Ontario Environmental Commissioner visits Islanders at M’Chigeeng complex

Ontario Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe was the guest speaker at a climate change seminar held January 7 at the M’Chigeeng Complex. Ms. Saxe, left, is pictured with M’Chigeeng First Nation Chief Linda Debassige.

M’CHIGEENG—The newly elected premier of Ontario, 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 year anniversary we now 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. Days before the legislation passed, the Environmental Commissioner released a damning report which was critical of Ontario’s lack of action in keeping our lakes and rivers clean. For example, the Commissioner identified raw sewage was dumped into the water 1,327 times totalling billions of litres of raw sewage into our water systems and into Georgian Bay, identification of road salt contaminating lakes and rivers turning them too salty for many freshwater species and algae blooms continue to threaten lakes due to increased phosphorus causing the blooms. 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, so 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. 

In speaking specifically about climate change, Ms. Saxe queried, “Is it as bad as we thought? It’s worse.” She said that she was shocked by how much she didn’t know about climate change and how bad it really is. “Climate change is here now,” she emphasized. “There is much worse to come.”

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 as she noted that we have recorded the highest temperatures in human history and that the jet stream is slowing down. “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. Ontario is warming quite a bit faster than the rest of the world. Northern Ontario is warming faster than the rest of Ontario. Some places are warmer and some places are drier.” 

Drier areas then can lead to forest fires and the intensity and numbers of such events resulted in the worse fires ever worldwide in 2017 and 2018. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Latvia and the United States were some of the countries heavily hit. Here in Canada, Alberta and British Columbia battled blazes that were the worse on record. There were even fires above the Arctic Circle. 

Many countries experienced extreme drought due to climate change including the entire state of New South Wales in Australia. In India, asphalt turned liquid in the extreme heat and sea levels continue to rise as glaciers and ice caps melt, she shared.

Ms. Saxe commented that there were four times as many climate extremes as when she was young. “Many places are worse,” she said. “This is what we have done. Flood, fire, drought, wind, and heat. A lot of what is coming in the winter is rain instead of snow. The browse for animals is covered with ice. There are public safety issues. Control means more use of ice which is bad for lakes. Insurance costs are through the roof. There are these increased costs and the availability of insurance. About 10 percent of the Canadian population will soon be ineligible for insurance due to high risk. 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. Fish succumb to disease and the moose population is down 20 percent in Ontario due to climate change. Human health is affected. Lyme disease is the first epidemic of climate change.”

Ms. Saxe also outlined steps that Ontario has to take including a climate policy, commitment and credibility, reducing emissions, getting ready for what’s coming and recommendations. “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.”

First Nation Grand 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.”