Environmental network forced to close doors

A 34-year-old national environmental network that's served as a link between people and the federal government shut its doors Friday afternoon after Environment Canada cut its funding.

Decision tied to loss of federal government funding

Environment Minister Peter Kent answers questions in the House of Commons last week about budget cuts. The loss of federal government funding has forced the Canadian Environmental Network to shutter its Ottawa headquarters.

A 34-year-old national environmental network that has served as a link between people and the federal government shut its doors Friday afternoon after Environment Canada cut its funding.

The Canadian Environmental Network was told Thursday that its funding from the federal government won't be renewed.

"It was a real kick in the pants," said Dan Casselman, the group's senior national caucus co-ordinator.

"If they'd given us some warning we might have had time to find money somewhere else."

The network acted as a link between 640 small environmental groups across the country and the federal government. In the past, if Ottawa needed advice on policies or new laws it would ask the network for input. The organization would then help the various smaller groups discuss issues and take part in formal consultations across the country.

The grassroots organization has helped craft important environmental legislation over the past three decades, including the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Casselman said the group received notice in May that the government was expecting  to renew its $547,000 budget for another year. However, it didn't hear anything about the final approval, so the network made contingency plans and warned staff at its national office they could be laid off.

Its financial picture became clear when the group received a letter Thursday from Environment Canada saying it had decided not to enter into the contribution agreement this fiscal year. 

Five people at the national head office in Ottawa have lost their jobs. Only a few of the network's offices in some provinces will stay open because they have funding from provincial governments.

"But the pan-Canadian network is in jeopardy, " said Casselman.

Environmental groups are furious about the decision.

The executive director of the Sierra Club, John Bennett, said the Environmental Network was key in helping the government find out what Canadians think about environmental issues across the country. 

"It was a way to find out what people are thinking about on the ground. I guess it shows that Environment Canada doesn't care," Bennett said.

He thinks it's all part of the ongoing cuts to anything environmental in Canada. More than 700 positions with Environment Canada itself, many of them scientific, could be affected by budget cuts by the end of the fiscal year. 

A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Peter Kent said in an email on Friday that the department is reviewing its spending to make sure it's getting value for money. 

"The department is moving towards a more direct use of web-based consultation. The department already has a number of web pages dedicated to public participation and consultation," Melissa Lantsman said. 

"The intent is to expand on these to not only provide comments on discussion papers, but to invite stakeholders to submit ideas or policy solutions on the government’s environmental priorities," Lantsman said.

But Casselman said that's not realistic.

"Canadians are not going to spend their time mining the far reaches of the government web pages to find out about new policies," he said. "The Environmental Network does that. We are the connection between the people and the feds."

Even though he is out of a job, Casselman said he and other employees will volunteer their time to try drum up funding to keep the network going.

But late Friday afternoon he was still dealing with how quickly things happened.

"I'm going to drink a beer and then I'm going home," he said.


Margo McDiarmid is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Warsaw, Poland. She worked for CBC for more than 30 years.