Two steps back on P.E.I. Water Act

Public engagement holds little traction with the current P.E.I. government

The Guardian (Charlottetown)- 26 Nov 2021

BOYD ALLEN is on the board of the Citizens’ Alliance of P.E.I., a member organization of the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water.

In May of 2016 the P.E.I. environmental advisory committee released a comprehensive report entitled: Water Act – Public consultation report. It was 58 footnoted pages long including indices and glossary. It collated findings from the first phase of public consultations on the Water Act from July 2015 to January 2016.

This process offered multiple opportunities and methods for private citizens and organizations to present their opinions. The response was extraordinary. There were 50 presentations at the various public community meetings and 12 one on one consultations between the EAC and concerned organizations. Every submission to the EAC during this time was made easily available online.

Phase 2 of this clearly structured process was the creation of a draft Water Act and thence a second round of public consultations. The final phase was the creation of the act, tabling it in the legislature and opening it for clause by clause debate. It became law in December 2017. This deservedly was lauded as a template for public engagement in the creation of legislation in Canada.

Five years and four environment ministers later, in mid-October 2021, Irrigation Strategy – A document for review, comment and discussion was released by government. This document, for many involved in the process, represents the rubber hitting the road with the Water Act. There was no photo-op nor explanatory press package. There was no call-out for responses. It is 14 pages in length. There are no cited references nor support documents.

The strategy is built on a foundation of broad assumptions: There is an infinite supply of water on P.E.I.; climate change will enhance this; the entire agricultural industry requires much more supplemental irrigation; irrigation promotes better nitrogen uptake and therefore less leeching into the groundwater; safe environmental stream flows are easily modelled from existing data on a watershed by watershed basis. Either the province can redeploy/hire the skilled workforce necessary to monitor, administer and/or enforce this proposed suite of regulations or it is prepared to let the industry police itself.

There was no forum offered by its authors to discuss this strategy nor question the suppositions that support it.

The standing committee on environment was supposed to provide both oversight on the development of this strategy and be the access point for the public to have their concerns addressed. The relationship with the current minister and his senior managers with this committee has been described by some observers as ambiguous, and by others as contemptuous. Minister Steven Myers made this clear when he stated, “At the end of the day it will be the experts in my department who I will lean on to yay or nay.”

When considering the undertaking of a presentation to this committee you’d have to question whether it was worth the considerable effort involved in so doing. Many chose not to.

The traction that public engagement holds with the current government is made evident under the heading “Timeline” in this document: “The Department intends to consider all feedback during this calendar year and will make revisions soon after. This version of the strategy would be final and implemented.” Government has decided that the names of those who submit comments online will not be disclosed. As of Nov. 23, there is a total of one submission noted on the webpage.

The heady days of meaningful public consultation, collaborative decision-making and transparent governance seem to have fallen out of favour with the King government. Sadly, the foundational ideas, embedded in the Water Act: the precautionary principle and intergenerational equity have met a similar fate. These have been replaced by the road-tested tools of short-term political expediency. We have looped back to closed doors, ministerial meddling, corporate influence and invitation-only access.

My hope is that Islanders will not be discouraged by this and will continue to find ways to have their voices heard. We are running out of runway.

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