Will Amos was living in Ottawa and working across the river in Gatineau, when his friend had the bright idea that they should commute to work in a canoe.
“It was fun! I mean, you’re sitting in your office all day,” said a grinning Amos, now the Liberal member of Parliament for the Gatineau-area riding of Pontiac, in an interview Friday.
Amos, sporting what he called “a huge beard” at the time, was working in the environment minister’s office in the late 1990s. He and a friend would paddle twice a week from the Ottawa neighbourhood of Westboro, to downtown Gatineau across the Ottawa River, he said.
“We had a chain, we locked up the boat to a tree, pulled up the boat to the shore, climbed out with a backpack and went on our way.”
From those soggy beginnings, Amos became one of the most vocal environmental critics of Stephen Harper's government. As a lawyer and director of the Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Ottawa, he spoke out against the former Conservative government's “deregulatory extremes" when it changed the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which critics said removed protections for 99 per cent of lakes and rivers.
Today, the staunch environmentalist still speaks out against Harper-era policies—only now he finds himself on the government side, elected as an MP in 2015. He considers it “inspiring,” he said, to work alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in order to “right the many, many, wrongs of the previous administration.”
Yet while the Liberals paddle up to green-friendly policies, like negotiating a national framework on climate change, and promising nationwide carbon pricing and tens of billions of dollars for green infrastructure, Trudeau’s decision to support oil pipelines has sparked anger from environmentalists worried that pipelines don't represent a path to decarbonization.
The Trudeau-approved TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline got a Trump administration permit Friday, while the prime minister approved Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline last fall.
Amos said he thinks the focus on pipelines by environmental groups is a “red herring,” or in other words, a distraction.
“I appreciate where certain individuals in the movement, and certain organizations in the environmental movement, how they have decided strategically to engage on pipeline infrastructure," he said.
"Those are strategic choices. But the simple fact of approving a given pipeline does not imply that the government is, in any way, shape or form, not fully behind the challenges we face with respect to climate change, and clean air, and moving towards a clean energy economy."
He considers it "a statement of fact” that oil will continue to be shipped in coming years and said he believes pipelines are safer than other methods of transport.
“It’s easy when one is in opposition, and it’s easy when one is taking a particular advocacy stance, to focus on just one point of view. I understand that; I’ve represented clients in that universe,” he said. “When you’re with government, you need to have a much more balanced perspective.”
Amos wants environment minister to consider Ottawa River conservation
Amos first recounted his memories of canoeing to work during a Feb. 23 speech in the House of Commons. He was speaking in support of his Liberal caucus colleague David McGuinty’s motion to create a conservation strategy for the Ottawa River watershed.
Amos had worked with students to provide legal advice to Ottawa Riverkeeper on the watershed’s governance. As an MP, he proposed an amendment to McGuinty’s motion so it would go to the environment minister’s office, instead of the Commons environment committee.
“We’ve moved from an idea that we knew was a good and appropriate one…to, ‘Let’s have our government consult and do it,’” he said.
He discussed more detail with National Observer the day environment committee, which he sits on, released a report on the preservation of federally-protected lands and waters.
The report, titled Taking Action Today: Establishing Protected Areas for Canada’s Future, includes 36 recommendations to the federal government on boosting its protected spaces ahead of a 2020 deadline to put at least 17 per cent of land and inland water and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas under conservation.
Report calls on government to speed up creation of new protected areas
The environment committee report calls on the government to adequately fund the establishment and management of protected areas like national parks, marine conservation areas, bird sanctuaries and wildlife areas, and to establish "multiple protected areas concurrently" in order to accelerate the pace.
MPs also recommended partnering with indigenous peoples to establish a "national guardians program" and to recognize indigenous protected areas.
“This is a great day for conservation and protected areas in Canada,” said Liberal MP and fellow committee member John Aldag, at a press conference Friday afternoon announcing the report’s release.
“To work with my colleagues on looking at how we can advance not only national parks but other sorts of protected areas, for the betterment of Canadian society and also biodiversity protection, is an amazing experience.”
Canada committed to several so-called Aichi Targets under the United Nations-negotiated Convention on Biological Diversity, including the 2020 conservation target.
But the country “has a long way to go” to meet the target, the report notes: just 10.57 per cent of land areas and 0.98 per cent of marine areas are counted as protected.
Budget's low-carbon push-back doesn't diminish Liberal commitment, says Amos
The Trudeau government’s first budget, in 2016, helped launch the government's national climate change framework by committing $2 billion over two years, starting in 2017-18, to a low carbon economy fund for supporting provincial and territorial actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
This week’s budget spreads out that money to a five-year period. Amos said the government was being fiscally responsible by pushing back the low-carbon cash.
“I don’t think it in any way diminishes the commitment,” he said.
“There are many sources of federal financing that go directly to the issue of climate change and greenhouse gas emission reductions,” such as the budget’s promise to spend $21.9 billion over 11 years on green infrastructure, he said.
The House transport committee also tabled its recommendations recently on the Navigation Protection Act, the result of the Harper government’s changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
Maude Barlow says the transport committee "failed" to show leadership
The transport committee recommended the government leave in place a provision in the new law restricting much of its application to a specific list, or schedule, of waterways works, something the Council of Canadians had lobbied against.
Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, said the committee “failed” to show leadership by keeping in place the scheduling system.
Amos said while the Harper government “went way too far” with its changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, he sometimes disagrees “with certain members of civil society.”
“There are some groups, some individuals and also some political parties who would like Canadians to believe that that law was about environmental protection,” he said. It was, only insofar as a regulatory requirement for permits provided an indirect way of triggering environmental considerations, he said.
“Our government is committed, as everyone knows, to reforming the environmental assessment process. It needs to be way more stringent, it needs to be way more inclusive and participatory, and it needs to be improved, particularly in consultation with First Nations,” he said.
“We’re going to do that. It doesn’t stand to reason, though, that the navigable waters law is the be all and end all of aquatic protection.”