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Media Statements – Interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s Opening Statement – 2013 Fall Report Press Conference

2013 Fall Report Press Conference—5 November 2013

Good morning. My name is Neil Maxwell, interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. I’m pleased to present our Fall 2013 report, which was tabled in Parliament this morning.

In this report, we looked at what the federal government has done to protect nature and advance sustainable development on behalf of Canada. As in past reports, our work has led us to conclude that the government has not met key commitments, deadlines and obligations to protect Canada’s natural spaces. Let me give you a few examples from our most recent audits.

When we looked at the conservation of migratory birds, we found that Environment Canada had missed key deadlines. More than half of the conservation strategies being developed by the Department have been overdue since 2010.

In addition to playing a key role in our ecosystems, for example as pollinators, birds are considered good indicators of the health of the environment. I am concerned that some groups of birds, such as shorebirds, have declined by 40 to 60 percent since the 1970s. Declines in bird populations highlight the need for action on conservation strategies.

While Environment Canada and its partners have achieved good results with their efforts to restore waterfowl populations, the Department’s conservation planning is lagging for other groups of birds.

Improvements in waterfowl populations show that results can be achieved through partnerships, using good conservation planning and clear objectives. Environment Canada needs to apply these types of approaches to help with the conservation of other bird groups.

One of Canada’s main approaches to protecting biodiversity is to establish protected areas to maintain habitat for wildlife, including migratory birds and species at risk. In our audit of protected areas for wildlife, we found that Environment Canada has not met its responsibilities for preparing management plans and monitoring the condition of the protected areas it manages.

Habitat loss is recognized as the greatest threat to plants and animals in Canada. Environment Canada’s protected areas are roughly the size of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined, and the Department acknowledges that the state of more than half of these areas is less than adequate. The Department’s management plans for its protected areas are largely outdated and monitoring is insufficient to track ecosystem changes and address emerging threats.

Given the poor state of many protected areas and the pressures they face, Environment Canada needs to develop relevant management plans to ensure that its protected areas fulfill their intended purpose as a refuge for wildlife.

Turning to our audit of ecological integrity in national parks, we also found that despite Parks Canada’s significant efforts in many areas, the Agency is struggling to protect ecosystems in Canada’s parks.

Parks Canada has missed important deadlines and targets, and is facing a significant backlog of work. It has yet to assess the condition of 41 percent of park ecosystems. Of those it has assessed, many are in poor condition, and many are in decline. The Agency has not clarified how and by when it intends to clear this backlog and address threats to the integrity of ecosystems in Canada’s parks.

Given the increasing threats to park ecosystems and the challenges Parks Canada faces, the Agency needs to clearly map out how it will avoid falling further behind in its efforts to protect ecological integrity in Canada’s national parks.

Our audit of the plans and strategies to support the recovery of species at risk also showed missed commitments and significant delays in planning activities. Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Parks Canada have not met their obligations under the Species at Risk Act to develop recovery strategies. Of the 360 strategies they had to produce by March 2013, roughly 40 percent were overdue.

Environment Canada is responsible for most of this backlog, with 84 percent of its strategies lagging by more than three years. At the current rate of progress, we estimate it would take the Department at least 10 years to catch up.

Recovery strategies and plans are the roadmap to the recovery of a species. They set out the actions needed to stop or reverse species decline. With so many overdue, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Parks Canada are missing the necessary tools to direct recovery efforts.

We also examined funding programs that promote the recovery of species listed under the Species at Risk Act. In that audit, we were pleased to note that Environment Canada is tracking the results of individual programs. Going forward, the Department should roll up results across programs to fully understand what its funding achieves.

In another audit, we looked at whether Environment Canada had fulfilled selected responsibilities under the international Convention on Biological Diversity. While the Department has led the development of goals and targets for Canada, it has not defined the actions needed to achieve them. Canada’s targets under the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity are key to conserving biodiversity in our country. Achieving them will require a concerted effort from many players, from governments to businesses to individual Canadians.

Given the amount of work that needs to be done by 2020, Environment Canada must play an active role in developing and coordinating priority actions to address increasing threats to biodiversity.

In this report, we also present our reviews of federal and departmental sustainable development strategies. Canada’s sustainable development strategies are a key tool for directing the government’s activities and communicating results in this area.

Though the government is producing sustainable development plans and providing reports to Canadians on its progress, we found that these documents are not fulfilling their potential. They do not clearly communicate past progress or future direction.

Finally, I am pleased to see that Canadians continue to use the environmental petitions process to raise their concerns with federal departments. This year, petitions touched on federal research on hormone-disrupting substances, risks related to the proposed increase in tanker traffic in British Columbia, and the long-term management of federal contaminated sites.

In closing, these audits show that despite some important accomplishments, government has not met key commitments, deadlines and obligations to protect Canada’s wildlife and natural spaces. The challenge of protecting Canada’s natural heritage is immense, and pressures are growing. So where does that leave us? I believe it’s time for departments to follow through on their commitments and improve on their results. In the face of growing pressures and significant challenges, it is clear that to make any headway in protecting Canada’s environment, government needs to look differently at the problems, and find new solutions.

I am ready to answer your questions.

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