Canada Must Prepare for a Better Future: A Critical Analysis

Canada presents their Voluntary National Review at UN Headquarters in New York, July 17 2018

Written by Keila Stark and Colton Kasteel – researchers for BCCIC’s 2018 “Where Canada Stands” Shadow Report, and delegates to the HLPF 2018.


The World Meets on Sustainable Development

Last week at the 2018 United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Canada had the opportunity to prove to the rest of the world its commitment to no poverty, gender equality, climate action, sustainable cities and the 12 other UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How did they do? Is Canada prepared to turn its actions into words? Moving forward, how we can implement a policy framework that ensures no one in Canada gets left behind?

These are the questions we hoped to answer attending the 2018 HLPF. The meetings, held in New York, serve to provide governments of UN member states a platform for reporting their progress and strategies to implement the SDGs. Members of civil society – researchers like us – attend these meetings to participate in the knowledge exchange and act as an independent set of eyes to hold governments accountable. For the first time ever, Canada presented a Voluntary National Review, which outlines the initiatives Canada has undertaken to meet the 2030 Agenda. The British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) attended the HLPF to monitor Canada’s progress and share our shadow report, which is an unbiased alternative to the Federal Government’s submission.

Canada was Unprepared in the Lead Up

From reading the Voluntary National Review, to our time in New York, one thing is clear – Canada is not ready to implement the 2030 Agenda. This is ultimately because doing so is a monster task. With 17 multifaceted goals that are under the jurisdiction of multiple departments including, but not limited to, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Global Affairs, Employment and Social Development, Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and Status of Women in Canada, achieving the 2030 goals requires uncompromising leadership from a central body to ensure each department is doing its part. Currently, this leadership and a clear unified SDG implementation strategy does not exist.

Achieving the SDGs would also require accurate data on how we are performing under their targets. This is not a straightforward job, as there are 169 quantitative targets that fall under the 17 SDGs, and the federal government does not necessarily have the strongest capacity to assess these targets where regional nuances dominate. For example, while the aggregate data show that Canada has second largest renewable freshwater supply per capita among developed countries at 103,899 m3 per person, numerous rural and indigenous communities have no freshwater supply and rely entirely on delivered rations of bottled water. The federal government should partner with subnational governments, think tanks, and NGOs to gather the best information possible such that we can implement policies and divert resources meet targets that are lagging.

“Achieving the 2030 goals requires uncompromising leadership from a central body to ensure each department is doing its part”

Looking at the Hard Facts

Canada’s report to the world last week did not demonstrate this much-needed collaborative attitude towards 2030. It published its full Voluntary National Review just weeks before the meeting without much input from civil society and other regional stakeholders due to a constrained timeline.

As a result, the VNR content itself had several gaps warranting critique. In SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption & Production), target 12.C outlines the need to phase-out harmful fossil fuel subsidies. This target is of particular concern due to its intersectional impact on the achievement of other goals; it is key to ensuring that the transition to a low-carbon economy is completed in a low-cost, efficient manner. However, despite its importance, Canada’s VNR has no mention of fossil fuel subsidies in any section of the report. This must be resolved immediately. By retaining subsidies, tax-exemptions and deductions in fossil fuel production, rather than redirecting them towards just transition initiatives or clean energy, we undermine climate action, and in particular the hallmark policy of the Pan-Canadian climate framework, carbon pricing. Canada cannot meaningfully report on the SDGs without including a transparent impact assessment of all existing subsidies in its VNR.

The section on SDG 15 (Life on Land), does not address the biggest elephant in the room on terrestrial biodiversity protection in Canada: a sound environmental assessment framework. About half of monitored species in Canada are under rapid decline due to habitat destruction from development projects for mining, oil and gas extraction, and urbanization. These projects threaten progress on targets 15.1 (conserving, restoring, and sustainably using all habitat), 15.2 (halting deforestation), 15.9 (, and especially 15.5 (reducing habitat degradation and halting biodiversity loss). Bill C-69, which as of the time of writing is in first reading in the Senate, aims to improve upon the previous government’s Environmental Assessment Act. While improvements have been made, there are gaps in the bill that could make it easy to enable certain projects without robust consultation with experts and stakeholders. It also does not specify which projects should trigger a federal Impact Assessment process. The omission of this huge environmental policy discussion in Canada from its SDG reporting highlights the importance of non-government actors in ensuring that our progress-tracking is done in a truthful manner.

Canada Must Prepare for a Better Future

We also found Canada’s 15-minute presentation of its Voluntary National Review somewhat disappointing. Only a handful of measurable actions were mentioned; namely the Canada Child Benefit and the Feminist International Assistance policy. There was no mention of sustainable consumption and production, climate action, or biodiversity protection. In the true spirit of achieving all the SDGs, the government should embrace the importance of these environmental goals as necessary co-requisites to social and humanitarian goals. While the given examples are steps in the right direction, they do not fulfill the comprehensive nature of the 2030 Agenda.

Moving forward, the Government of Canada needs to build on the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy by strengthening its consultation process and commitments on climate action by collaborating with civil society, businesses, academia, Indigenous peoples and youth on SDG implementation and monitoring. We recommend that, in the future, the government write a preliminary text well in advance of the report deadline, allow civil society and other regional experts to include their findings, then proceed to a final text with those recommendations informing their approach. Lastly, reporting from year-to-year should explicitly reflect on previous commitments, reflect on the progress of those commitments, and state how they intend to improve on those goals moving forward.

Reflecting on Canada’s first VNR submission, we are left with much to be desired. Important steps have been taken, including the creation of an SDG Unit. Yet, the roles and responsibilities of the unit remain vague. To truly call itself a leader in sustainable development, the Government of Canada will have to take broader societal recommendations into account. These goals are not, and should not be a matter of political posturing; they are the key to a clean, equitable and prosperous future, and should be treated with an urgency commensurate to the welfare of the billions who depend on them. Delay is no longer an option.

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