carbon sinks, storing anywhere between 186 [4] to 208 billion metric tons of carbon [5] (estimates vary greatly). This large storage capacity alone can markedly accelerate or decelerate the progression of climate change through its influence on global carbon cycles [6].

Through forest stands, permafrost, peat mosses and wetlands, and the boreal forest captures and stores double the quantities of carbon than its tropical counterpart [7][8]. Cooler northern climates inhibit the decay of dead biomass, allowing a slow accumulation of carbon over time [7][9]. Peatlands and wetlands, 30% of the Canadian boreal makeup, offer a shocking return on investment. Globally, they represent a mere 3% of land coverage, but sequester 30% of global terrestrial carbon stocks [10]. In Canada, carbon stored in peatlands represents roughly 26 years of global emissions derived from fossil fuel [5].

Source: author

“Peatland is 95 percent water. This means that peat is wetter than milk but you can walk over it. It’s the closest you can get to Jesus Christ.” [5]

However, according to recent research, most carbon sinks are located below ground, in the permafrost soils of the higher latitudes. Affectionately coined “carbon bombs,” the vast carbon reserves stored in the frozen grounds beneath the circumpolar boreal forests have been logistically difficult to quantify. Liberal estimates, all nations confounded, suggest 1.6 trillion metric tons are buried beneath our glacial feet [11], prompting scientists to commend even greater reductions in worldwide fossil fuel emissions in efforts to stave off the ticking carbon time bomb roused by thaw.

Despite being the largest terrestrial ecosystem, and one of the world’s most extensive biomes, boreal forests remain routinely overlooked in climate change discussions [7], and hardly figure in global carbon accounting [10]. Estimates and available modelling on the inventory and the storage capacity of the various plant communities of the boreal ecosystem vary greatly [12], exacerbating the difficulties in defining accounting matrices for use in environmental assessment and in crafting opportunities for carbon sequestration and trading [6].

Nevertheless, every year, Canada’s boreal habitat increasingly succumbs to loss and degradation, with spruce groves yielding to commercial harvest, giving in to energy exploitation and development projects, or simply conceding to the rise of insect infestations and the increased instances and severity of forest fires brought on by climate change. Formalized cap-and-trade partnerships like California and Quebec’s recent endeavour are a positive step in the effort to reduce emissions, but a parallel strategy to protect our northern heritage needs to be incorporated within market-based initiatives to properly and sustainably harness its value.


[1] [Author Unknown]. (n.d.). Welcome to the Anthropocene. Retrieved from

[2] Nature Conservancy Canada. Boreal Forest. Retrieved from

[3] Nature Conservancy Canada. Boreal Forest Agreement: Striking an Accord for People and Nature. Retrieved from

[4] American Museum of Natural History. (2010, August 19). Science Bulletins: The Ecology of Climate Change. Retrieved from

[5] Biello, D. (2009, December 8). Peat and Repeat: Can Major Carbon Sinks Be Restored by Rewetting the World’s Drained Bogs? Scientific American. Retrieved from

[6] Bhatti, J.S. et al. (2003). Carbon Balance and Climate Change in Boreal Forests. In Burton, P.J., et al. (Eds.), Towards Sustainable Management of the Boreal Forest (pp. 799-855). Retrieved from

[7] Carlson, M., Wells, J., & Roberts, D. (2009). The Carbon the World Forgot. Retrieved from the Boreal Songbird Initiative website:

[8] Petersen, R., Sizer, N., & Lee, P. (2014, July). Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest. World Resources Institute. Retrieved from’s-largest-boreal-forest

[9] Biello, D. (2008, September 11). Old-Growth Forests Help Combat Climate Change. Scientific American. Retrieved from

[10] International Boreal Conservation Campaign. (n.d.). Carbon Storage in Canada’s Boreal Forest. Retrieved from

[11] Kintisch, E. (2012, December 7). Ticking Arctic Carbon Bomb May Be Bigger Than Thought. Science. Retrieved from

[12] Carlowicz, M. (2012, January 9). Seeing Forests for the Trees and the Carbon: Mapping the World’s Forests in Three Dimensions. Retrieved from