The environmental assessment process in Canada has been controversial in recent years, with high-profile reviews such as the Northern Gateway Project in the news, and the new federal Liberal government promising to “make environmental assessments credible again”.

For the latest installment of its Straight Talk series of Q&As with leading policy experts, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute spoke with Bram Noble, a professor of environmental assessment at the University of Saskatchewan and the co-author with Aniekan Udofia of a new MLI paper titled “Protectors of the Land: Toward an EA process that works for Aboriginal communities and developers”.

In the interview, Noble explains that the public needs a better understanding about what the EA process is intended to achieve: “Maybe the biggest misconception about EA is that it’s about preventing development, or that EA has failed when a project goes ahead and that project has adverse impacts. The reality is that all developments, whether it’s Oil Sands and pipelines, or wind farms and solar farms, they all have adverse impacts”, says Noble. What EA is really intended to achieves, he says, is to ensure the decision to approve a particular resource project is well informed about the environmental and social effects, and the opportunities to mitigate them.

He adds that many Canadians also see environmental assessments on a particular project as a forum to lobby against an entire industry sector, something we have seen with proposed projects such as Northern Gateway.

“With these big assessments, we see a lot of unrealistic expectations, I think not really aligning with what an EA process is really intended to do

To read the full Straight Talk Q&A click here.  

Noble’s MLI paper focuses on how to improve the EA process to better include the Aboriginal communities affected by resource development, something that has been seriously lacking. Earlier engagement is crucial, Noble says, and it is certainly possible for the EA process to serve the needs of Aboriginal peoples and industry. But, he says, work must be done on all sides.

“Businesses can’t go into communities at the 11th hour and say ‘here’s our applications, give us your feedback,’ when many of these communities had no technical capacity or human resource capacity to do that. But at the same time, Aboriginal communities can’t demand that their traditional land and resource uses are considered in the assessment if they’re not willing to provide that information where it is available.”

The stakes are high, notes Noble: “The EA process costs two times or 10 times as much for a project when there are project delays, missed market opportunities, litigation, even project refusal”, he told MLI.

MLI was able to draw the following recommendations from our conversation with Prof. Noble.

  1. Businesses need to be engaged with potentially affected Aboriginal communities before a project goes to environmental assessment to ensure that there is time for them to participate fully.
  2. Government needs to be in first, to create processes in resource-rich regions to ensure that communities are prepared when specific proposals come from developers.
  3. Aboriginal communities in development-heavy regions need to get ahead of the game. They must anticipate the possibility of projects in their area and ensure their interests are represented in environmental assessments.