Bill 108 could threaten Ontario cottage country’s at-risk species

barn-owl Photo by Vlada Cech/Shutterstock

On Friday, May 31, Bill 108 will be contemplated by a standing committee of Ontario MPPs. The bill, also known as the More Homes, More Choice Act, proposes amendments to many different pieces of legislation including the Cannabis Control Act, the Conservation Authorities Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), however, could have a serious impact on Ontario’s cottage country. “This is all about environmental deregulation,” says Anne Bell, the director of conservation and education for Ontario Nature.

The current laws under the ESA protect at-risk species and their habitats from developers, but the provincial government’s proposed changes will open these areas up to development. “There have always been flexibility mechanisms under that law through permits and exemptions and so on, but the new changes will just blow that wide open,” Bell says.

Currently, developers who obtain a permit are allowed to conduct harmful activity to a protected area as long as they provide an on-the-ground, overall benefit to the species. “So, at the end of the day, the species would end up in a better place,” Bell says.

Bill 108 proposes getting rid of the on-the-ground benefit to the species. Instead, developers would pay into a Species Conservation Fund that would go towards supporting at-risk species. The issue, Bell says, is that there’s no guarantee this fund will go towards helping the species harmed by developers. “We don’t know what the money would be used for, where it would be used, when it would be used, or how much a developer or an industrial proponent would have to pay,” she says. “We don’t know any of those things. It’s very, very uncertain.”

The fund will be handled by a provincial government agency, and while the money could go towards restoring the habitats of affected species, it could also go towards environmental research and education in an entirely different part of the province.

According to Bell, the proposed changes to the ESA are a way of circumventing the permit process, leaving developers almost unaccountable for harm they cause to the environment. “Sign a cheque and pass off the responsibility,” she says. “That’s generally what these changes to the ESA are all about: let’s make it easier and faster for development to proceed in the habitat of species at risk.”

A number of municipalities are opposing the bill, including York, Muskoka Lakes, Oakville, and Aurora. The reason they’re concerned, Bell says, is because the bill reduces their control and oversight of what’s happening on the ground in their own communities. “Whether it’s forest habitat, wetland, or shoreline, we don’t know what it might be. But within the municipality, there will be direct harm to the habitat, and the developer’s going to pay in and that money’s going to be used somewhere in the province of Ontario.”

This means development in cottage country could also become a lot busier, as at-risk areas would no longer be protected under the same ESA laws. “We love these wild places, cottagers in particular. They understand what it means to have the privilege to be surrounded by natural beauty, and now they need to understand that the kinds of limits to development that were in place under the Endangered Species Act are going to be undermined,” Bell says.

For cottagers interested in taking immediate action against Bill 108, Bell says the best thing to do is to contact your MPP as soon as possible. “Call them now, write them now. Make sure that they know that constituents care about protecting endangered species and they do not agree with the changes to weaken that law.” When contacting your MPP, you should ask to have Schedule Five removed from Bill 108, as that is the section that concerns changes to the ESA.

Long term, Bell says we, as Ontarians, need to think carefully about who we vote for, always keeping in mind the environment. “People need to remember that we’re in the throes of a biodiversity crisis and a climate change crisis, and those two crises together are going to threaten everything that we care about.”

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