Canada’s federal government and the province of Ontario have signed a widely-decried pact that will undermine conservation efforts and enable more logging in intact forests that are critical habitat for the threatened boreal caribou. Last week’s misnomered “Agreement for the Conservation of Caribou” will further imperil that species, rewarding bad behavior by Ontario’s government. In recent years Ontario has scrapped provincial environmental safeguards and ignored federal species at risk requirements in order to advance unsustainable logging and mining projects. This new agreement, which Canadian environmental organizations call “the weakest conservation agreement in Canada,” is a missed opportunity by the federal government to hold Ontario accountable. It reflects a failure by the Trudeau government to uphold strong species protection laws and protect Canada’s beleaguered forests.
Boreal caribou, once abundant, now face the threat of extinction, primarily due to habitat loss from industrial logging and other unsustainable extractive industries. Only around 5,000 boreal caribou remain in Ontario, and ongoing industrial activities are putting them on track to disappear within many of our lifetimes. Yet the conservation agreement contains no meaningful safeguards to protect their threatened habitat. On the contrary, in signing the agreement the federal government rewards Premier Ford’s unsustainable forest management policies, by signaling that the federal government approves of Ontario’s current approach at a time when Ford has proposed doubling Ontario’s rate of industrial logging. The federal government’s agreement ignores the fact that Ontario’s own auditor general recently slammed the province for advancing policies that threaten boreal caribou, exempting logging from the province’s species protection laws, and empowering industry representatives to guide government environmental decisions. And because boreal caribou habitat overlaps with the traditional lands of Indigenous Peoples, vital carbon stores, and other species’ habitat, degrading this habitat threatens communities and globally-significant forest areas. As an indicator species, boreal caribou’s ongoing decline signals that all of these areas are in trouble from the same industrial expansion.
Prime Minister Trudeau and Environment and Climate Change Minister Guilbeault need to rapidly change course to implement meaningful protections for Canada’s threatened species and climate critical forests.The vast majority of Canadians - and a global community that purchases Canadian forest products– support action by the Canadian government that demonstrate it is taking environmental stewardship seriously. In provinces like Ontario and Alberta, where conservation agreements have been reached, the federal government should require provinces to limit disturbances in threatened habitat to scientifically-defensible thresholds, with clear timelines for action and consequences for inaction. At the very least, the federal government should require industrial logging and other extractive industries to disturb no more than 35% of caribou ranges, which would bring policies in line with the federal government’s own recommendations over the past decade. Any agreements with provinces should also clearly enhance boreal caribou recovery– failing to do so will mean Canada is out of step with its own environmental laws.
If the federal government continues to let provinces off the hook for inaction on threatened species, it will raise the question of why Canada has species protection laws at all. The federal government has a clear mandate and legal obligation to use the tools at its disposal to protect threatened species, and it should use them. In Ontario’s neighboring Quebec, federal action should mean stepping in to protect threatened caribou habitat. The province of Quebec has been a particular laggard by virtually failing to produce any plans or commitments around caribou at all. Minister Guilbeault has publicly indicated that inaction from Quebec should prompt a response by the federal government, whereby the Trudeau government would intervene to protect particularly imperiled herds. He should follow up on this with action.
Canada needs to course correct if it wants a global reputation as a steward of forests and threatened species. This means using its authority to protect species, not greenlighting more habitat destruction.