Guest Contribution

Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

What progress is Canada making in establishing marine protected areas and protecting its national parks for the benefit of current and future generations? How well is Canada’s federal government managing the environmental and health risks of toxic substances? What support is the federal government providing to the fossil fuel sector? Are current and future taxpayers safeguarded from the cost of cleaning-up oil spills and contaminated sites?

These are examples of the many topics that are of interest to Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD).

The Role and Mandate of the CESD

Appointed by the Auditor General of Canada, the CESD provides objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development. Activities of Canada’s provincial and municipal governments are not within the OAG’s mandate.

In particular, the Commissioner:

  • conducts performance audits of federal programs related to the environment and sustainable development;
  • monitors implementation of sustainable development strategies of federal departments and their contribution to Canada’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS);
  • oversees an environmental petitions process; and,
  • participates in collaborative efforts.

These activities are discussed below.

Performance audits of environmental and sustainable development issues

Performance audits are the main output of the CESD’s work. They are assessments of how well the federal public service manages programs and resources on behalf of Canadians. Performance audits do not question the merits of federal laws and public policies. Also, the Commissioner does not have the power to investigate or prosecute.

Typically involving the examination of federal departments and organizations’ management practices, controls, and reporting systems, performance audits are designed to answer the following questions:

  • Are federal programs being run with due regard for economy, efficiency, and environmental impact?
  • Does the government have systems in place to measure the effectiveness of its programs?

Performance audit reports contain both recommendations aimed at improving the way government functions, and responses to these recommendations from audited organizations. The Commissioner has also released studies on various environment and sustainable development topics. A study differs from an audit in that it is more descriptive and exploratory and does not include observations or recommendations

For example, in the past, the CESD has presented reports and studies on the following topics:

  • Climate change
  • Biodiversity
  • Contaminated sites
  • Applying and enforcing legislation such as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act andthe Canadian Environmental Protection Act

The Auditor General of Canada has also reported on issues relating to the environment and sustainable development.


Definition of sustainable development

The definition of sustainable development found in Canadian legislation echoes that provided in the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (often referred to as the Brundtland Report): Section 21.1 of the Auditor General Actcontains a broad definition of sustainable development. At its core is the well-known articulation of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The definition recognizes that sustainable development is a continually evolving concept based on the integration of social, economic, and environmental concerns, and that it may be achieved by, among other things,

  • integrating the environment and the economy,
  • protecting the health of Canadians,
  • protecting ecosystems,
  • meeting international obligations,
  • promoting equity,
  • planning and making decisions that takes into account the environmental and natural resource costs of different economic options and the economic costs of different environmental and natural resource options—an integrated approach,
  • preventing pollution, and
  • respecting nature and the needs of future generations.

Sustainable Development Strategies

Designated federal government departments and agenciesare required to prepare sustainable development strategies. The Commissioner monitors and reports annually on the implementation of these strategies. This work complements the Commissioner’s more targeted performance audits.

Canada’s Federal Sustainable Development Actrequires the Minister of the Environment to develop an overarching federal sustainable development strategy (FSDS) that includes goals and targets related to areas such as clean air and water. Departmental sustainable development strategies are required to contribute to the FSDS.

The Commissioner is required to review and comment on the government’s draft FSDS as well as the federal government’s FSDS progress report.


Environmental petitions

The CESD manages the environmental petitions process, which is a way for Canadians to bring their concerns about the environment and sustainable development to the attention of the federal government and obtain a formal response. Unlike other public petitions, environmental petitions do not require multiple signatures; rather, they can be submitted by individual citizens or organizations who have concerns about environmental issues.

By submitting a petition, residents of Canada can ask certain federal ministers and their departments to explain federal policy, investigate or take action on an environmental problem, or examine their enforcement of environmental legislation.

Getting Answersexplains the purpose and mechanics of the petitions process, describes the kinds of requests that can be made, and provides advice on how to prepare a petition.

The Commissioner reports annually to Parliament on the petitions process, including the number, nature, and status of petitions received. Petitions and responses from the federal government are available on the OAG’s website.

Collaborative efforts

On occasion, the CESD collaborates with provincial counterparts. For example, the Sustainable Development Commissioner of Quebec and the CESD submitted a joint paper on sustainable development to the 2012 Rio +20 Earth Summit.

The Commissioner also participates in the Canadian Council of Legislative Auditors (CCOLA). CCOLAprovides a forum for cooperation and information sharing between the federal and provincial auditors general in Canada.

The CESD Commissioner and her staff also actively participate in the International Organization for Supreme Audit Institution’s (INTOSAI) Working Group on Environmental Auditing (WGEA). The WGEA is INTOSAI’s largest working group, with representatives from over 70 countries. The WGEA’s encourages audit in the fields of environmental protection and sustainable development through knowledge sharing, capacity development, and cooperation.

For more information

Visit the Office of the Auditor General’s website or follow on Twitter at @CESD_CEDD or in French at @CEDD_CESD to learn more about our work and upcoming audits.

Julie Gelfand was appointed as Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in March 2014.

Before joining the Office of the Auditor General, Ms. Gelfand held the positions of Chief Advisor at Rio Tinto Canada and of Vice-President of Environment and Social Responsibility at the Rio Tinto Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC).

Julie Gelfand

Prior to joining IOC, Ms. Gelfand was Vice-President, Sustainable Development at the Mining Association of Canada and co-chair of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Centre of Excellence, under the federal CSR Strategy for the Canadian International Extractive Sector.

From 1992 to 2008, she served as President of Nature Canada. She also founded and chaired the Green Budget Coalition.


Posted by Future Justice on 15 April 2015

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