Ontario Takes an Axe to Environmental Protections

Ontario is rapidly ushering in an era of laissez-faire logging, ceding its forests, wildlife, and public health to the whims and interests of industry. In a whirlwind of deregulation, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government spent the summer untethering industrial logging from democratic processes, leaving threats to public health, climate and at-risk wildlife--and a slew of lawsuits and public outcry—in its wake. 

Ontario’s boreal forest is one of the most carbon-dense forests on the planet and home to threatened species like boreal caribou and Indigenous communities who have relied on the land for millennia. Yet each year, the logging industry in Ontario clearcuts over 315,000 acres of boreal forest, releasing vast stores of carbon into the atmosphere, eroding intact forests, and leaving many populations of boreal caribou with too little habitat to survive.

Now, despite global calls to protect the world’s remaining intact forests, Premier Ford has laid plans to double logging in the province, while simultaneously rolling back the few protections for species and communities that had been in place. These rollbacks include eroding opportunities for public input through the Environmental Assessment Act that provide a democratic check on industry and exempting the logging industry from abiding by wildlife protections under the Endangered Species Act.

This deregulation agenda and logging expansion has drawn outrage and legal action across the province from First Nations and environmental NGOs, who have decried the Ford government’s policies for endangering their health and ways of life, eroding Indigenous consultation processes, and threatening some of the world’s most carbon-dense ecosystems. As Fort Albany First Nation Chief Leo Metatawabin stated, “I understand economics is very important. I understand that. People depend on economics to survive. But we need the land to survive as well.”

Undermining Democratic Processes

Like the Trump Administration, the Ford government has shown that it is willing to jettison democratic values for industry’s benefit. The speed with which Ontario has ushered through these rollbacks, especially amid the upheaval from COVID-19, itself raises serious questions about the government’s attentiveness to public comments. 

Yet the truly decisive blow to democratic processes and public health came in July when, in violation of the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights, Ontario passed its omnibus economic recovery legislation, Bill 197 without public consultation. This sweeping legislation severely weakens the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA), the province’s primary mechanism for seeking public input prior to approving industrial projects, giving logging companies further impunity. 

As several environmental groups are charging in their litigation against the government’s actions, Bill 197 is “inconsistent with international law conventions, principles and norms on environmental assessment, public participation, and human rights applicable in Ontario.” A number of First Nations have filed a separate lawsuit over the legislation’s impact on their treaty rights. As Sheldon Oskineegish, the chief of Nibinamik First Nation, stated, “It's shameful that Ontario is proceeding in this way and attempting to use the COVID-19 global pandemic as a smokescreen to ignore their constitutional duties to First Nations."

First Nations have highlighted that this erosion of consultation processes is especially egregious given that, for decades, they have faced especially acute impacts to their public health and ways of life from the logging industry. Joseph Fobister, a member of Grassy Narrows First Nation, a community devastated by logging’s environmental impacts, commented, "Now Ontario is trying to grease the wheels for industry and further weaken oversight that was supposed to keep the forests that we rely on healthy. This is a big step backwards for people who care about the forest, the animals and the water." 

Endangered Species Act Exemptions

The Ford government has long elevated industry interests over the long-term survival of the province’s wildlife, including the iconic boreal caribou. Industrial logging is one of the primary threats to the species, which are declining at a rate of 30 percent every 18 years.

Yet this summer, the Ford Government extended the logging industry’s exemption from the once-robust Endangered Species Act, for another year, eliminating requirements for industry to protect and recover at-risk species like the boreal caribou. With many of Ontario’s boreal caribou herds already left with too little forest left to survive long-term, this exemption will cast them into an even bleaker, more uncertain future.

Clearcut logging in Ontario

River Jordan for NRDC

Forest Sector Strategy

Ontario’s misleadingly titled Sustainable Growth Forest Sector Strategy aims to double logging in the province, with an eye to feeding growing tissue and packaging markets. Logging, unlike fossil fuel extraction, can be done sustainably through practices like longer harvest rotations and avoiding intact forests and critical wildlife habitat, but the myopic Forest Sector Strategy envisions an untenable future of ramped-up, under-regulated logging  in which short-term industry profits prevail over sound planning and climate mitigation.

In addition the Forest Sector Strategy articulates the province’s intent to provide further financial benefits to the logging industry, including tax reductions, even as the industry is externalizing its significant costs to the climate. Ultimately, the Forest Sector Strategy relies on industry-propagated misinformation around its role in driving the climate crisis, further entrenching Ford’s efforts to undermine meaningful climate action.

Industry Impacts

Ontario’s strategy to bolster the logging industry is even counterproductive for the industry itself, jeopardizing its reputation in the global marketplace and risking its market share. Over 90 percent of Ontario’s forest products exports end up in the United States in the form of toilet paper, newsprint, and lumber. Consumers are increasingly demanding products that minimize environmental harms in the face of climate change and biodiversity collapse, and many companies and municipalities are committing to adopting more stringent supply chains. Ontario’s new policies risk making its logging industry persona non grata for purchasers.

Amid calls to rebuild in the wake of COVID-19, Ontario is instead razing the foundations of a sustainable, resilient economy, placing the logging industry further out of touch with the exigencies of the climate and biodiversity crises. In the process, the Ford government is branding the province as an environmental laggard in the international marketplace. Ultimately, the Ford government is leading Ontario down a dangerous path, literally doubling down on unsustainable logging practices and miring the province in an outmoded economic approach that will have untold costs for generations to come.

About the Authors

Jennifer Skene

Environmental Law Fellow, International Program

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