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When is ‘balance’ unbalanced?

Balance. Can you get more Canadian than ‘balance’?

I’m proud of the fact that Canadians are known for peacekeeping, hockey, and of course, our incredible wilderness. People around the world recognize Canadians for our disposition, too: we’re even-keeled, don’t fly off the handle, and are always seeking to find balance. These are commendable qualities.

When it comes to protecting our land however, the word ‘balance’ has become a convenient cover for continuous encroachment and development. Let me explain why I’m concerned.

Since I started at CPAWS, I’ve heard some decision-makers and developers refer to ‘balance’ as the right approach in planning how our lands are used. It sounds good; It’s eminently Canadian.

CPAWS is also interested in balance. We have a vision to see at least half of Canada protected from development so that nature has what it needs to survive – and help us survive – into the future. Half for human beings and half for the rest of all living things is not an outrageous vision – there is an increasing body of scientific knowledge indicating that this is, at minimum, what nature needs. 

Canada still lags behind the rest of the world in our protected areas (we are at 10.3% on land, and 1.5% of our ocean), but we have identified some parks and protected areas that are off limits to development.

When I hear folks say that we need to ‘balance’ commercial development in our parks with nature conservation in the few areas we’ve set aside for conservation, you might understand why I don’t see this as ‘balance.’ That is precisely the opposite of balance – when everything is up for grabs.

The same seems to be true in our rush to create marine protected areas. We’re putting lines on a map, calling it a marine protected area, but leaving large portions of it open to commercial fishing as well as oil and gas development. The worst case example is the new marine protected area in Laurentian Channel where 88% of the new ‘protected’ area is open to oil and gas activities. If this is the case, then where does the ‘protected’ part come in? Why are we trying to ‘balance’ the few protected areas we have with development when these areas are supposed to be the other side of the broader equation?

When we see governments rushing to designate areas that have some level of existing restrictions (scallop harvesting prohibitions for example) as ‘protected,’ yet all sorts of other development and resource extraction is allowed, we’ve lost sight of balance. BC is cutting up their provincial parks to make room for pipelines. The nature within our national parks is getting nibbled away at by incremental commercial infrastructure.

I’m a little tired of ‘balance’ when it simply means that all bets are off and protected areas are not serving their ultimate purpose – to conserve nature and ensure its long-term function and survival.

Nature teaches us about balance, and ecosystems are sensitive to balance. If a piece of it goes missing, it can have a huge impact on the health of the whole. Everything lives in an authentic and delicate balance.

Could we take back the definition now, or stop using it when we’re talking about protected areas? It is my hope that governments start to take protected areas seriously so that they can be counted on the correct side – the nature side – of the scale.