What does legitimate public consultation on the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan look like in the middle of a global pandemic? In April, the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition asked its 26 member groups to discuss this question, and we have been sharing the opinion below with the province since.
The province missed the 2019 deadline for the statutory review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, an indication (among many) that protecting the environment is not a priority for this administration. Too bad, because in retrospect it would have been simpler to get experts together starting in 2018 to produce and review the science that should inform proposals to change Lake Simcoe Protection Plan (LSPP) policies.
Instead, the government is caught on its back foot, behind schedule, and lacking expert advice, having cut funding that allowed two mostly-volunteer committees of experts to advise the province on both the evolving science of the lake, and the implementation of the LSPP.
I know, because I sat on these committees. They were starting to prepare advice for the minister of the environment and climate change to guide the LSPP review in 2018. But committees like these stopped meeting, all over the province, as the government cut “red tape,” no longer funding the cost of travel or food for meetings. The tap of practically-free advice was turned off. Not wanting to stand idly by, I stepped down as chair of the Lake Simcoe Coordinating Committee in late 2018.
The province doesn’t have the conditions in place, or the expert advice it needs, to do a major policy review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan any time soon. The province has two basic choices:
A. Do an administrative review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, tidying up redundant or out-of-date regulations, but not touching the policies or targets of the LSPP. Focus instead on implementation, specifically better protecting and restoring forests and wetlands, and aggressively bringing down phosphorus loads through a strengthened Phosphorus Reduction Strategy. Phosphorus loads to the lake have gone up since the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan came into force.
B. Take the time to get it right. For a robust and legitimate review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan and its policies the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and its 26 member groups suggest that the following conditions are needed:
1. The Lake Simcoe science and co-ordinating committees need three days of meetings, with scientists, to get up to speed and have their questions answered, to provide their feedback to the province on the scope of the review. Some members of the committees are new; it is not reasonable or responsible to expect them to provide good advice about a plan they are not yet familiar with.
2. If the Lake Simcoe Science Committee endorses the release of a current Lake Simcoe Monitoring Report, which provides adequate information upon which to make adaptive management decisions (i.e. tracks progress toward targets), we suggest that the review can start three months later. This gives analysts and the government the necessary time to evaluate progress and make thoughtful recommendations.
3. Environmental Bill of Rights and the Environmental Registry of Ontario must be up and running. The Statement of Environmental Values must be considered by decision-makers. In April, 2020, the Ontario government passed a regulation under the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) that exempts new laws, regulations, or policies that will impact Ontario’s land, air, water and/or wildlife from going through a 30-day consultation period. The optics are simply not good for the government if they proceed with a major piece of environmental policy review without adequate public consultation.
4. Social distancing measures must have eased such that people would attend open houses. The province could use online consultations only, and certainly this will be part of the solution. But one of the essential components of public participation in policy review is the ability to ask questions, and equally, hearing other people’s questions is an important part of public debate. Without the ability to hold open houses, and engage people in dialogue, feedback is more likely to be from paid professionals, a dynamic that supports profit-oriented interests more than non-profit and public ones.
5. There must be First Nations representation on the Lake Simcoe Coordinating Committee and the Lake Simcoe Science Committee.
The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan includes “principles to guide our efforts.” These are self-explanatory, but it is worth reminding the province that they are expected to use them. For instance, the review process should use the Adaptive Management Approach of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, which is to:
Continuously improve and adapt our approaches, policies and management by incorporating new knowledge and innovative design, practices and technology from ongoing science and monitoring. This will allow the plan to evolve and improve over time based on new science and implementation experience.
It is not easy to do adaptive management. Monitoring data and implementation analysis must precede proposals to change management actions or policies.
And finally, despite budget crises and competing views on economic recovery, the health and prosperity of communities across the Lake Simcoe watershed still depends on a healthy environment. Indeed, the watershed’s sustainable recreation sector generates $420 million per year. Luckily for us, the LSPP’s first objective is to “protect, improve or restore the elements that contribute to the ecological health of the Lake Simcoe watershed, including, water quality, hydrology, key natural heritage features and their functions, and key hydrologic features and their functions.”
If we achieve this objective, Lake Simcoe will be a model for living within the limits of nature, which is ultimately the challenge of our time.
Written by Claire Malcolmson, the executive director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition.