A legislative committee is expected to give approval today to a bill to protect Ontario’s endangered species, ranging from the woodland caribou to the eastern prickly pear cactus.
But with a provincial election looming in the fall, some of the politicians casting their votes may also be on the endangered list, for the Endangered Species Act has become a major political battleground at Queen’s Park.
It did not start out that way. During debate in the Legislature last month, there seemed to be an all-party consensus in favour of the legislation, which was given second reading by a vote of 39-1. The lone dissenter was Cambridge MPP Gerry Martiniuk, a Conservative.
In the subsequent committee hearings, however, the MPPs were deluged by appeals to water down the legislation from farmers, native people, unions, hunters, trappers, developers, municipalities, and mining and logging companies.
The testimony was quite emotional at times. Picking up on an environmentalist’s suggestion that we could live with any diminishment in economic activity as a result of the legislation, Thunder Bay Mayor Lynn Peterson declared: “Economic activity is not a thing. It’s people who get up in the morning and go to work and raise their children and pay their mortgages.” And while most presenters started off by saying they support the “objective” of saving flora and fauna from extinction, they then recommended amendments that would effectively gut the legislation, including:

Restoring political discretion to the decision on whether to list a species as endangered. The bill would give that authority to a committee made up of scientists and persons with `aboriginal traditional knowledge.” The environmentalists say that is essential to the integrity of the legislation.

Loosening the definition of the “habitat” to be protected. The bill’s definition is “an area on which a species depends, directly or indirectly, to carry on its life processes.”
Again, environmentalists see this relatively broad definition as essential.

Deferring to existing “forest management plans” between logging companies and the crown. Environmentalists say this proposed change would essentially exempt the companies from the act.
Compensating companies and property owners negatively affected by the act. The government is proposing a “stewardship fund” of $18 million over four years, but has ruled out full compensation. The environmentalists say compensation would drain money away from efforts to improve habitats.
In committee today, the Conservatives and the New Democrats – with a bow to their respective rural and northern bases – will present amendments reflecting some or all of the above.
Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay, who is responsible for the legislation, suggested yesterday that the opposition is succumbing to “fear-mongering” about job losses. He said that the Endangered Species Act, as written, is flexible enough to ensure that the livelihoods of northerners and rural Ontarians aren’t threatened.
“In this part of the 21st century, it’s very hard to vote against an Endangered Species Act,” added Ramsay.
Will the opposition parties vote against third reading of the bill (probably next week) if their amendments aren’t passed today?
Both the Conservatives and New Democrats caucused on this question yesterday. Conservative Leader John Tory emerged to say that his caucus has agreed to a “free vote” and that he himself will support the bill. Conservative sources said at least half-a-dozen of Tory’s rural members will oppose it.
As for the New Democrats, their leader, Howard Hampton, would not speculate on what might happen if his party’s amendments are rejected today. “We’ll sit down and look at it again,” he said.
These answers did not impress the environmental groups, which see the Endangered Species Act as litmus-test legislation. Several of the leading groups have formed a coalition called Save Ontario’s Species in support of the legislation.
Rick Smith of Environmental Defence, one of the SOS groups, yesterday called the Conservative position “unfortunate” and the New Democrats “unhelpful.”
Meanwhile, the Ontario Landowners Association, a militant rural group, issued a press release accusing the Liberal government of kowtowing to SOS and predicted: “The Liberals are headed for the rocks.”
How all this plays out in the fall election campaign remains to be seen. Votes gained in one area will be lost in another. The only certainty is that some of the MPPs voting on the bill will be extinct (metaphorically speaking) after the election.

Ian Urquhart’s provincial affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
iurquha@thestar.ca.