Ontario MNR gets failing grade – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal (October 11, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

WHEN Ontario’s Liberal government considered the mounting budget deficit and how to keep it from further damaging the province’s economy and its regions, it called in an expert. Respected former banker Don Drummond was asked to provide a detailed analysis of government spending and recommendations on how to save money.

The Drummond report became Ontario’s budgetary blueprint going forward, as they say. Now the other shoe has dropped.
Not many Ontario citizens disagreed with the general nature of this independent advice. No department was spared at least a detailed examination and most were ordered to provide minor and not-so-minor scenarios to reduce spending.

Education escaped the knife and some arbitrated contract settlements excepted a general wage freeze. But for the most part tough love was felt government-wide. Ontario would pretty much cut spending across the board and thus responsibly recover from the recession that took such a toll, south to north.

The government thus sought to look like anything but tax-and-spend Liberals. Major hiccups like eHealth, Ornge, cancelled gas plants and Pan Am Games executive salaries (and perhaps the OLG shakeup) did not help the government sell the new image but behind the scenes, the effects of restraint are beginning to be felt. And some Ontarians may be questioning what they asked for.

Northern Ontario has a special relationship with the Ministry of Natural Resources which governs so much of life here, from resource development to parks, fish and wildlife. So when the cuts began to show up, even residents who’d argued for them were alarmed.

Provincial park operations were altered, fees went up and the popular junior ranger program was cut back.

The forest tenure system has been changed, ostensibly to ensure wood allocations are put to best use. The goal is good but in the process, many northerners who supplied existing companies were put out of business and some mill owners continue to have trouble finding wood.

Within the ministry itself, offices were closed and jobs eliminated, including conservation officers who are supposed to police the bush and keep wildlife populations healthy.

Now Ontario’s environmental commissioner Gord Miller has vilified the MNR, accusing it of secrecy in dismantling environmental protections while enabling industrial activities to proceed almost unchecked.

People who found it galling when the federal government hid significant policy changes inside wide-ranging omnibus budget bills will be chagrined to learn Ontario did the same thing, folding the power to give Crown land to companies into the 2012 budget. Normally, environmentally-significant policy changes must be posted on the environmental bill of rights website for public comment to be considered in writing new regulations.

Miller asks why the government would shield from public scrutiny its plan to “allow the cabinet of Ontario, by regulation, to hand responsibility” (for 87 per cent of Ontario’s land) to “any kind of corporate entity . . . to third parties over which we have no control.” Miller called it “profound change on the highest level.”

Cuts to regulations, staff and programs at the MNR are “short-sighted and regressive” and pose significant ecological risks, Miller said. It could have “disastrous results” for Ontario’s natural heritage and disrupt the way of life in the North.

Even as the province continues to debate the wisdom of a spring bear hunt, Miller warns that hunting safeguards are being weakened as are those for provincial parks which he said are being turned into revenue streams.

Ontarians expect a responsible approach to economic challenge but this is not what Northerners expect of their MNR.


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