Summary of Environmental Law in Canada

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2 Institutional Framework for Environmental Protection


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The federal government and each provincial government have a ministry or department devoted to the protection of the environment.


The federal department, Environment Canada, was created in 1971. It is governed by the Department of the Environment Act, and is headed by the federal Minister of the Environment. Environment Canada deals with the quality of the natural environment, which includes: quality of air, water, and soil; renewable natural resources and, more generally, wildlife flora and fauna; waters; meteorology; coordination of policies and programs of the federal government for the conservation and improvement of the quality of the environment; and, the application of the rules and regulations established by the Great Lakes International Joint Commission for the conservation and improvement of the quality of the environment. National parks are the responsibility of Heritage Canada.

Environment Canada administers approximately 15 federal statutes. The most important of these statutes is the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999). Environment Canada also has responsibilities under statutes administered by other ministries. For example, Environment Canada administers the water quality provisions of the federal Fisheries Act.

Health Canada is another federal ministry responsible for environmental matters that are likely to have an impact on the life and health of Canadians. Health Canada is jointly responsible, along with Environment Canada, for implementing various parts of CEPA, including that dealing with toxic substances.

Several other federal departments deal with environmental matters. The most important are: Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Fisheries and Oceans, Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Industry Canada, Justice Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Transport Canada.

The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development is a committee of the House of Commons. The Standing Committee's mandate is to study any environmental issues submitted to it by the Commons and to make its recommendations. For example, the Standing Committee has held public hearings and wrote a lengthy report on revisions to CEPA.

The federal government created The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) in 1994. The NRTEE, which is an independent entity from the federal government, has a mandate to provide objective and accurate information to the authorities on the environment and on the economy. The NRTEE helps define, interpret and promote the underlying principles of sustainable development by creating general policies and by formulating recommendations to direct government action. The National Round Table is directly under the responsibility of the Prime Minister. It is composed of influential representatives of governments and industry, as well as scientists, environmental organizations, universities, trade unions, and aboriginal peoples.

In April 1995, Canada created a new position, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, who reports directly to the Auditor General. At the same time, amendments were made to the Auditor General Act to promote sustainable development across all federal departments, attempting to ensure that the government is held publicly accountable for its progress in shifting to sustainable development. Twenty-five federal departments and certain federal organizations are required to develop sustainable development strategies and to table them in Parliament within two years of the coming into force of the amendments. The Commissioner monitors and reports annually to Parliament on the extent to which departments meet their objectives and implement the action plans set out in their sustainable development strategies. Also, the Auditor General is authorized to forward public petitions on environmental matters to the responsible Ministers for reply.


The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) was created to promote cooperation between federal and provincial authorities in environmental matters. It is the principal intergovernmental forum for discussion and cooperation on environmental issues of regional, national, and international concern. The CCME is unable to either set up or apply acts. Each government is free to adopt the standards and proposals of the CCME. The CCME has several objectives: the harmonization of legislation and policies; the adoption of standards and national objectives; the adoption of uniform strategies in order to face ecological problems at the national, international, and global level; the improvement of the links between national and international policies and programs; and the conciliation of environmental assessment procedures.

In recent years, the activities of the CCME have been focused primarily on measures to reach the objectives of the Canada-wide Accord on Environmental Harmonization, signed in January 1998 (the Accord and its sub-agreements have not been ratified by Quebec, however). Under the Accord, governments are called upon to work in partnership to reach the highest possible level of environmental protection for all Canadians. In compliance with this accord, governments are to implement sub-agreements on Canada-wide standards and on environmental assessment, employing their powers in a coordinated manner. Among the results obtained to date, the following achievements deserve mention:

Other federal-provincial institutions have been created to help resolve issues related to environmental problems : the Wildlife Ministers Council of Canada, the Federal-Provincial Parks Council, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, the Federal-Provincial Agriculture Ministers Conference, and the Canadian Council of Energy Ministers.

Provinces and Territories

Every province or territory has a ministry vested with executive powers for pollution abatement and nature conservation. The provincial and territorial ministries are: the ministère de l'Environnement of Quebec; the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks of British Columbia; the Alberta Environmental Protection; the Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management; the Manitoba Environment; the Ministry of the Environment of Ontario; the Department of Environment and Labour of Newfoundland and Labrador; the Department of Environment of New Brunswick; the Department of the Environment of Nova Scotia; the Department of Technology and Environment of Prince Edward Island; and the Department of Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development of the Northwest Territories.

The power, scope of work, and resources of provincial and territorial authorities responsible for the environment differ greatly from one place to another, but generally they are in charge of applying and developing environmental legislation, regulations and policies. They manage environmental affairs including issuing permits and licences, ensuring that development projects comply with environmental standards, conducting inspections, and bringing prosecutions for environmental offences. Provincial environmental laws provide the basis for environmental regulation in Canada. Various bodies report directly to the environment ministries. They are generally responsible for providing advice on decisions (consulting committees, public hearings office, etc.) or used as management tools (corporate enterprises, foundations, etc). Many departments of the environment have also created independent environmental laboratories.

Local governments

Local public authorities, such as municipalities, have at their disposal a wide range of powers that may be used for environmental regulation and management. Local public authorities are increasingly active in assuming a role for the protection of their environment. Environmental management and regulation at the local level usually fall within the following categories:

  1. Air pollution;
  2. Water pollution;
  3. Nuisance;
  4. Environmentally sensitive areas;
  5. Public health;
  6. Planning and zoning;
  7. Business licensing and regulation;
  8. Dangerous substances; and
  9. Plenary powers.

The environmental regulation and management role that can be played by local public authorities is dependent, in large measure, upon their legal status as municipalities created by provincial governments. Their legislative authority can be found in a wide variety of provincial and territorial legislation. Also, many provinces have created some form of regional or intermunicipal planning between municipalities. In the territories, land use planning is applied mainly at the regional level.

Comprehensive Land Claim Settlements

As discussed under Chapter 1.3, the federal government has negotiated a number of land claim settlements with aboriginal peoples of northern Canada, including the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Northeastern Quebec Agreement, the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, the Gwich'in Agreement, the Sahtu and Dene and Métis Agreement, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the Council of Yukon Indians Umbrella Final Agreement, and the Yukon First Nations Final (Land Claim) Agreements. Under most of these settlements, environmental management regimes have been established in the form of co-management bodies consisting of aboriginal and government representatives which are responsible for environmental assessment, land use planning, wildlife management, and protected areas. Since August 1995, the federal government has adopted the Inherent Right Policy which broadens the scope of responsibilities potentially available to aboriginal peoples in future land claim agreements. Canada is prepared to negotiate Aboriginal jurisdiction or authority in areas of federal jurisdiction, such as environmental protection, environmental assessment, pollution prevention and the administration of justice, although in the event of a conflict, federal laws will prevail. In self-government agreements, federal laws and Aboriginal laws would exist concurrently. Agreements between aboriginal peoples and governments concerning the environmental management of some territories have also been signed at the provincial level. For example, in Alberta a cooperative management agreement between the province and the Horse Lake First Nation establishes a formal mechanism for ongoing consultation and cooperation on renewable resources or environmental matters. Existing Treaty and Aboriginal rights are recognized and respected, while the province retains legislative and regulatory jurisdiction over the natural resources and environmental management.


Canada has more than 1,800 non-governmental environmental organizations, most of which are small local organizations. However, there is at least one environmental group in each province dealing with broader issues.

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