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In a rare show of solidarity across party lines, four former federal fisheries ministers – two Conservatives and two Liberals – are speaking out against proposed legislative changes they say will lead to irreparable damage to fish habitat.

"They are totally watering down and emasculating the Fisheries Act," said Tom Siddon, who was fisheries minister for Conservative former prime minister Brian Mulroney from 1985 to 1990. "They are really taking the guts out of the Fisheries Act and it's in devious little ways if you read all the fine print ... they are making a Swiss cheese out of [it]"

Mr. Siddon, now retired in British Columbia, will appear before a parliamentary subcommittee on Wednesday to voice the concerns he, John Fraser, Herb Dhaliwal and David Anderson have about Bill C-38. The omnibus legislation was brought in by the Finance Minister to deal with amendments to 60 different acts, and it includes changes to key provisions of the Fisheries Act, a powerful piece of legislation that dates back to Confederation.

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Under the amendments, the Fisheries Act will shift its focus to protect only fish that support commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries. At the same time, some federal responsibilities will be offloaded to the provinces.

Mr. Siddon said the bill was strengthened in 1986 to broadly protect fish habitat and he is dismayed the government now wants to weaken it.

"The real scary part of this is that the one minister in Canada who has the constitutional duty to protect the fishery, which includes habitat, is the Fisheries Minister and these amendments essentially parcel out and water down his fiduciary responsibility, to the point that … he can delegate his responsibility to private-sector interests and individuals," he said.

"I know from many experiences, whether it's the issues of the gravel pit operators … placer miners …or pulp mills, that what they could get away with, they got away with, prior to 1985-86."

Mr. Siddon said the proposed changes would never have been tolerated in Mr. Mulroney's era.

"In the old days, whether we were Progressive Conservative, or Liberal, or environmentalists, or Greens we had the heart and soul – the values of Canada – at the top of our agenda. Whereas this government seems to place the pocketbook at the top of their agenda," he complained.

Mr. Fraser, Conservative fisheries minister in 1984-85, said the changes are of such importance that they should be fully debated, and not lumped together in an omnibus bill.

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"Unless there is some excuse, some kind of national emergency, I don't think an omnibus bill is appropriate procedurally," Mr. Fraser said. "The point [is]… you've got to vote either for the whole thing or against it. That's bad democracy."

Mr. Fraser said that in about 1982 the Conservatives refused to come into the House of Commons for over two weeks, to protest an omnibus bill introduced by the Liberal government.

"Eventually the Liberal government backed down, they split it and the whole thing was cleaned up in a couple of days," he said, suggesting the NDP and Liberals might use that tactic now.

Mr. Dhaliwal, Liberal fisheries minister from 1999 to 2002 under Jean Chrétien, said he is concerned that small coastal communities will be economically devastated if the act is weakened and fisheries opportunities are lost.

"I think a lot of red flags are going up when you get four [former ministers]complaining," he said. "It's got nothing to do with politics. This is about having a real concern that we not make a wrong decision for the future of Canada."

David Anderson, who served under Mr. Chrétien as fisheries minister from 1997 to 1999, said it is troubling that the government is reducing environmental protection at a time when resource industries are expanding.

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"We're shifting to Arctic and remote areas. We're shifting to exotic technologies and all of this should take more environmental examination and concern, rather than less," he said. "This is so fundamentally back to front that I am just staggered."

Canadian science organizations and environmental groups have been expressing concerns about the proposed changes since the omnibus bill was introduced in April.

At its annual convention next week, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is expected to debate the issue, with a B.C. resolution calling on the government to rescind the proposed amendments.

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