Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says senior sources who would lose their jobs if they went public have told her that the Conservative government is planning to eliminate the federal environment department and merge any remaining functions with Natural Resources Canada. The government categorically denied the suggestion.
Ms. May asked the government about the rumour at the end of the daily Question Period on Tuesday. "If it had not been from credible sources, I would not be putting this question to you," she told the Commons. "I would like assurances that no such plan is under consideration."
But if Ms. May was hoping to hear that her sources were mistaken, her fears were not allayed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "I would be delighted to meet any of these credible sources and to correct any misinformation that may have been given the honourable member," was Mr. Harper's brief reply.
Ms. May deemed that to be a "non-answer."
Andrew MacDougall, Mr. Harper's spokesman, later said via the social networking site Twitter that "Environment Canada is not being merged with another department. Full stop."
But Ms. May said the reports she is receiving from multiple and well-connected sources do not strain credulity given the government's recent moves to reduce its involvement in issues pertaining to the environment. Omnibus budget bills have significantly cut the federal role in environmental assessments, eliminated protection of fish habitats, and limited the number of lakes and rivers covered under the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
"I knew I was going out on a limb to ask the question in Question Period," Ms. May said in a telephone interview. "But when I have sources that are well-placed and well-informed, I would rather that people know that this is being considered and that it gets shot down early. I don't want to be fighting it once it is in an omnibus bill. We know how that goes."
Under the Harper government, there has been a systematic destruction of environmental laws at the federal level and the department's scientific and regulatory abilities have been scaled back, Ms. May said.
Even so, she added, eliminating Environment Canada altogether would have serious repercussions. "The primary responsibility around the cabinet table for advocacy for the environment, the primary responsibility for climate change plans, the primary responsibility for species at risk, water quality, toxic chemical management, our meteorological service, a great number of key and credible services reside within Environment Canada."
Megan Leslie, the Environment critic for the New Democrats, said the mere possibility that Environment Canada could be on the block is "shocking."
Both Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver defend pipelines, and the lines between the two departments are already blurred, Ms. Leslie said. But at least the department of the environment exists, she added. "If it were to be merged, that would be nuts."
Ed Whittingham, the head of the Pembina Institute, an environmental research organization, said it is difficult to assess whether there is any substance to the rumour, but any such merger would be a bad idea. "The two departments have very different mandates," Mr. Whittingham said.
John Bennett, the executive director of the Sierra Club Canada, said the provincial governments that have tried blending natural resources and environment ministries have developed bad reputations for environmental protection. "It is a very ominous next step," Mr. Bennett said, "but it would fit in with all of the other things they [the federal government] have done."