Environmental commissioner calls visit “very positive”

Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller made his first visit to the Fort Frances area last week in an effort to familiarize himself with the unique ecology here and to learn from several initiatives by local groups.
Among these initiatives are the Rainy River First Nations’ environmental and stewardship programs, such as the lake sturgeon fish hatchery and its efforts to protect the globally-rare prairie oak savannah.
But though this is his first official visit here, Miller is no stranger to the north. Although his office is in Toronto, he lives in North Bay and commutes back and forth for work.
Miller was appointed by Queen’s Park as the environmental commissioner almost four years ago—a position that was created in the wake of the Environmental Bill of Rights, which was established 10 years ago.
Before his appointment, Miller did pollution abatement in a ministry department, worked as a research scientist, and was a college professor at Sir Sanford Fleming College.
He has his bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in plant ecology.
“I think I know and understand the nature of much of the industry, which gives me a big advantage and understanding of what’s going on and what is important,” he remarked.
There are now four environmental commissioners globally, but at the time that Ontario’s was created, it was only the second in the world (with the first being in New Zealand).
At this point, Ontario is the lone province to have such a commissioner, but other ones have been looking into it.
“There has been a lot of talk, and Quebec and British Columbia in the past have considered it and there have been proposals, but there was a change of government and they [the proposals] sort of died.
“So people have been watching us and interested, but no one has moved forward yet very far,” said Miller.
Miller’s job is to monitor government compliance to the EBR and to provide an annual report to Queen’s Park.
“There are a wide range of issues,” he noted. “It’s really monitoring all government decision-making that relates to the environment, not just the ministries you may think.
“It includes 14 different government ministries, and two agencies,” he added. “Everything from matters of forestry and mining, and those obvious ones, but also building highways, issues relating to aspects of health that affect the environment, and also drinking water and waste and all the usual things that should be considered.”
The Walkerton tainted-water crisis is a good example of the role of the commissioner in terms of health-related incidents.
Miller issued a special report just after Walkerton that received quite a bit of attention, and he testified at the Walkerton hearing.
Last Thursday, Miller had a business meeting here and the Rainy River First Nations came to do a presentation. The business meeting usually is held in Toronto, but they decided instead to bring it out to the communities and couple it with other agendas.
Though the government sets the priorities in terms of provincial legislature, Miller sees the biggest issue for the province as being biodiversity protection, which is even more critical in southern Ontario.
There is a great need for a project akin to the “Lands for Life” exercise which took place in Northern Ontario, in which the province set aside 12 percent of the landscape to protect biodiversity.
Currently there’s nothing like that in the south, which Miller is working on changing.
Miller said he was very interested in the presentation by the Rainy River First Nations, which is doing some of the things people are arguing about in the south, such as cleaning up the river and fencing-out cattle to improve the quality of water in agricultural areas.
“The source protection thing is really to look at the watershed, get all the conservation authorities and municipalities working to produce a plan and identifying all the very sensitive areas.
“And maybe remedial work, such as fencing in cattle or other clean-ups that have to be done to make sure that the land is producing good quality water, before it even gets to be our drinking water,” he stressed.
The issue of watershed base source protection is a way of re-organizing how water is protected by looking at all the uses and risks, and dealing with things to protect the quality of water.
Miller said he thinks there are more things to learn from here, and now that the doors of communication have been open, he can be contacted should any problems develop.
“Most of what we’ve seen so far here has been very, very positive and it shows that there are a lot of committed people [who are] very involved,” he remarked.
One of these groups Miller had a chance to meet with here was the Rainy Lake Conservancy. He also went on a tour of Rainy Lake.
“Oh, it’s a beautiful lake and it’s just a wonderful resource. Of course, on cue, we had a big bald eagle fly over us when we were going out,” he said.
“It’s just a wonderful part of the province.”
Just before leaving Fort Frances, Miller had plans to stop at Abitibi-Consolidated for a quick tour of the mill to learn about the air emissions and waste-control systems in place there.
And though he managed to pack a lot into a short visit here, he does hope to come back at the end of the summer to strengthen the relationship between Queen’s Park and Northwestern Ontario.
“When we’re sitting in Toronto, one of the big things, of course, is [considering that] people up north often complain about people in Toronto making a decision without knowing anything,” said Miller.
“So, we like to come out here and say ‘Okay, here’s your chance—you’ve got the commissioner and now we know who you are, and you know how to reach me.
“And we want to know what’s important to you so that we can understand your issues when they arise in the future,” he added.