Planning for a Sustainable Future:
A Federal Sustainable Development Strategy for Canada

Sustainable Development Office
Environment Canada

October 2010


Chapter 2: Environmental Decision-Making in Canada

Environmental decision-making in Canada takes place in a complex array of jurisdictions, with multiple social and economic priorities, differing stakeholder interests, complex scientific knowledge, international considerations, and priorities of Canadians. This FSDS is one piece, and focuses on federal initiatives. However, the Government recognizes that sustainable development is a long-term process that requires the support and contribution of industry, non-governmental organizations, other governments and citizens.

Canada is a country of vast distances and a dispersed population, an economy driven by production and export of natural resources, a northern climate, and of high population growth. The Canadian economy is highly dependent on the health and sustainability of our natural resource industries (renewable and non-renewable), and the reliability of our critical infrastructure, including transportation and health care systems. The direct and indirect contribution of the natural resources sector to the Canadian economy is estimated to be between 20 and 25% of Canada’s gross domestic product (Statistics Canada, 2008a). Canada has a small, open economy which means we are dependent on two-way trade. A large proportion of Canada's economic output is exported, and 40% of those exports are energy-intensive, resource-based commodities such as oil and natural gas (Environment Canada, 2007). Similarly, Canada imports 31% of our domestic consumption and, of that, 54% comes from within North America (Statistics Canada 2010a, Statistics Canada 2010b, and Statistics Canada, 2009a). The North American economy is highly integrated and there is a great deal of harmonization and alignment of a range of policies, regulations, and standards. Thus, Canada needs continued access to international markets, particularly the U.S.

In addition to economic considerations, there are important social implications, such as the link between clean air and human health.

Bringing together all factors is a very complex and far-reaching task that, in the federal government’s view, requires careful, pragmatic, and incremental steps to get it right in delivering this first FSDS. While the federal government acknowledges the importance of integrated decision-making, it also recognizes the importance of building the environmental considerations first to ensure they are on equal footing with the social and economic ones before that integration can be fully achieved.

Key Principles that Guide Us All

The Federal Sustainable Development Act states that, “The Government of Canada accepts the basic principle that sustainable development is based on an ecologically efficient use of natural, social and economic resources.”  The Government of Canada’s approach to sustainable development therefore reflects a commitment to minimize the environmental impacts of its policies and operations as well as maximize the efficient use of natural resources and other goods and services. This is expressed in the FSDS through the specific implementation strategies found in the Annexes that provide details on the actions and programs undertaken by the Government of Canada. For example, in the implementation strategy 7.1.1 in Annex 3, the federal government commits to delivering an integrated fisheries program that is credible, science-based, affordable, effective and contributes to sustainable wealth for Canadians.

Canada’s environmental policy is guided by the precautionary principle and is reflected in the FSDS as required by the Federal Sustainable Development Act which states that the Minister of Environment must “develop a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy based on the precautionary principle”. The precautionary principle states that: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” (United Nations, 1992). In other words, the absence of complete scientific evidence to take precautions does not mean that precautions should not be taken – especially when there is a possibility of irreversible damage. In delivering on its environmental policies as outlined in the goals and targets in this FSDS, the Government of Canada demonstrates its commitment to this principle. The first three themes of this FSDS highlight the Government of Canada’s priorities in terms of environmental sustainability. Failure to act in any of these areas threatens our natural environment, society, and economy.

Contribution of the Government of Canada to Sustainable Development

The Government of Canada, with this new FSDS, is making two significant new contributions to sustainable development in Canada.

First, the FSDS provides a new level of transparency to environmental decision making by providing a complete picture of the federal environmental goals, targets and implementation strategies. It is built on a whole-of-government view of environmental priorities at the federal level, and describes the implementation strategies of the various departmental initiatives. Over time gaps will become evident and the federal government will be able to fill them.

Second, the Government of Canada will strengthen the deliberation of environmental considerations in its own decision-making. The Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals, established in 1990, is the key policy that formally integrates environmental considerations into federal government decision-making through use of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA).

Ministers and Cabinet are committed to strengthening the application of SEA in the federal government by ensuring that the Government of Canada’s environmental goals are taken into account when pursuing social and economic goals. Revised guidelines are being provided to departments and agencies on applying the FSDS goals and targets when undertaking SEAs. Implementing the revised guidelines will improve the transparency of environmental decision-making in the following ways:

  • Departments and agencies will describe the impact of their initiatives on federal environmental goals and targets in their SEA public statements.
  • Departments and agencies will report on the extent and results of their SEApractices. This will include summary information in Departmental Performance Reports of how initiatives subject to SEA have affected or are expected to affect progress toward federal environmental goals and targets.

