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| I am a biologist yet I have learned a great deal about governance and politics these past two years. As many of you will know, Federal Environment Minister David Anderson has introduced Bill C-33, the Species at Risk Act (SARA), which is the federal government's new endangered species protection legislation. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) will play a key role in its implementation. I was elected COSEWIC's chair two years ago and so I have been immersed in the run-up to this bit of legislation.
PHOTO: OWEN EGAN
To protect endangered wildlife, the first thing to do is designate what wildlife is endangered. That is COSEWIC's job. Since 1977, the committee has been quietly and responsibly producing a list which so far numbers 340 endangered, threatened and vulnerable species of animals and plants in the country.
For those who aren't familiar with COSEWIC (co-see-wic), the organization consists of scientists drawn from the wildlife departments of 10 provinces, three territories, four federal agencies, three non-government organizations and its own eight Species Specialist Groups. Many of the co-chairs of the Species Specialist Groups, like me, are university academics.
As I am also co-chair of the amphibians and reptiles Specialist Group, I commission some of the comprehensive species status reports that the committee uses as the basis of its status designations. Status reports contain information on species' biology, population status, range and possible threats.
We don't examine all species of living things in Canada, targeting only those suspected of being at risk. The designation process is thorough and time-consuming. Much of COSEWIC's deserved reputation for integrity rests on its demonstrated commitment to unbiased review of the best available information on the welfare and population status of various species.
Right now, COSEWIC has no legal mandate but under the Species at Risk Act, its role will be legislated and advisory. The current bill has it enjoined to produce a well-justified list of endangered, threatened and vulnerable species which will be released to the public and provided to cabinet so that the Governor-in-Council may make the designations legal.
Many conservation groups have been very vocal in deriding this mechanism, demanding that COSEWIC's designations automatically be legal and binding. But the issue is more complex than a game of "who do you trust?" Where once our list served as mere advice, now, if the bill is passed, COSEWIC's advice will likely lead to money being spent on projects and levied in fines, to livelihoods being affected and regulations being enforced.
The committee is not a judiciary body or even an arm of government. It has neither the power nor the constitutional authority to make legal decisions and cannot do the work of politicians and governments. If COSEWIC became the only forum for debate prior to legal listing, there could be pressure from other citizens' groups to lobby us or exert political pressure upon us to rule in a manner favourable to their interests. This would politicize COSEWIC and destroy its authority and integrity.
I have argued hard that COSEWIC must be unfettered so it can make accurate designations. It is in everyone's best interest to have the facts straight. The consequence is that it will be up to government to turn COSEWIC's list into law and act responsibly upon it.
Redpath Museum, McGill University