By Jessica Lovell
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent cited two main objectives for his visit to Guelph on Friday. One was to provide an account of government actions taken to strengthen the environment; the other was to gather feedback from local people and organizations on the environment.
Kent made a luncheon address on environmental protection to the Guelph Chamber of Commerce. He also took time out to meet with local environmentalists and activists, including a group of Idle No More protesters demonstrating at the gates to Cutten Fields, where the luncheon was held.
“While we may have different opinions and perspectives on how to protect our shared environment, it’s fair to say that we all agree the environment needs protection,” he said.
Nearly 100 people came out to the event to hear what he had to say. Chamber luncheons usually attract about 50 people, chamber president Lloyd Longfield noted in introducing the minister.
Longfield alluded to Guelph’s interest in water resources as part of the reason for strong interest in the minister’s address. “We have some amazing companies working in water,” he said.
Protection of clean water was a key concern of the group of protesters who spoke with Kent outside the venue before the event, and the issue of the impact of Bill C-45 on watersheds was also raised by a group from the Council of Canadians, who met with Kent inside before he spoke.
So it is not surprising that water came up as Kent spoke.
“Our government is actively committed to ensuring Canadians have the freshest water, the cleanest air,” he told the crowd.
But the government’s plan for strengthening the environment has to be balanced with the need to “ensure Canada’s ability to withstand global economic uncertainty,” Kent said.
He touched briefly on a variety of topics ranging from funding for Grand River Conservation Authority conservation projects to protection of the Great Lakes.
The government is introducing the first national standards for wastewater treatment, “aimed at ending the dumping of untreated and under-treated sewage,” Kent said.
But the government is concerned with more than just water quality, he added. “While water quality is a very high priority to our government, so is water quantity,” he said, noting some of the Great Lakes are at 75-year lows.
“An important report is due from the International Joint Commission in the next couple of weeks, but I can tell you there are no easy answers,” he said.
From water levels, he moved onto climate change.
“We are determined that Canada will meet its Copenhagen commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 17 per cent by 2020,” Kent said, listing new emission standards and a ban on the construction of new traditional coal-fired electricity plants as steps toward this end.
Greenhouse gas emissions were one of the first concerns raised by the audience when Kent opened up the floor to questions.
Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong got things rolling by asking what has happened to greenhouse gas emissions since 2006.
While there has been a drop in emissions, Kent said, part of that drop is attributable to an economic downturn.
“We hope that Canada’s economy does continue to grow, but we hope that our regulations will continue to reduce greenhouse gases,” he said.
Most of the other questions also came from political faces, with former Guelph provincial Green Party candidate Steve Dick commenting on the need to direct the economy away from carbon; city councilor Cam Guthrie asking about companies being fined for breaking regulations; and local MP Frank Valeriote asking about what Ottawa can do to encourage Canadian companies to invest in research and innovation.
A comment on research also came from Erin Skimson, director of the University of Guelph’s Catalyst Centre. “I have a concern that we’re trading fundamental research for the commercialization of research,” she said.
While Kent seemed to understand the concern, “there aren’t enough dollars to fund every researcher on every level,” he said.
“More and more we’re trying to engage the private sector to multiply the investment that goes into research.”
When asked a final question by Longfield about innovative collaboration between the Ministry of the Environment and industry, Kent said it is a challenge.
“We really are getting into a period of adaptation that is going to change an awful lot of the business models at all levels,” he said.