The federal department that enforces Canada’s environmental laws is in such disarray that some officers say they have been ignoring infractions in order to keep in line with Ottawa’s “priorities,” according to an internal government report.
The report by Gordon Owen, who is retiring at the end of January as head of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s enforcement branch, says a public service employee survey revealed serious problems that require immediate action.
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One of the alarming issues identified in his report is a failure of some environmental enforcement officers to uphold the law.
Mr. Owen states officers in the regions said they will turn a blind eye to environmental infractions if they think enforcement in that area does not fit Ottawa’s priorities.
He quoted one enforcement officer as saying: “Many people are breaking the law, but because of priorities, we can’t do anything.”
The report’s findings suggest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to “restore Canada’s reputation for environmental stewardship,” will require more than just policy pronouncements. The new government is going to have to repair a weakened public service as well.
“The overarching comments on this issue related to staff’s frustration with the lack of strategic direction provided by senior management on what our organization is and where we are going,” Mr. Owen wrote in summarizing the staff survey.
Problems listed in the report include poor morale, a lack of clear goals, faulty communications and mistrust of senior managers.
“HQ doesn’t listen to regions, the officers with actual experience in the field [are ignored],” Mr. Owen quotes an officer as saying.
“I believe our organization lacks accountability, knowledge, confidence and care,” another commented. “There is no heart in the upper ranks.”
The branch is on the front line in enforcing the laws that protect Canada’s water, land and wildlife, but Mr. Owen’s report says confusing directions from Ottawa about “national priorities” have left front-line workers confused and reluctant to act on infractions.
“Doesn’t seem to be any clear direction from any management,” one officer stated. “Look at national priorities. It is this, then something happens, and all of a sudden, we do a complete 180.”
Mr. Owen’s report was written in December and is circulating in the ministry.
A copy of the report, which includes a summary of the survey, was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Owen, whose title is chief enforcement officer, did not respond to phone calls or e-mails, and a government official declined requests over several days for an interview with Mr. Owen or another departmental spokesman.
“Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Enforcement Branch values the perspectives of its employees and is currently developing an action plan to address comments and suggestions provided in the survey,” Barbara Harvey, a ministry spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Under the Conservative government, Environment Canada, as it was then called, underwent budget cuts, with about 20 per cent of staff laid off. Corporations were increasingly expected to regulate their own activities, reducing the role of enforcement officers and, in the eyes of many critics, weakening environmental protection.
In 2014, enforcement branch workers were surveyed on how the department was functioning, and Mr. Owen heard a barrage of complaints, which led to his report.
“Lack of real leadership: Who is making decisions and how? Where is the organization going? No indication of strategic plan,” he wrote in summarizing the staff responses. “Are we law enforcement or are we a regulatory agency? … We need to focus. … This is becoming more and more of an issue as our budget continues to get smaller and we are unable to fill vacant positions.”
Mr. Owen wrote that enforcement staff believe senior management “is more concerned about receiving their bonuses than ensuring that the right decisions are being made.”
He said regional offices have a “lack of trust” in Ottawa, there are complaints about poor training and staff shortages, and morale is suffering.
“Make filling vacancies in the regions a priority,” he advises the government. “Remaining officers are feeling the pressure of the additional workload, and officers in small offices are often unable to get out in the field because they have no one who can accompany them.”
Staff also said they were afraid to raise issues of harassment and discrimination on the job.
“Reprisal is real and it happens in many ways (no promotion, no training, bad talking, being left out of key operations initiatives or opportunities, etc.),” he wrote.
Mr. Owen stated the survey results made him deeply concerned.
“I am left wondering, how can we continue to grow and become a leading enforcement organization when so many members of the team have serious concerns pertaining to leadership in the Branch?” he wrote. “How can we deliver our best work when people don’t feel safe nor respected in their environment?”
Mr. Owen noted in the report that, even though he is about to retire, dealing with the problems must be a priority.
This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.