On June 26, Canada finally made the Federal Sustainable Development Act a law with the bill receiving Royal Assent and all four political parties giving it their stamp of approval.
Having finally confirmed its commitment to the environment, the Canadian government will now be required to create and implement a governmentwide sustainable development strategy and regularly evaluate the environmental consequences of its actions. The government will finally be working towards being in line with countries like Sweden and the United Kingdom whose performances have exceeded those of Canada for many years.
The private member’s bill was the pet project and final act in parliament by Liberal MP John Godfrey (Don Valley West, Toronto), who will leave his post at the end of July. The bill’s passing is being heralded as a milestone considering how quickly it passed through parliament.
“I was really lucky, I think I used up my last chits on this one and every bit of political capital,” said Godfrey, laughing, while explaining how this act being his last might have only added to its quick passing.
Though the bill came about originally as a proposal for a sustainable development template for a model bill from the David Suzuki Foundation, its creation was a collaboration between the foundation, the Auditor General’s office and The Natural Step. When it came through parliament, all four political parties ensured its swift passage as there was clear recognition from all sides that there was a dire need for it.
The system that existed previously consisted of individual departmental
sustainability strategies that were created under the Commissioner for the Environment through the Auditor General’s office in 1995. Though the strategies were in place and reports would be generated, there was no communication between the individual departments, no monitoring and no central plan like the ones that exist in other countries.
“Everybody was unhappy about these lackadaisical disconnected reports,” said Godfrey.
The act will create the Sustainable Development Advisory Council, a volunteer board comprised of members from Aboriginal communities and representa-
tives of business, labour and the environmental movement, whose function is to advise the government. The act is designed as a “constant work in progress.” As more is learned about the environment and the impact of human beings on it, the act would evolve with new scientific evidence.
“We are assuming that this is a never-ending work. As we understand more about environmental indicators and dangers, we may want to change things,” said Godfrey.
Though normally a private member’s bill does not instruct the government nor the prime minister’s office on how to do its job, this particular bill has an unusual clause in it whereby the committee of the Queen’s Privy Council shall have oversight of the development of the plan. The only other time phrasing like this has appeared in a private member’s bill in Canadian history was for the creation of the Treasury Board in 1867.
The idea behind the bill was to have “something which is beyond any one party, that all governments agree to improve the environment. Whoever is in power at the time will be governed by this act and they will keep advancing it,” said Godfrey.
The clock has already started ticking for the Department of the Environment to get started on an overall strategy for Canada’s sustainable development plan though for the time being not much is expected to happen. The plan itself is not likely to be ready for another two and a half years and then a 90-day comment period will follow before it is handed over to the advisory board and then the Commissioner for the Environment.
Though they would be working for the government, advisory board members will not be paid as this would mean a new budget that would require royal recommendations thus delaying the bill and possibly stopping it altogether. In keeping with the act’s spirit, board members will meet via teleconference to save on carbon.
With Canada’s political leaders finally agreeing on one thing Godfrey can now retire a happy man. “Canada has so much land and we treat it in such a cavalier fashion. It was obvious to me that a plan was needed and I am glad that it became obvious to everyone else eventually,” said Godfrey.