Ottawa’s ultimatum to Quebec on caribou is a warning to other provinces, experts say

MONTREAL — Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s ultimatum to the Quebec government on caribou protection is a sign that Ottawa is losing patience with provinces that don’t live up to their responsibility to protect wildlife, experts say.

Rachel Plotkin, caribou specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation, says Guilbeault’s threat to unilaterally create protected habitat in Quebec for dwindling herds is a ‘cross punch’ that shows Ottawa is ready to get tough after years of playing nice.

“As an activist who has tried to enforce the tools under the Species at Risk Act, I am very happy to see that a minister finally seems ready to put these tools into play,” she said. said in a recent interview. .

Plotkin says the federal government asked the provinces to produce plans to protect critical caribou habitat in 2012. However, she says, Ottawa has been reluctant to force them to comply, even though herds have continued to decline in due to habitat destruction.

“It shows that the federal government is tired of waiting for the provinces to do the right thing (and) their patience is being tested,” she said.

In a letter dated April 8, Guilbeault gives the Quebec government until April 20 to inform it of its caribou and habitat protection plan. If the plan is found to be insufficient, Guilbeault said he will recommend that cabinet issue an order protecting portions of animal habitat on Quebec territory, regardless of the province’s objections.

Speaking north of Montreal on Thursday, Guilbeault said that while Ottawa recently reached an agreement with Alberta on a protection plan and is negotiating with British Columbia and Ontario, “unfortunately there seems to be little willingness on the part of the Government of Quebec to find soil.”

He stressed that he still hoped to reach an agreement with Quebec that would avoid the need for an order in council.

Jeremy Kerr, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa, said Guilbeault’s decision was “a stark reminder that provincial environment ministries actually need to take responsibility.”

He said the federal environment minister would not take lightly the decision to impose Ottawa’s will on a province – especially the province that most vehemently opposes federal interference.

“If the federal minister is willing to get into this kind of potentially contentious situation with Quebec, then the minister is willing to do it potentially anywhere,” Kerr said in a recent interview.

Anne-Sophie Doré, a lawyer with the environmental law group Center Québécois du droit de l’environnement, said Ottawa has issued emergency orders to ward off immediate threats to a species, including halting plans to construction in southern Quebec to protect the Western Chorus Frog. But the action Guilbeault envisioned has not been taken before, Doré said.

Unlike emergency orders, an executive order would protect “habitats in their entirety” and could last for five years, she said. The Species at Risk Act, she added, provides penalties for failure to comply with the order, adding that Quebec may try to challenge them in court.

Guilbeault said Thursday the protection order would cover about 35,000 square kilometers in Quebec. The entire territory should not necessarily be left untouched, he said, but “additional measures” should be put in place to ensure caribou survival.

Kerr said the decree could contain a number of different elements, “ranging from a cessation of land use activities that impinge on the survival of caribou in these areas, to some sort of requirement that the management of those areas look very different from what it is today.”

He said countless research has shown that caribou need thick, old-growth forests that provide a food source and protection from predators.

But governments have been reluctant to reduce industrial activities such as logging, which have replaced old trees with younger ones and created trails that give predators easy access to caribou prey. In order to protect the caribou, there is no doubt that industrial work on their territory should be significantly reduced, Kerr said.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday that Guilbeault’s ultimatum is another example of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government interfering in areas of provincial jurisdiction. Quebec, he said, has an independent caribou protection commission that seeks to strike a balance with “protecting jobs that are important in certain regions of Quebec.”

But Kerr, Plotkin and Doré all say that successive Quebec governments have shown they are unwilling to take meaningful action unless their hands are forced.

“The status quo cannot continue if we are to have a future where wildlife survives and recovers,” Plotkin said. “Hopefully this federal shot across the arc will spark those changes.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 17, 2022.

— With files from Stéphane Blais in St-Jérôme.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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