First Nations sue Ontario over changes to environmental laws

A legal challenge by First Nations and environmental groups against the Ontario government over changes to environmental protection laws is set to begin next week.

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A legal challenge by First Nations and environmental groups over changes to provincial environmental protection laws is set to begin next week.

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The case concerns changes made to Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act by Premier Doug Ford’s government as part of its COVID-19 Recovery Act, a sweeping omnibus bill aimed at accelerate economic recovery from the pandemic.

Under the new rules, some projects may be exempt from part of the oversight process required under the Environmental Bill of Rights, which includes consultations with the general public and First Nations communities.

The groups behind the legal challenge say the result is that public projects can now proceed without any environmental assessment, a move they say undermines both previous government agreements and their rights.

“Right now, we really have no way of knowing when projects will take place in our territories,” said Stacia Loft, deputy grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI), which represents several First Nations communities in southwestern Ontario.

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“The drafting of the bill leaves Indigenous peoples, who depend on a sustainable and healthy environment to exercise their way of life. . . risk of injury. »

The groups argue that all public projects were previously subject to automatic environmental assessment unless specifically exempted by the government, noting that the public also had an opportunity to intervene if such an exception was considered.

After the changes in July last year, they said that position had been reversed, with the government now having the right to decide whether an assessment is needed.

The government has defended the changes, saying they were needed to speed up the approval of projects essential to the recovery of the economy, hampered by the virus crisis.

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He also said consultations were underway, including with First Nations communities, to create a proposed list of projects “that would undergo a full environmental assessment.

“The legislation allows us, through subsequent proclamations and regulations, to focus on projects that have the greatest potential for environmental impact; details of which will be developed in consultation with Indigenous communities and others,” said an emailed statement from a spokesman for Environment Minister Jeff Yurek.

“The department takes the duty to consult seriously and is committed to consulting with Indigenous communities before making decisions or taking actions that could adversely affect Aboriginal or treaty rights.

Four days have been reserved for the court to hear the case which will begin on Monday.

With files from The Canadian Press

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