Politicians and environmental groups are raising the alarm about political interference after unelected Canadian senators voted down one environmental protection bill in committee and adopted hundreds of amendments to a second one, after both had been passed by the elected House of Commons.
In Canadian parliamentary practice, the Senate traditionally serves as a chamber of “sober second thought”, reviewing and expressing opinions on legislation but still deferring to the democratically-elected House. The process has been decidedly different for the Trudeau government’s proposed ban on tanker traffic on the northern British Columbia coast, which lost on a tie committee vote last week, and its proposed Impact Assessment Act, which has been subject to intensive, largely fossil-driven review by a senate panel.
“I was a bit shocked…to learn that the Senate, in the dead of night, had voted to essentially kill the bill,” said veteran B.C. New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen, following the vote on the tanker ban. “It raises some other questions, beyond just the north coast and oil tankers, to actually the heart of our democracy.”
“Even if you don’t like this bill and you’re glad the Senate is trying to kill it—you may be happy today but you won’t be happy tomorrow when they kill a bill that you do like,” he added. “This is very much about the direct line between voters, the people they elect, and our ability to actually get something done, without having folks who are not accountable trying to upend the entire system.”
The committee vote also raised flags with provincial NDP MLA Jennifer Rice, whose North Coast riding includes communities that have been calling for a ban since the 1970s, CBC says.
The vote “made me really question what is the role of a senator,” she said. “They’re not politicians. However, they acted like politicians,” when “protecting these resources is a matter of survival for many of us on the north coast. It’s really important that senators respect the inherent rights of First Nations so that they can continue to live on the coast like they have for thousands of years.”
Environmental groups raised similar concerns after the Senate Energy Committee adopted 187 amendments to Bill C-69, with a lawyer at Ecojustice calling the move “unprecedented”.
The amendments include measures aimed at “reducing cabinet power to intervene in the energy assessment process,” iPolitics reports. “The amendments would also make it more difficult for individuals to initiate court challenges to decisions on projects and alter the way climate change impacts are considered in the regulatory process.” And “many of the proposals are word-for-word what oil and gas groups have proposed.”
While the full Senate traditionally follows the will of the elected government when a bill reaches third reading, environmental groups are worried the Trudeau Liberals will agree to water down the proposed impact assessment law, iPolitics says. “Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has expressed openness to new amendments, although a spokesperson for her office did not offer her thoughts on the Senate committee proposals.”
Ecojustice lawyer Joshua Ginsburg said the changes “would completely defeat the purpose of the bill,” adding that it’s “unprecedented” for a senate committee to propose so many amendments that run counter to a government’s intent.
“I doubt you will find any other piece of legislation to which a Senate committee made 187 amendments,” he said. “That’s a complete rewriting, not a sober second thought.”
McKenna “said she would only accept amendments that strengthen the bill and we hope that the cabinet, and the House at large, will stand by that,” added Julia Levin, climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence. But “we are worried…that might not be the case.” She said the resulting bill would be “meaningless” with amendments that limited consideration of climate change in environmental assessments, and that restricting stakeholder input on projects would just lead to more court challenges—a pitfall the legislation had set out to address.
None of which seemed to concern the fossil industry or its political allies, all of whom expressed support for the amendments.
“The package that the Senate has put together, I think, has positioned this bill as good as is possible,” said Tim McMillan, CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. “They are the best possible structure that this bill could be in at this point.”
“I believe it’s a package that’s going to work to allow projects to be built in Canada and to ensure that investment comes back to Canada while respecting the environment and our obligations to First Nations people,” said fossil-affiliated Alberta Senator Doug Black. “So we may be on the verge of a win-win here after a very, very long fight.”
Ecojustice’s Ginsburg said he expected the Trudeau government to rule out some of the worst of the senate committee revisions. “But to be clear, unless they delete every single one of those damaging amendments, we’re going to have a compromise bill, which we can’t support.”