It’ll be tougher for opposition parties to play the green card in Ontario’s fall election after a handful of their MPPs voted against the new Endangered Species Act yesterday, environmental groups warn.
The law expands protection of endangered species of plants and animals, taking the decision over what’s at risk out of political hands and leaving it up to a committee of scientists.
The bill – which also ran into objections from forestry and other industries worried the protections could disrupt business and cost thousands of jobs – was passed by a vote of 64 to 5 – with four Progressive Conservatives and a New Democrat opposed.
“People in parties can’t have it both ways,” said Rick Smith of Environmental Defence, who called the new law the toughest in Canada and one of the strongest in North America.
“You can’t say on the one hand you’re concerned about the environment and then oppose the Endangered Species Act.”
The bill drew support from all three parties. While no Liberals voted against the bill, several were absent for the vote, including two from the Thunder Bay area where the mayor had sounded an alarm about potential job losses.
Biologists say about 175 species in Ontario are now at risk or in danger of extinction, including the red-headed woodpecker and eastern wolf, but the existing endangered species law passed three decades ago protects just 42 of them. The bill extends protection to the rest.
“I remember people in the last century talking about species that didn’t need protection and within 50 or 60 years they were gone,” said Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay, who proposed the bill widely applauded by environmentalists.
“In the 21st century we can no longer treat our environment that way.” He said business concerns about the bill are mitigated by a “common sense” provision that allows the premier and cabinet to exempt any industrial projects “of strong economic importance” from the law.
That allows “a win-win for the environment and the economy.”
Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said he supported the bill despite concerns that an $18 million fund to compensate private landowners for protecting at-risk species is too low, but got stuck in traffic and did not make it to the Legislature in time for the 6 p.m. vote.
He said it’s unfair for environmentalists to use the fact that four of his MPPs voted against the bill as a wedge issue in the upcoming election campaign.
“I believe you can be green, as green as the next person, and at the same time vote against a piece of legislation that, for example, you believe inadequately compensates those who will be affected in the cause of saving endangered species.”
New Democrat Gilles Bisson (Timmins-James Bay) said he voted against the law over concerns First Nations peoples could be blocked from traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and fears that forestry companies could be blocked from harvesting some trees.
He said that does not make him anti-green. “Northerners are environmentalists … we basically use the forest for everything from our daily lives to our livelihood. Nobody wants to put anything at risk. The issue is you’ve got to get it right.”
Several New Democrats also missed the vote, including party leader Howard Hampton, who said he supported the bill.
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