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Senator Plett warns that Agriculture will be negatively impacted by Bill C-68 (Amending the Fisheries Act)


Fisheries Act

Hon. Donald Neil Plett: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-68, An Act to amend the Fisheries Act and other Acts in consequence.

Let me say at the outset that I support the objective of this bill, which is to protect fish and their habitat for future generations. Born and raised in Manitoba, a province with over 110,000 lakes, covering more than 15 per cent of its surface area, I have a deep appreciation for the need to be excellent stewards of our waterways and fish habitat. However, my concern is that Bill C-68 not only fails to do this, but also places a significant burden on our agricultural sector. It is this impact on agriculture that I will be focusing my remarks on today.

Most of you will be aware that in 2012, the Conservative government — a government that actually stood by our farmers and did not work against them — introduced changes to the Fisheries Act designed to improve fisheries conservation, prioritize fish productivity, protect significant fisheries, and streamline an overly bureaucratic process. The amendments were well received by the ag sector because they addressed some long-standing issues.

Prior to these changes, the reach of the Fisheries Act had evolved over time to include entire watersheds, regardless of whether a body of water supported fish or not. This overreach not only encompassed naturally occurring watercourses, but also man-made structures such as irrigation channels and reservoirs.

As you can imagine, colleagues, this was a huge problem for farmers. These kinds of projects are commonly built by producers because they serve important agricultural purposes. Yet now they are being subjected to the same rules and guidelines as rivers, lakes and oceans.

Ron Bonnett, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, appeared before the House of Commons Fisheries Committee and described the impact of the legislation this way:

"Pre-2012, the experience of farmers was not positive, as it was characterized by lengthy bureaucratic applications for permitting and authorizations; a focus on enforcement and compliance measures, which were taken by officials, often with a lack of consistency; and a lack of guidance or outreach on the purpose of the measures being taken, or information on how to navigate through the [process]. . . . the Fisheries Act was cumbersome and created major delays for farmers seeking to do minor work, like clearing drainage systems on their land."

The previous Conservative government recognized the objective of legislation should be to deliver a public policy outcome, not simply protect a bureaucratic process. They amended the act to address the problems while continuing to provide for fish and fish habitat.

The amendments acknowledge the obvious fact that farmers need to be able to carry out projects such as digging ditches to prevent fields from flooding, and that these projects should not be treated the same as Lake Winnipeg or Lake Manitoba under the law. Farmers were quite happy with the revised act.

Mr. Bonnett told the House of Commons Fisheries Committee that:

"Many farmers were then relieved when the changes that were made just a few years ago drastically improved the timeliness and cost of conducting regular maintenance and improvement of activities to their farms as well as lifting the threat of being deemed out of compliance."

Regrettably, under Bill C-68, this is now being reversed.

Ironically, when this bill was first introduced by the government, farmers and ranchers were fairly supportive of it. But while it was at the House of Commons Fisheries Committee, the bill was amended to include subsection 2(2), which adds the following clause to the Fisheries Act:

"For the purposes of this Act, the quantity, timing and quality of the water flow that are necessary to sustain freshwater or estuarine ecosystems of a fish habitat are deemed to be a fish habitat."

In other words, every body of water that could support fish will be deemed to be fish habitat and subject to all corresponding requirements, regulations and restrictions.

It will not matter whether the body of water is naturally occurring or man-made. The dysfunctional system which was in place pre-2012 is being reimplemented and imposed on our farmers and ranchers without their consultation and, indeed, against all of their wishes and their ability to farm their land.

Senators, we should not underestimate the impact of this on our agricultural industry. According to the Grain Growers of Canada, ". . . a grain farmer would be prohibited from moving a drainage ditch or filling in a reservoir that is no longer needed, even if there has never been a single solitary fish in it.” They acknowledge that, “In theory, permits could be issued, but that is likely to be a burdensome and expensive process."

Earlier this week, I met with representatives from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Beef Producers of Ontario. The first thing on their agenda was concerns about this bill. To quote from their submission to the Senate, they state that, "The proposed Fisheries Act expands substantially on the scope of what was already too expansive. It is an extremely small list of water bodies that would not be either fish habitat or deemed fish habitat. This, in turn, means the prohibitions apply almost everywhere and to almost all activities."

The Cattlemen’s Association goes on to give a practical example of an agricultural ditch which has no fish and is not connected to any water body with fish. In spite of this, they note: “The deeming provision that because the quantity, timing and quality of water flow could be comparable to other agricultural ditches that support fish populations, this ditch could be deemed fish habitat with the attached prohibitions.”

Colleagues, it goes without saying that farmers and ranchers in Canada are some of the very best land and natural resource stewards in our country. They do not need to be threatened or bullied into protecting the environment. They live close to the land. Their livelihood depends on sustainable agricultural and environmental practices. Environmental stewardship legislation should be designated to enlist them as allies rather than threatening them with fines and penalties.

Regrettably, Bill C-68 not only miserably fails to do this but it is going to send us back to the situation where, as described by the Grain Growers of Canada:

“Almost all water that flows in Canada will be deemed first habitat and will receive full protection under the Fisheries Act. This includes man-made [projects] ... that were never intended to be fish habitat.”

Here we have an industry which is already being severely impacted by the ridiculous carbon tax. Now the government is adding another unnecessary obstacle to their ability to make a living.

Now, if there was a compelling body of evidence which demonstrated that such measures were necessary to protect fish, I am certain our farmers and ranchers would support it. The reality is that there is no such evidence.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans which studied this bill held nine meetings, heard from 46 witnesses and received 57 briefs. Yet, colleagues, not a single witness was able to point to any fish population in Canada that has been negatively affected by the changes made to the Fisheries Act in 2012.

Senators, for a government which promised to make policy based on science, this bill fails spectacularly. As it currently stands, it will introduce the same problems farmers were experiencing before the act was amended in 2012, while doing absolutely nothing to improve protection for fish.

As I have said in the past with other legislation, I typically support sending legislation to committee for further study, flawed as it may be. I will not stand in the way of this bill going to committee.

However, colleagues, unless there is substantive evidence this legislation does something other than hurt farmers while failing to protect fish habitat in any significant way, I will be working and voting against this bill every step of the way. I hope you will as well. Thank you.

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