Last-ever Ontario Environmental Commissioner visits M’Chigeeng

Dianne Saxe, left, delivers her presentation next to Chief Debassige. photo by Betty Bardswich

M’CHIGEENG—Newly-elected Ontario Premier Doug Ford did not take long to dismantle programs and legislation when he took office. Funding for education, health care coverage, social services and renewable energy and conservation was reduced and programs eliminated. Three programs that were mandated for reports to the legislature were cancelled, including French-language services, the Provincial Children’s Advocate and the Environmental Commissioner, whose mandate will end no later than May 1.

On January 7, M’Chigeeng Chief Linda Debassige was pleased to introduce Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe to Islanders at the community complex.

“Ms. Saxe,” she said, “is an internationally recognized lawyer and rated among the top 25 environmental lawyers in the world. She has received numerous awards and certifications. She was appointed to the position of Environmental Commissioner of Ontario in 1995 and is here to present on climate change with a Northern Ontario focus. This past December, the government of Ontario passed a bill that eliminates the independent office of the Environmental Commissioner and transfers the position into the office of the provincial auditor general. It also transfers the most important role of upholding the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR), which gives residents the right to participate in environmental decision making and hold the government accountable on its actions or inactions on environmental issues. This means that the government will be in charge of investigating itself. What could have been a celebration of a 25th anniversary will shortly commence mourning its demise. It must be noted that this was done without the consultation of Indigenous people and of the broader Ontario public.”

She continued, “Ms. Saxe advocates in a similar way we as Indigenous people and our ancestors advocated for. That it is too late to just talk about climate, what counts now is action. Our window for action is closing. Soon it will be too late. We have an opportunity now to work together as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to help advocate and support allies such as Dianne Saxe to have both levels of government heed the crucial warning in front of us for the benefit of all of our grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren to come.”

Ms. Saxe began her talk by noting that the environmental commissioner was appointed unanimously by all government parties and is completely non-partisan and is the guardian of the EBR which is available on the internet in 15 languages. “The people of Ontario cannot blindly expect the government to do what is right,” she said. She encouraged her audience to get registered on the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) website at eco.on.ca to get registered notices on any topic of interest. 

Ms. Saxe outlined the two approaches for dealing with climate change. The first is mitigation which is reducing the emissions of and stabilizing the levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere that trap heat. The second factor is adaptation, the coping of impacts that have already occurred and moving forward with what can be done as a counter-measure. “We have to change what we are doing,” Ms. Saxe remarked. “We used to have hit and run weather,” she said. “Three days was usually how long weather would last because the jet stream would blow the weather on and the coldest air would stay in the Arctic. Now we have extremes in weather. The 20th century normal is gone. We have locked in so much climate change that we can never go back.” 

Drier areas can lead to forest fires and the intensity and numbers of such events hit records in 2017 and 2018, Ms. Saxe continued. Here in Canada, Alberta and British Columbia battled blazes that were the worst on record. There were even fires above the Arctic Circle. 

In India, asphalt turned liquid in the extreme heat and sea levels continue to rise as glaciers and ice caps melt. 

Ms. Saxe commented that there were four times as many climate extremes as when she was young. “Many places are worse,” she said. “Wawa had a catastrophic storm in 2012, Kenora a flood in 2016 and 2014 to 2017 saw heavy rains and early ice breakup that led to winter flooding and the evacuation of First Nation communities in the James Bay area. Plants, animals and fish are all affected.

“How much worse is it going to get?” she asked. “It is up to us. We know quite a lot about climate change. If we got really serious about emissions we could save species and save insurance. There are tipping points. Permafrost, soil, carbon loss, forest die-back, ocean current changes, and loss of sea ice. We are in for big changes. There is still a little time to have an impact on what’s coming. Our choices right now matter. Ontario needs to hear Indigenous voices. People with a deep connection of the earth and of water.”

Ms. Saxe also outlined steps that Ontario has to take including a climate policy, commitment and credibility and reducing emissions. “We have to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels,” she asserted. The benefits to this end would include human health, economic development, lower energy bills, energy resilience, competitive businesses and environmental sustainability.

“What can we all do?” Ms. Saxe asked. “Reduce your carbon footprint. We are some of the most energy wasteful people in the world. Get ready to adapt. Speak up. Climate cannot be left entirely up to the government. We need to be talking about climate all the time.” 

Grand Council Chief Glen Hare was at this meeting as well as Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens. Chief Hare spoke of his concerns, saying, “We need cooperation. For example, aerial spraying. We are not getting the attention we need. The media will not hear what we have to say. We have been speaking up. I back up what we are doing, but we need the people with us. There are a lot of things we can do.”