In addition to strengthening the application of SEA, there are other important and innovative ways that the Government of Canada is working to integrate the three pillars of sustainable development. This includes, for example, the Government of Canada’s Northern Strategy.  In 2009, the Government of Canada articulated its new vision for the North that reflects the social, economic, and environmental principles of sustainable development – The Northern Strategy.1  Departments such as Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Justice Canada, and the Policy Research Initiative are developing tools and building capacity to integrate sustainable development principles into their operations. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade supports the environmental assessment of trade negotiations guided by the Framework for the Environmental Assessment of Trade Negotiations.

Contribution of Industry to Sustainable Development

For many organizations, sustainable development is becoming an essential part of their business strategy. Improving environmental and social performance can reduce production and operating costs, manage risks, attract business partnerships and investors, improve stakeholder relations, attract and retain employees, stimulate innovation, expand new market opportunities, and maintain a “social license to operate” (Environment Canada 2010).

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices are becoming standard operating requirements for companies in Canada and around the world, thereby encouraging transparent and ethical behavior that contributes to sustainable development. Companies which fully integrate CSR principles into their operations can become more innovative, productive, and competitive. CSR practices can help companies realize operational efficiency gains, improve risk management, support favourable relations with the investment community and improve access to capital, enhance employee relations, build stronger relationships with communities, and improve reputation and branding.

The Government of Canada supports industry’s movement towards environmental sustainability. In particular, Industry Canada helps to promote the standards and business case for CSR and supports and conducts research on CSR-related issues. It encourages CSR reporting by Canadian companies, and provides a range of management tools and a sustainability road map for small and medium-sized enterprises to support the integration of CSR into the operations of Canadian companies (www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/csr-rse.nsf/eng/home).

In addition, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade continues to enhance the capacities and knowledge of officers at home and abroad in the area of CSR in order to foster and promote responsible business practices. As well, it supports the implementation of the Government of Canada’s CSR policy entitled Building the Canadian Advantage: A Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Strategy for the Canadian International Extractive Sector.

The Government of Canada supports the ability of communities to represent their interests and engage in informed dialogue with both companies and governments. Natural Resources Canada has developed the Mining Information Kit for Aboriginal Communities in partnership with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada, The Mining Association of Canada, and the Canadian Aboriginal Minerals Association. For more information see: www.nrcan-rncan.gc.ca/mms-smm/abor-auto/min-min-eng.htm.

Contribution of Other Levels of Governments to Sustainable Development

To act upon sustainable development principles, the Government of Canada works in partnership with provincial and territorial governments and supports many sustainable development activities of municipal governments.

Provincial governments have jurisdiction – exclusive or shared – in several policy fields that directly affect sustainable development, including natural resources, agriculture, and immigration. Some provincial governments have been developing sustainable development strategies. For example, Manitoba’s Sustainable Development and Consequential Amendments Act (1997) created a framework through which sustainable development could be implemented in the provincial public sector and promoted in private industry and society in general (Bouder, 2001). Another example is the Quebec Government’s Sustainable Development Strategy 2008-2013, that requires provincial government departments and agencies to implement sustainable action plans.

Municipal governments also have a strong role in fostering sustainable development across Canada. Municipal governments have direct or indirect influence over activities accounting for 44% of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, including waste management, transportation, and commercial and residential building design (Federation of Canadian Municipalities, 2009). The federal government supports local action through the Green Municipal Funds administered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and funded by a federal endowment of $550 million. The Fund provides below-market loans and grants, as well as education and training services to support municipal initiatives that improve air, water and soil quality, and protect the climate (Federation of Canadian Municipalities, 2010).

Contribution of Citizens to Sustainable Development

The actions of individual Canadians also make a difference when it comes to progress on sustainable development. The decisions made by every Canadian every day whether at home, work, school, on the road, or in their community have an impact on the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainable development. Choosing to recycle, conserve energy and water, and reduce waste helps to save resources and reduce pollution. Choosing to use alternative modes of transportation such as biking, driving less, and buying fuel-efficient vehicles keeps people healthy, stimulates the economy, and helps to reduce the emission of harmful greenhouse gases. Growing native plants and trees also helps to protect nature and improve air quality which can ultimately lead to improved human health. For more information on steps that we as individuals can take to live more sustainably visit Environment Canada’s website on Action and Learning: www.ec.gc.ca/education/.


1 The Government of Canada shares a common goal with Northerners – that Northerners have greater control over their destinies. Northerners have made extraordinary progress toward this goal, taking on greater responsibility for almost all aspects of their region’s affairs. Through ongoing devolution and self-government negotiations, Canada continues to work with all partners to create practical, innovative, and efficient governance models in the North.