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The New Democratic Party candidate for Ottawa South says environmental issues are rarely registered at the door as she campaigns for Thursday's Ontario election.
Eleanor Fast said she's found that health care, education and community safety are the main issues — by a long shot — that people raise when she goes door-knocking in the riding.
“I would guess maybe one per cent of the conversations that I have, environment comes up. It doesn’t come up as much as I would like,” Fast said in an interview with National Observer at her campaign office on June 4.
“I think it’s a hugely important issue for the province. We need to protect our environment, a healthy environment is a fundamental human right. We need the public to pressure decision makers in order to make that happen.”
This is Fast’s first campaign, although she has significant executive experience, potentially positioning her for cabinet if she wins and her party forms government after Ontarians vote June 7. The provincial NDP is currently neck-and-neck with the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in public opinion polls.
She's facing off against incumbent Liberal MPP John Fraser and PC candidate Karin Howard in a dynamic area of Ottawa, one that has more immigrants among its population of 121,055 than any other eastern Ontario riding. Fraser took over the riding in 2013 from former premier Dalton McGuinty. The seat has been Liberal red since 1987.
Armed with a degree in natural resources sciences, Fast has spent her career in science policy. She has worked for the Council of Canadian Academies, which conducts assessments of key public policy issues, and as executive director of Nature Canada, a conservation charity. She is currently executive director of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, which takes a critical look at Canada’s health challenges.
'Science doesn’t necessarily point to one single solution'
That background makes her well positioned to weigh in on how she thinks the province’s first chief scientist has fared. The position promotes science across the province and boosts Ontario as a research hub and talent destination, according to the government.
Shoichet ”is a really great choice, for the chief scientist of Ontario,” said Fast. “She’s got a really broad perspective on science. Obviously she and her office are just getting going, and it’s happening simultaneously with the new chief science adviser at the federal level.”
Fast said she was in favour of having someone independent of government able to continue to play a lead scientist role, if the NDP forms government. She said the chief scientist role should make sure not only to rely on sciences like biology and chemistry, but to make room for social sciences and humanities.
“I think a chief science advisor has a role in ensuring that governments take all kinds of evidence into account,” she said. “Science doesn’t necessarily point to one single solution. A really thorough evidence-based (analysis) would lay out scenarios about what would happen, and under different decisions.”
She wouldn’t say how she thought the position should grow from its current state, saying both the federal and provincial roles were still figuring out exactly what they were going to do. “We’ll probably need to watch it play out for another few months at least before making any major decisions on that front.”
'Neither for nor against' Trans Mountain pipeline
During Fast’s time with Nature Canada, the organization’s director of conservation and general counsel Stephen Hazell took the view in February 2016 that the National Energy Board (NEB)’s review of the Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker project “left too many questions unanswered.”
The project was approved by the Trudeau government later that year, but has faced major controversy over legal, environmental and First Nations concerns. Last week, the Trudeau government doubled down on its support for the project by offering to purchase it with public money.
Nature Canada was part of a group that challenged Trans Mountain’s evidence at the NEB, Hazell wrote, regarding its environmental effects. “Our lawyers pointed out several deficiencies in the evidence Trans Mountain submitted,” he wrote.
Unlike their British Columbia and federal NDP counterparts, the Ontario NDP has so far avoided taking a position on the Trans Mountain pipeline. Leader Andrea Horwath has said she wants to protect provincial environmental interests, but left it at that when questioned.
Fast said she was privileged to work with Hazell, who she called an accomplished lawyer working on pipeline issues, and acknowledged Nature Canada had been concerned about many issues, including the process at the NEB, during her time.
But she said in general, the organization wasn’t for or against the pipeline — rather, wanting to make sure pipeline decisions were made in the best way — and that’s where she currently stood as well.
“I still feel that decisions do need to be made in the best interests of everybody. With regards to specific pipelines, I don’t have any position,” she said. “My position is still the same — neither for nor against, but really wanting to make sure that all the evidence is taken into account when these decisions are made.”
Environmental assessments could be 'improved'
Fast is similarly keeping her cards close to her chest when it comes to her position on altering Ontario’s environmental assessment regime.
As of May 1, the province put in place a new process for submitting what it’s calling “streamlined” environmental assessments, which are those for “routine projects that have predictable and manageable environmental effects.”
These “streamlined” assessments allow for “self-assessment” although approval isn’t directly granted.
“I think it could be improved,” Fast said about Ontario’s environmental assessment regime. But she wouldn’t give details: “not at this time.”
The NDP has a strong environmental platform, said Fast, with a “conservation-first approach,” focused on protecting the environment and natural spaces, and encouraging energy efficiency.
She said Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne has “allowed more development than we’d like to see” in the province’s green belts, especially in Toronto, while PC leader Doug Ford’s plans for green belt development are “pretty scary.”
Ford walked back a proposal to open up green belt areas last month after he received political blowback.
“I think (Ford) sees it as prime development land, which to my mind is unacceptable, we do need to protect these spaces,” said Fast.
National Observer reached out to rival Ottawa South candidates Fraser and Howard for their reactions to the same topics as above.