Environment Watchdog Fired

Climate Change, Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

OTTAWA – The federal government’s environment watchdog is being replaced months after launching a scathing review of Ottawa’s record, and pleading for urgent action on climate change.

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser announced that environment commissioner Johanne Gelinas, appointed to work in the office in August, 2000, would be “leaving to pursue other opportunities.” Ms. Fraser offered no further explanation for the unexpected departure, but is scheduled to appear before a Commons committee today to answer questions about plans to restructure her office and the role of the commissioner.

Ms. Gelinas later confirmed that she was forced to leave.

“I was considering a future departure, but today’s announcement from Mrs. Fraser was premature and came as a complete surprise to me,” she said in a statement last night.

She also confirmed that she and Ms. Fraser had discussed making changes to her role in private discussions, and that there was no government interference.

Ms. Gelinas’ departure comes a few months after she issued a report which blasted the federal government for not having a comprehensive and effective plan to fight climate change. The review focused largely on the record of the Liberal government that fell from power a year ago, and also offered recommendations for the Conservative administration that replaced it.

Reports yesterday indicated relations between Ms. Fraser and Ms. Gelinas have been strained since the review, which some felt strayed too far into activism. Ms. Fraser, who played a major role in the revelations of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, has also been criticized in the past for overstepping political boundaries.

In a terse statement announcing the change, Ms. Fraser noted: “Madame Gelinas and her team have done valuable work assisting Parliamentarians through their audits of government’s management of its environmental and sustainable development responsibilities.”

“Johanne Gelinas appears to have been fired because she had the honesty to point out that climate change was a critical issue that demands a massively increased federal response. Shooting the messenger doesn’t lessen the truth of the message,” said Matthew Bramley, a climate change policy analyst at the Pembina Institute.

The Liberal government of former prime minister Jean Chretien amended the Auditor General Act in 1995 to create the environment commissioner position, fulfilling a promise from the 1993 election campaign to create a watchdog on federal environmental and sustainable development policies.

But Ms. Fraser’s office began reviewing Ms. Gelinas’ role last fall, after the commissioner released her report that focused on climate change, expressing concerns about massive expansion of oilsands production in Alberta as a major source of greenhouse gas pollution and global warming.

Green leader Elizabeth May said she got an irate phone call from Ms. Fraser in November after suggesting Ms. Gelinas was being muzzled because of the nature of her warnings about climate change.

“Mrs. Fraser was significantly unhappy that I had chosen to make public my concerns and that I had not tried to reach her first,” Ms. May said. “I have enormous respect for Sheila Fraser. I think most Canadians regard her as an important watchdog of accountability. But that doesn’t mean that she’s right 100% of the time. Nobody is.”

Ms. May and other politicians are concerned about restructuring in Ms. Fraser’s office that could see the commissioner role reduced to writing a chapter in the auditor-general’s reports.

Assistant auditor-general Ron Thompson will become the interim environment commissioner.

Environment Minister John Baird did not make himself available to reporters for comment.