Most Canadian provinces share the responsibility of managing and protecting their natural resources between the provincial and municipal governments. But Ontario has established regional conservation authorities to deliver such programs and services in cooperation with the two levels of government. This includes the management of outdoor recreational activities like skiing, hiking, and canoeing, the designation and management of protected areas, and the issuing of development permits within their boundaries.
The boundary of each conservation authority is determined by the watershed it sits on. To clarify, a watershed is an area of land that channels water into a common water body such as a lake, river, stream, or marsh. The reason behind this watershed approach is that it should provide meaningful insight into how the actions in one area may affect downstream communities across several municipal boundaries.
Their Board of Directors are mostly made up of elected municipal officials who are to act in the best interest of their respective municipality rather than the watershed as a whole. This is further complicated when the priorities of the conservation authority conflict with those of a municipality. For example, a municipality’s main source of revenue comes from property taxes. Therefore, a conflict of interest arises when the issue of economic development and conservation is discussed.
Recent Changes to Conservation Authorities
Despite their name, conservation authorities are limited in their ability to conserve Ontario’s natural resources because of the way they’re staffed as well as limitations on their powers under the Conservation Authorities Act. For example, if a development project is proposed, the conservation authority can submit comments to the municipal government which can be either accepted or rejected. The Ford government has also made recent changes to the Act that further limit the decision-making power of conservation authorities while increasing the power of the Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks to override their decisions.[i]
What Do We Do About It?
It would be easy to dismiss conservation authorities as problematic institutions, weighed down by politics and bureaucracy and one that should be scrapped. Besides, other provinces seem to be doing fine without them, right? However, a study I conducted in 2020 found that most people liked the idea of conservation authorities but were concerned about provincial and municipal politics influencing decision-making. Many people felt that elected officials were using their position on the Board of Directors of conservation authorities to help development projects past ‘red tape’, aka environmental impact studies.[ii] So, maybe the best way to protect our natural resources isn’t to scrap conservation authorities but rather to reform them away from influences of the government of the day.
[i] Bill 229, Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act (Budget Measures), 2020, Schedule 6 https://www.ola.org/en/legislative-business/bills/parliament-42/session-1/bill-229.
[ii] Darlene Coyle (2020). Wetland Management in Ontario: A Social Multi-Criteria Evaluation of Niagara Falls’ Slough Forests. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/16003.