Caccia’s Christmas gift to us

Endangered Species Bill

As the colour of your eyes, or the hair on the back of your hand, helps to define you to yourself, so do the grizzly bear, the spotted owl, the drooping trillium, the black rat snake, and the aurora trout.

That’s the message in Charles Caccia’s bill to protect endangered species. Our natural heritage, it says in its first line, is an integral part of our identity and our history.

For 30 years, Caccia has been the federal member of Parliament for Davenport riding in Toronto. Under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, he held several portfolios, including minister of the environment. Under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, he is chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.

He introduced his bill last October as an example of what the Government could do if it ever mustered the will. I think of it as a gift to Canadians — six months of concentrated effort on his part to create a vision of the possible for the rest of us.

He doesn’t expect the Government to adopt and pass his bill. Environment Minister Christine Stewart has promised to bring in an endangered species bill this spring. Caccia is simply setting the standard against which her bill can be judged.

The greatest obstacle facing any attempt to protect species is the constitution. Some lands and waters are under provincial jurisdiction; some under federal. « It’s inane,’’ says Caccia, « to have a situation where a bird could land on a provincial stone and not be protected, but would be protected if it landed on a federal stone.’’

His solution was to draft a bill that applied to all areas of Canada, and to offer money to the provinces to help implement it under federal-provincial agreements. An alternative would be for provinces to pass duplicate legislation.

I like Caccia’s approach. It’s direct and it’s simple. There would be no confusion about the rules, regardless if you were in Bancroft or in Bella Coola; on a (federal) navigable river, or on a (provincial) island in the river.

I like it especially because it would test the commitment of federal and provincial governments to act co-operatively, as they agreed to do in a national accord signed two years ago.

Not only would the bill protect endangered or threatened species from harm, it would also protect their habitats from damage, destruction, or disturbance. Habitat protection is tremendously important because 80 per cent of the species that are threatened or endangered are in trouble because of loss of habitat.

In this, it’s a major improvement on the last occasion the Liberals flirted with an endangered species law. That was in 1996, when Sergio Marchi, the then environment minister, brought in a bill that died on the order paper when the 1997 election was called. Marchi’s bill failed to offer any protection for habitat, and it applied only to federal lands and waters.

Under Caccia’s bill, the maximum fines would be $1 million for a corporation, and $250,000, or five years in jail, or both, for a person. On a second offence, the fines could be doubled.

This would allow stiff penalties. But would they be too stiff?

If you look at them in context, they don’t seem to be. For instance, under the criminal code, stealing something worth more than $5,000 can bring a sentence of ten years in jail.

Destroying a habitat that could further endanger a species seems to me far more heinous than running off with someone’s six-year-old car.

In the scale of commitment to the environment, and in the final analysis, to the well being of everyone, I don’t think there’s anything more important than protecting endangered species. It would declare a state of mind that would make possible everything else we need to do.

Keep Caccia’s bill in mind when Stewart brings in her legislation. And in the meantime, if you want a copy, it’s available in Toronto for $16 from Federal Publications Inc., at 165 University Ave., telephone 860-1611.

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