Environment watchdog slams Brian Pallister for not appointing a conservation minister

When Brian Pallister was sworn into government and announced his new team of 12 ministers, along with their portfolios, there was at least one glaring omission according to a conservation watchdog — there's no longer a conservation and water stewardship minister.

'Sustainable development is a far cry from a conservation department,' Wilderness Committee says

Premier Brian Pallister appointed Cathy Cox as minister of sustainable development Tuesday. There was no conservation and waterstewardship minister appointed. (CBC)

When Brian Pallister was sworn into government and announced his new team of 12 ministers, along with their portfolios, there was at least one glaring omission according to a conservation watchdog — there's no longer a conservation and water stewardship minister.

"To go about running a province — a province that has such an incredible amount of functioning nature, and such important things like huge lakes and massive forests that are globally important — to not have that front and centre when you're setting up how the government is going to be running the province for the next four years is really regressive," said Eric Reder, Manitoba campaign director for the Wilderness Committee.

Pallister appointed Cathy Cox as minister of sustainable development. Former Interlake MLA Tom Nevakshonoff was in charge of the conservation portfolio under the NDP government, which was ousted by the PCs April 19 after nearly 17 years in government.

It's easy to imagine the terms "sustainable" and "conservation" as having something in common, but language matters hugely in this case and should raise flags for people who care about the environment, Reder said.

"Sustainable development is a far cry from the conservation department," he said.

"Does Lake Winnipeg need development? No, Lake Winnipeg needs conservation. Do woodland caribou need development? No, they need conservation. Our fisheries that we're concerned about the pickerel populations in the last couple weeks, does that need development? No, that needs conservation."
Eric Reder, the Wilderness Committee's Manitoba campaign director, slammed Brian Pallister for not appointing a conservation and waterstewardship minister at the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday in Winnipeg. (CBC)

The word "sustainable" has a friendly-sounding, eco-conscious ring to it traditionally, but it's also been co-opted by corporations and developers, who torque and twist the word in ways that suit their needs, Reder said.

"If the word was 'ecological sustainable development [minister]' ... than we would understand that yes, we're going to conserve our ecology; we're going to make sure that we sustain these lifeblocks that we have, the clean air that comes from our forest, the carbon sequestration that we have from our preserved natural areas; the clean water that exists but won't exist if we don't work on conserving it," Reder said.

"They may say that sustainable development is how they're going to handle it in the province, but that simply is not acceptable.... Scientists around the world aren't saying, 'We really need to work on some development so our environment is healthier. Scientists around the world are saying that we really need to conserve our natural ecosystems and the processes which give us life on this planet."

Reder said he has spent the last nine years bringing conservation initiatives to ministers so they could hold the government to account. In that time, he said the PCs have almost never taken the information and brought it up in question period.

'We'll have to watch out'

There was a level of deliberateness behind the language change that Reder thinks reveals something telling about how concerned — or not — the Pallister-led government will be about conservation efforts.

With 12 ministers, Pallister's cabinet has seven fewer ministers than the former NDP government. Some departments are being collapsed into others as part of Pallister's campaign promise to reduce cabinet by one-third.

"I think we'll have to watch out and see whether the premier and his government will pay sufficient attention to the environment," political analyst Chris Adams said.

"I'd want to see how that department is organized, not just the fact that one minister is handling a couple of areas that might actually compete with each other, but how are they organized underneath the minister — that is, the deputy ministers and the [assistant deputy ministers] — and are there specialized individuals who will be focused on particular issue areas that can then advise the minister on whether it's the environmental issue or on jobs."

Reder said with no conservation minister in place, he wonders who will be responsible for things like the Wildlife Act, the species-at-risk act or enforcing water protection legislation.

"It's a very clear sign from the get-go that we're going to have a lot more attention watch-dogging government on the environment in Manitoba."

Scott Stephens, regional director for the Prairies with Ducks Unlimited Canada, said the organization isn't concerned by the lack of an appointment to the conservation ministry.

"From our perspective, the key issues that the new minister [of sustainable development] takes on will be much more important than [the] name of the ministry," Stephens said. "DUC is anxious to visit with the new minister to discuss making progress right away on protecting existing wetlands across Manitoba as a key component of mitigating impacts of future floods."

The new minister of sustainable development "looks forward to working with all stakeholders and groups who fall within the new department's jurisdiction," a spokesperson for the government said in an email statement.

"This includes organizations that previously fell within the parameters of the Department of Conservation and Water Stewardship."