This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights. It has been a good reason to celebrate, and has given me a chance to reflect on the various civic engagement tools built into the EBR. None has been more successful or widely used than the Environmental Registry. Let me share what the Ontario government has done right with the Environmental Registry, and also touch on a few areas for improvement.
Ontario’s Environmental Registry is a searchable online database of government proposals and decisions that have the potential to affect the environment. The Registry casts a wide net. It shows what the 14 ministries that fall under the jurisdiction of the EBR are working on, giving you a window not merely into the Ministry of the Environment, but also Natural Resources, Transportation, Municipal Affairs and Housing, Northern Development and Mines and so on. The Registry is your window to engage in informed dialogue on environmental policy. It lets the public comment before decisions are made, and offers links to background documents. It also shows you the comments that other people have made, and how these comments helped shape ministries’ final decisions.
Ontario’s Environmental Registry was early off the mark with its focus on transparency and civic engagement. The Registry offered an online database way back when the global social network was still in its infancy. In fact, Ontario’s Registry was online when Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was just ten years old.
Since 1995, Ontario ministries have used the Environmental Registry to get feedback on over 30,000 proposals. What’s more, these proposals (and their associated decisions) are mostly still accessible online, making the Registry an archival treasure trove for anyone who follows Ontario environmental policy. In a typical year, the Registry allows the public to comment on about 80 proposed environmental policies, acts and regulations, many with province-wide implications. On top of that, Ontarians can comment on about 2,400 site-specific permits and approvals a year, the majority of which are issued either by the Ministry of Natural Resources or the Ministry of the Environment. And Ontarians do take advantage of their right to comment; proposed policies, acts and regulations typically receive dozens or even hundreds of comments. Sometimes a proposal will draw comments from thousands of people; last year, over 10,000 Ontarians used the Registry to comment on proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, an issue that I addressed in my 2013 Special Report, Laying Siege to the Last Line of Defence.
Ontario is still unique in having its Environmental Bill of Rights. But many other jurisdictions (including BC, the U.K., New Zealand, and Australia) also offer online tools for citizens to engage on the environment. Some of these tools have features as good as (or even better) than Ontario’s Registry.
The Environmental Registry is not perfect; I have often reported on its shortcomings, (see Part 1.2 of my 2012/2013 Annual Report) and have encouraged the Ministry of the Environment to update this tool and make it more functional and user friendly.
I know the interface of Ontario’s Environmental Registry is a bit clunky and dated. But I encourage you to use it anyway. Here’s why: using the Registry ensures that your comments are part of the permanent public record. If you comment via the Registry, ministries are obliged under the Environmental Bill of Rights to consider your comments when making a decision. Your comments help to broaden and deepen society’s ongoing dialogue on important environmental matters. All in all, the Registry remains a powerful tool for public participation in environmental decision making.
I am fond of a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that prefaces my most recent annual report: “The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” The Registry allows you to put that noble principle into everyday action.