NOT ENOUGH VOICES AT STRATEGY TABLE

Boyd Allen, Published in the Charlottetown Guardian, January 5, 2021

In July 2020 the legislature passed a motion placing a moratorium on construction of new agricultural holding ponds. This motion passed by a 15 to 10 margin but was non-binding. This translates into government not being obligated to honour the motion’s intent if they choose not to.

It appears that these holding ponds are set to become an integral part of proposed drought contingency plans, a key component to the forthcoming irrigation strategy.

I use the word “appears’ because there is no way of discerning whether they are or are not. This strategy is being put together within the senior ranks of the provincial departments directly involved. There was the opportunity for Islanders to anonymously offer online comments on the proposed strategy, but this portal was slammed shut on Dec. 13. Organizations actively engaged in the Water Act process made several attempts to meet with the minister and/or department officials to talk about this irrigation strategy. These requests have so far not even been acknowledged.

It is reported that there has been a steering committee struck to provide guidance and perhaps oversight on the crafting of this strategy. Some member groups have not been given notice of meetings nor provided with additional information since May. As to the membership list, the criterion by which this membership was chosen or its terms of reference, your guess is as good as mine. To my knowledge, the only nongovernmental, non-academic, non-agricultural seat at this table may be held by the P.E.I. Watershed Alliance. I must point out that this is based on anecdotal information. Government has chosen not to disseminate any pertinent details. If true, this would place the alliance in the unenviable position of being the only voice for the environment invited to this table.

This is further compromised by the fact that it is dependent on government for all its maintenance and programming funding. If its representatives fundamentally disagree with the other committee members, what are their options? They risk alienating their funding source. If they feel strongly enough to leave the table, there will be no voice left committed to environmental integrity as their primary concern.

There must be more voices involved in turning this irrigation strategy into an equitable, enforceable piece of public policy. It must be more than commodifying water to increase yields and structuring any obligatory mitigation .To arbitrarily identify “stakeholders” further polarizes any discourse. It is reduced to sound bites and thinly disguised PR campaigns.

It does not have to be seen as farmers on one side and everybody else on the other. Unfortunately, the current environment minister fans these flames by making statements such as ”I was accused of not fulfilling my role as environment minister because I won’t attack farmers. I am glad to see farmers rise up and push back.” Coherent discussion is not a waste of time. Neither is meaningful public engagement. Nor are inclusive, transparent means of communication. We must reset the table.