Bill C-38 gets high-profile opposition with four former fishery ministers speaking out

Since its introduction one month ago, Bill C-38 has become a lightning rod for the 'anti-Harperites.'

Critics have accused the Conservative government of lumping together this bill, that affects almost 70 different Acts, as a means to pass unpopular legislation 'under the radar.'

Some in the Conservative ranks have called those criticisms left-leaning rhetoric. Others have dismissed them as complaints by individuals who haven't read the text of the bill. But when four respected former cabinet ministers — two Conservatives and two Liberals — speak out against C-38, maybe Stephen Harper should listen.

John Fraser, who was a federal ministers of Fisheries and Oceans under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, told The Hill Times this week that the omnibus bill is a "mistake," that the "politics is dumb," that he doesn't appreciate how the government casts critics of the process as "radical left-wingers." Fraser's successor Tom Siddon told CBC Radio's The Current: "[Bill C-38] is a covert attempt to gut the Fisheries Act, and it's appalling that they should be attempting to do this under the radar."

The two Tories were joined by former Liberal fisheries ministers David Anderson and Herb Dhaliwal to pen a letter asking the prime minister to break-up the legislation into separate pieces.

"As privy councillors from British Columbia who have served as ministers of Fisheries and Oceans in past federal governments, we wish to inform you of our serious concern regarding the content of Bill C-38 and the process being used to bring it into force," the former MPs wrote in a letter published in Friday's Globe and Mail.

"We believe there is genuine public concern over the perceived threat this legislation poses to the health of Canada's environment and in particular to the well-being of its fisheries resources."

Specifically, the foursome is concerned about wording in Bill C-38 that changes the Fisheries Act to focus on protecting only fish that "support commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries."

Additionally, the bill would allow federal government to pass responsibility for the Fisheries Act to provinces. It also changes the rules as to what type of industrial or development work is allowed to cause destruction to fish habitat.

"Major changes to [Fisheries] legislation warrant extensive and factual discussion and a broad consultation process," their letter notes.

"With respect to process, we find it troubling that the government is proposing to amend the Fisheries Act via omnibus budget legislation in a manner that we believe will inevitably reduce and weaken the habitat-protection provisions."

What is included in Bill C-38?:

In addition to the changes to the Fisheries Act, Bill C-38 includes controversial changes to employment insurance and old age security, an important alteration to the oversight of CSIS and significant amendments in laws related to food safety and national parks.

The bill also enacts the 'Shiprider' program which will make it permanently legal for U.S. agents to be certified as police in Canadian waters.

A significant portion of the act — more than 100 pages — includes new provisions to environmental regulations. Here are some of the new provisions as described by The Hill Times:

- The bill repeals Bill C-288, the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, a private member's bill passed in 2007 to keep the government accountable on implementing measures to meet the Kyoto Protocol emissions reduction levels.

- Bill C-38 also repeals the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and enacts a new one, which allows the environment minister to determine if environmental assessments are necessary for certain resource development projects.

- The bill also aims to reduce duplicate environmental assessments and allows the federal government to defer to provincial assessments if one is available.

- It amends the National Energy Board Act to allow Cabinet to make decisions on potential new "major pipelines" and limit regulatory reviews to two years. The bill gives the National Energy Board authority over "navigation in respect of pipelines and power lines that cross navigable waters."