Intervenor: Vol 25. No 1 January - March 2000

The Changing Role of Ontario's Environmental Commissioner

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Environmental Commissioner's Office. In the summer of 1999, the Harris government decided not to renew the term of Eva Ligeti, the long-time and well-regarded Environmental Commissioner. It then looked like the Tories intended to eliminate the Environmental Commissioner's Office altogether. Concerned citizens and organizations, including CELA, rallied to save the position and were successful. After six months with Ivy Wile, a new Commissioner was appointed in February 2000. Gordon Miller, former district manager at the Ministry of Environment and professor at Sir Sanford Fleming College in Lindsey became Ontario's new Environmental Commissioner. In light of all this activity, we thought it would be timely to provide an overview of the important role of his office.


Ontario has had an Environmental Commissioner since 1993, when the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) was passed. The Commissioner has two primary duties under the Act:

  1. to educate the public on their rights under the EBR and assist the public in exercising those rights, and
  2. to review and report on the implementation of the EBR by other government ministries.

Public Education

The EBR provided Ontario citizens with new and expanded legal rights, including the right to request investigations, reviews, or seek leave to appeal some environmental decisions. Citizens can also sue those who break environmental laws and damage public resources. The Environmental Commissioner is the key source of information for the public on how to exercise these rights. The Commissioner's Office provides educational programs about the EBR, fact sheets, and an extensive resource library.

When citizens exercise their rights under the EBR, the Commissioner acts as the conduit between the individual and the government. For example, applications for investigation and review go first to the Commissioner who forwards them to the relevant ministry. The Commissioner's oversight is critical, as it attempts to ensure that citizens' applications are reviewed and responded to by government staff with thoroughness and respect.

Government Oversight

The Commissioner is also intended to be an environmental "watchdog" to ensure that all branches of government comply with the EBR. The Commissioner doesn't actually have the power to enforce the EBR, rather, the Commissioner provides guidance to government on how to conform to the EBR. The Commissioner may consult with ministries on their official Statements of Environmental Values. The Commissioner also oversees the Environmental Registry, an online list of most government proposals and decisions which affect the environment.

One of the Commissioner's most important duties is presenting an Annual Report to the Ontario Legislature on how well (or poorly) the government is performing in protecting the environment. The Commissioner may also submit Special Reports to the Legislature, dealing with specific concerns and recommendations to the government. Eva Ligeti, for example, submitted a Special Report addressing the widespread failure of government ministries to comply with the public participation and notice requirements of the EBR.

The Commissioner in 2000

The role of the Environmental Commissioner as established by the EBR is clear enough. What is not so clear to the general public is that the job has become significantly more important than it was originally meant to be. When the EBR was passed, the rights it provided were seen as important tools for public participation in environmental decision making. However, these rights were not seen as existing in isolation. They were one piece of a larger framework of public participation and government accountability which included such other elements as broad access to the justice system, access to government information, intervenor funding, public participation provisions in other legislation, and adequate government staff and resources to make public consultation an important step in every key decision-making process. Unfortunately for Ontario, the framework in place in 1994 has been gutted by the provincial government.

Through a host of legislative amendments and dramatic budget cuts, the system of public participation in environmental decision making has been severely undermined. The office of the Environmental Commissioner now stands as almost the last hope for citizens concerned about the health and future of their environment. The Environmental Commissioner has become the guardian not just of the EBR, but of a fine line between a much-reduced government accountability and complete exclusion of the public from the decision making process.

More Questions?

For more information on the Environmental Commissioner's Office and its functions, visit its website at www.eco.on.ca

You can obtain free copies of ECO publications on-line or by calling the Office at 416-325-3377 (or 1-800-701-6454 from outside of the Toronto area).

For information on how to use the Environmental Registry, contact the Environmental Bill of Rights Office at the Ministry of Environment at (416) 314-4143 or go to their website at www.ene.gov.on.ca/envision/ebr