at a time when species are disappearing from our wild spaces and their habitats are under increasing threat from extraction industries, the Tories want to hand over control of wildlife management to the province's sport hunting and fishing interests.Or so it seems from a reading of Bill 135, the little-publicized Ontario Heritage Hunting And Fishing Act, which is due for second reading in the coming weeks.
It proposes, among other things, to entrench the right to hunt and fish, and replaces the current fish and wildlife advisory board, which advises the minister, with a commission.
Seems innocuous enough. So much so that it was the opposition Liberals who actually moved unanimous consent for the bill when it was first tabled by the Tories last Christmas.
The NDP was initially onside, too, viewing the proposed legislation as little more than a PR bone being tossed to the powerful Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), which is still smarting from the cancellation of the spring bear hunt and other limitations. The NDP is withholding its support now that native groups have raised concerns.
Where Bill 135 is concerned, the devil is in the the details.
The fishing and hunting commission proposed by the bill will function much like the wildlife advisory board it will replace, save for one huge difference: the commission will have access to some $50 million from the sale of licences, fees and fines to use for the promotion of hunting and fishing.
Sport hunting has played such an important role in shaping the province's "social, cultural and economic heritage," Bill 135's preamble states, that it justifies the use of public funds to help advance the notion that hunting is a laudatory and public-spirited activity rather than an anachronistic pursuit enjoyed by a small but aggressively active special-interest group.
Those appointed to sit on the commission by the minister will, like the current advisory board, be exclusively drawn from the sport hunting and fishing industry, boding ill for conservation efforts and species at risk.
Indeed, some opposed to the bill argue in their submissions to the government that imposing the task of promoting sport hunting and fishing on the commission will ultimately lead to the involvement of corporations as a way of bringing more money into the system.
Is the Heritage Hunting And Fishing Act setting the stage for the off-loading of wildlife management responsibilities to the sports hunting and fishing industry?
Jerry Ouelette, the new minister of natural resources, is also an OFAH member. He has spoken in the past in favour of the MNR's off-loading some of its management responsibilities to the sport industry.
Greg Farrant, OFAH's manager of government relations, insists, "There's no hidden agenda here" and that the bill is "reasonably harmless" and only puts into words rights that already exist. "In fact, I've had MPPs say to me, "Yeah, sure we'll support it -- why wouldn't we? It's fluff.'"
Farrant's response, though, doesn't quite explain why OFAH felt the need to urge 18,000 of its members to write the government in an effort to get the Tories to pass the bill before the close of the last legislative session. OFAH is not in the habit of rallying its members for things it believes are of no use.
Paul Demers, the minister's spokesperson, says it's too soon to get into any such debate, since the makeup of the proposed commission is still unknown.
That said, Demers says, "the new minister is committed to 135 and to open dialogue with stakeholders. People who are saying we're simply going to hand it over are dealing with misinformation. I think a lot of people are in for a pleasant surprise on his balanced view of conservation and respect for the environment. He's not a poacher."
The Chiefs of Ontario, representing all the province's First Nations, has passed a resolution opposing Bill 135. Native peoples are concerned about how the bill's promotion of recreational hunting and fishing may affect their constitutionally entrenched right to hunt and fish.
There's also a fear among native groups that the conservation of species other than those valued by the sport industry will be all but ignored, says David McLaren, communications director for the Chippewas of Nawash.
OFAH has, in fact, actively opposed recognizing native people's rights to fish and hunt, even to the point of criticizing a recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision upholding these rights. OFAH claims that they jeopardize the conservation of natural resources.
"There are some groups that claim as the original inhabitants of the province that they have more rights than others," says OFAH's Farrant. "Yet some of these groups came here at the same time as the United Empire Loyalists, so how that gives them any more rights I don't know."
OFAH's definition of conservation -- "the sustainable management of resources to benefit the greatest number" -- is not the definition accepted by supporters of biodiversity.
And what of OFAH-backed programs to introduce species not native to certain areas in efforts to control so-called nuisance populations?
One need look no further than the sportsmen's clubs that have been stocking rivers and lakes with species like chinook that never existed in those waterways before. The result? Lake trout, once the top predator, have today been almost completely wiped out in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.
The NDP, meanwhile, under pressure from northern constituents, at first supported the bill but now says it will not.
Gilles Bisson, the NDP's critic for natural resources, says the NDP wants no part of a bill that the Tories are trying to use as a wedge between the Liberals and NDP.
"They thought they had a motherhood issue. And surely to god, none of the opposition parties are going to want to be voting against anglers and hunters. As a northerner, I refuse to play that game, and so does the rest of the caucus." Helen Hacksel is a volunteer with the Sierra Club of Eastern Canada. Additional reporting by Enzo Di Matteo.