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Politics Ontario Liberals quietly loosened environmental rules, watchdog warns

Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gordon Miller photographed at his office on Bay St., Toronto.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's cabinet can now turn over public land to the exclusive control of private, multinational corporations, turning northern development into the "wild west," Environment Commissioner Gord Miller warns.

In a report Thursday, Mr. Miller said a series of quiet changes to the law last year – combined with cuts to staff and programs at the Ministries of Natural Resources and the Environment – could lead to the unrestrained exploitation of Northern Ontario's natural resources.

"They've changed the legislation … to allow it to be the wild west without asking us, without telling us what they're up to," he said. "Why are they changing the laws quietly without public consultation, to allow this wide-open exploitation with no rules? What's going on?"

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The changes – to the Public Lands and Fish and Wildlife Conservation acts – were passed as part of the 2012 budget. Such spending bills traditionally concern themselves with implementing administrative and financial measures, but there has been a trend in recent years for governments to stick unrelated matters into the legislation to get them passed quickly, rather than making them stand-alone laws that would be voted on individually.

The consequences in this case, Mr. Miller said, could be serious.

"Large tracts of land, unencumbered by a formal planning regime, could conceivably be handed over to the exclusive control of multinational corporations," he said. "We're talking about loss of access to hunting and fishing and use of the land. We're talking about loss of access and control to the First Nations' cultural heritage and all the environmental sensitivities."

Natural Resources Minister David Orazietti said the legal changes will only allow cabinet to bring in third parties to help manage Crown land, not sell it off. Before the government brings in anyone for the land, he said, it would hold public consultations.

He also argued that there are adequate rules in place to govern corporations when they use public land.

"No one's saying 'have your way with it' – there's all kinds of regulations both through the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Natural Resources that continue to play a role in protecting the land and land development," he said. "There's a process for opening a mine, for starting a forestry business. Those continue to be in place, so none of that has been removed."

The report comes at a time when Queen's Park is increasingly looking to the north, and its vast reserves of minerals, to secure the province's future. The government is crafting plans to open up the Ring of Fire deposits for mining and the province must, Mr. Miller said, ensure it evaluates the impact on the entire environment rather than dealing with it on a project-by-project basis.

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Mr. Miller also criticized the government for "gutting" protections for species at risk and not doing enough to build the road and rail links that new resource extraction projects need. He also said Ontario must develop regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." This technique involves shooting high-pressure liquid into the ground to crack open rocks containing natural gas. While there is no fracking in Ontario at the moment, he said, it might happen in the future and the province should be prepared.

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