The federal NDP says it has obtained leaked documents showing the Conservatives are poised to strip the Fisheries Act of habitat-protection provisions — a change that would dramatically reduce Ottawa's power to oversee fresh water.
The federal government took no steps Tuesday to deny the claim.
The contents of the documents, but not the documents themselves, were widely distributed to media on Tuesday.
The material suggests there are plans to revise the Fisheries Act so that Ottawa would be responsible for fish, but not for their surrounding habitat.
"This is a serious situation and will put Canada back to where we were in the pre-1976 period where Canada had no laws to protect fish habitat and no way to monitor the great industrial expansion that occurred in Canada with the consequential loss of major fish habitat all across Canada," said biologist Otto Langer.
Langer is a former senior official in Fisheries and Oceans who says he was given the draft by insiders at the department.
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield did not deny that changes were in the works. In the House of Commons, he said no final decision has been made.
"Canada is blessed with an abundant array of natural resources of which we should be proud and which we take seriously in our responsibility to conserve and protect," Ashfield said.
His spokesperson added that fisheries policies are "outdated and unfocused in terms of balancing environmental and economic realities." She included a list of media clips about strange ways the Fisheries Act work.
Changes target environmental assessments
As it stands now, any project that would interfere with fish habitat — be it in waterways, marshes, gravel beds and the banks and vegetation along waterways — is subject to an environmental assessment.
Industry has been pressuring the federal government for years to modernize the Fisheries Act.
But the proposals contained in the leak documents go too far, said NDP critics.
"By this measure that they're putting in place, it essentially means that it will (be) close to impossible to ever trigger a federal assessment again," said Linda Duncan, highlighting oil sands and pipeline projects.
The NDP and Langer say they believe the Conservatives were planning to slip the change into the budget omnibus bill later this month, much like they did with changes to environmental assessment two years ago.
"The Harper government will attempt to sneak this neutering of the Fisheries Act through Parliament within the next two weeks by tacking it on to the end of the upcoming budget omnibus bill," predicted Langer.
Indeed, major changes to environmental assessment have been in the works for months.
Conservative MPs on a Commons committee presented the government with a blueprint for their changes on Tuesday, with the goal of streamlining lengthy environmental hearings.
But opposition members and environmentalists are up in arms, saying the blueprint would set Canada back decades in terms of protecting the environment from the ravages of industry.