Who’s Killing Canada’s Environmental Movement?

Sat, 21 Jul 2007

Update: The Canadian Environmental Network is off the chopping block, the group announced July 23. A belated decision by the Environment Ministry to release the needed funds has saved the organization for another year. “I am grateful to the environmental movement for rallying to our support last week, when our survival was in question,” said CEN chairman Steve Rison in a news release. Meanwhile, dozens of other eco-organizations await news of their fate. For some – like the Climate Change impacts research group – it’s too little, too late.


The rumour mill had the bad news first, of course. Early this year, I heard reports that Environment Canada staffers were sitting idle at their desks with nothing to do, because funding for their projects was canceled

Now we hear that a wide range of eco-groups funded by the government may be headed for extinction.

John Baird, Minister of the Environment, received hundreds of emails this week pleading for the restoration of funding to organizations and networks that depend on Ottawa’s handouts to survive.

The response from government indicates it has merely mishandled budget items it considers a low priority. Minister Baird has not yet weighed in personally, but early this week a spokesperson said the funding is under review.

On Thursday, spokesperson Mike Van Soelen seemed to be backpedaling. “This is an annual process and we’re moving forward as the department does every year to evaluate and make decisions.”

“We may be a few weeks behind where we were in a typical year,” Van Soelen added.

Some dispute the government incompetence excuse, noting similarities to how Conservatives have slashed programs in the past.

Liberal MP Geoff Regan said, “It reminds me of the way the Harper government treated literacy groups last year. It seems like the Conservatives aren’t interested in any groups that don’t fit their neocon ideology.”

Whether this is a typical screwup or not, groups that expected funding way back in April haven’t seen a dime. Some professional envirocrats have already abandoned their posts, while others are in a panic over empty bank accounts and unpaid staff salaries.

And it’s not just Environment Canada choking off the cash flow – last week Natural Resources Canada suspended funding for its climate change network.

The Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Research Network closed its doors on June 30 after the federal agency quietly scuttled funding for its six regional offices and seven research sectors. Studies on adapting to rising sea levels, changing forest zones, and threats to drinking water have now run dry.

Robin Sydneysmith tells me the group didn’t get cut for lack of results or poor performance. “The network was, by and large, deemed effective by two or three audit/reviews, and was a leading example of a very ‘made in Canada’ approach to dealing with and responding to climate change,” Sydneysmith explains in an email.

All that changed when the funding was pulled for the network. “At least the national headquarters was able to keep going for one more year, but it is effectively a ‘bodiless head,’” Sydneysmith laments. “Much good will, momentum and social capital has been lost.”

A final message from CCIARN BC says, “We remain committed and involved in furthering climate change research, especially at the community level where adaptation ultimately takes place. “

Meanwhile, Canadian Press reports another national group is facing the same crisis.

The Canadian Environmental Network, a backbone of communications within Canada’s environmental movement, has warned its staff they may be laid off next week because of federal funding cuts.

The CEN is not well known because it is non-political and does not take a stand on issues, but it plays a vital role for hundreds of environmental groups, especially smaller ones that don’t have the budget for networking and communications.

Steve Rison, chair of the group’s board of directors, warned staff their jobs were at risk in an e-mail obtained by The Canadian Press.

In the memo, he says operational funding is normally obtained annually based on an April-to-March fiscal year, but no funding has been received since April 1, nor is there any assurance it will be provided.

Rison says in the memo that the group’s executive director, Susan Tanner, is working without pay because there is no money for her salary.

Losing the Canadian Environmental Network could affect 800 or so grassroots groups, plus dozens more that rely directly on Ottawa, including:

The EcoAction Community Funding Program which provides financial support to community groups for projects “that have measurable, positive impacts on the environment,” in the words of the Environment Canada web site.

Learning for a Sustainable Future, which “works with educators from across Canada to integrate the concepts and principles of sustainable development into the curricula at all grade levels,” also according to the official web site.

The Atlantic Coastal Action Program set up by Environment Canada 1991 “to mobilize local communities to address their own environmental and developmental challenges.” The programs supports 16 local groups throughout the four Atlantic provinces.

Regan condemned the government for starving Atlantic groups while the government sits on a multibillion dollar surplus.

“These are all groups that are working to preserve and enhance our coastal ecosystems. That’s incredibly important. We’re talking here about restoring and sustaining key watersheds and adjacent coastal areas,” Regan said.

Oh, but don’t lose hope just yet. Decisions are still pending, and the rumour mill is working overtime. The latest speculation says the Ministry may restore funding to previous lackluster levels, thanks to a furious outpouring of emails and phone calls.

Either way. this past week has helped to show who has the guts to carry on even after the funding is gone, who’s willing to push back, and who flees like a rat from a sinking ship.

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