Well, that didn’t take long

From the smiling selfie of our future-facing face of generational change and environmental salvation to the big reveal only a mini-month later that the shiny new was just one more in a long line of old-style pols in the welcoming embrace of all the usual corporate interests. And it will only get worse.

In 2017, residents of Wentworth Valley were shocked to see clearcutting on land that Northern Pulp had purchased with the 2010 loan of $75 million from the province. Photo: Joan Baxter

Well, that didn’t take long. From the smiling selfie of our future-facing face of generational change and environmental salvation to the big reveal only a mini-month later that the shiny new was just one more in a long line of old-style pols in the welcoming embrace of all the usual corporate interests. Phew. Quick indeed. And it will only get worse.

Let us review.

Iain Rankin. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

On Feb. 23, Iain Rankin was sworn in as Nova Scotia’s 29th premier, boldly renaming government departments — the environment department was reborn as environment and climate change, transportation and infrastructure renewal became transportation and active transit — to align with what the new premier claimed was the “Rankin government’s” [the new administration’s favoured pre-election descriptor for itself] new direction. He boasted to reporters he was “eager” to get on with the job of remaking the province’s environmental future.

Two weeks later, on Mar. 9, Rankin reconvened the provincial legislature for its first session after a full year missing in inaction. In his first throne speech, the premier highlighted a few of his government’s signature legislative plans, including:

In the forestry sector, my government will accelerate the implementation of the recommendations of the report of Professor William Lahey to adopt ecological forestry principles, placing protection of the ecosystem and biodiversity in the forefront of forest management practices. My government is committed to higher value production with lower ecological impacts as we innovate away from industrial forestry to ecological forestry.

Two days after that, on Mar. 11, Rankin’s new lands and forestry minister, Chuck Porter, introduced Bill 4, “An Act to Provide for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity in Nova Scotia,” which a government press release grandiosely described as…

… new legislation that will preserve and protect Nova Scotia’s unique ecosystems, wild animals, plants, lakes and forests for future generations.

And then?

Well, that was the end of that nonsense.

Less than two weeks later, on Mar. 23 — recall that Rankin only became our green premier on Feb. 23 — the lands and forest department and the premier’s office issued a late afternoon wea culpa news release to announce the government was walking away from “innovating away” and was no longer in business to “preserve and protect” for future generations. It was instead…

…introducing changes to the Biodiversity Act to address concerns from provincial stakeholders and ensure collaboration remains a key focus, as was always intended. The changes remove biodiversity emergency orders, offences and fines from the act, and limit the scope to Crown lands unless permission is given on private lands.

In other words, the government was eviscerating its own legislation before it had even been discussed in the province’s law amendments committee, the usual place where citizens get their say on government bills.

What really happened? Well, let’s start with Rankin’s own carefully crafted, step-away-from-the-fray words in his press release:

Listening to the concerns of my caucus members who have been speaking to their constituents contributed to these changes. It is so critical for us to find a path together to address threats and create opportunities for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in Nova Scotia.

“Caucus members?” “Constituents?” Really? Who is he kidding?

What really happened in those two weeks was that the Rankin government’s caucus got its marching orders from the only constituents who count on this issue. Big Forestry: Northern Pulp, Port Hawkesbury Paper, Louisiana Pacific Corp. J.D. Irving Ltd…. and the shortlist isn’t that long.

Let’s parse what actually happened.

A “Concerned Private Landowners Coalition” was created. It’s a made-up, purpose-built group, founded and funded by members of Forest Nova Scotia, an industry lobby group that claims to have been the “voice of the forest industry” in the province since 1934. The coalition-slash-forestry cartel immediately mounted what my colleague, Joan Baxter, described in the Examiner last week as an “all-out, no-holds-barred, province-wide — and very expensive — propaganda war against the Biodiversity Act.”

The campaign against the Biodiversity Act began on Saturday, March 13, 2021, just two days after it was introduced, with a full-page ad in the Chronicle Herald from a mysterious entity calling itself the “Concerned Private Landowner Coalition.”

The ad called on “all private landowners” to “act now before it’s too late.” It spuriously claimed that “agriculture, Christmas tree growing, housing and road construction, forest management, farming livestock, and development” would all be “impacted.”

And the “Coalition” urged everyone to contact their MLA to “voice their concerns” about the new legislation.

In fact, no such coalition even existed…

The scale and speed of the intoxication campaign has been breathtaking.

The alarmist messaging blasted out of radios, popped up on CBC articles online, leapt and metastasized all over social media.

The fear-mongering campaign even had its own “message track.”

“We need to focus our messaging on Bill 4, not on Biodiversity Act,” read the instructions from an unnamed source that appeared in an online post. “Bill 4 is a threat; it is not about Biodiversity, it is about an assault on landowners and their rights.

That assault, it declared, was coming from “Halifax activists [who] want to be able to control what rural property owners do on their land, [giving the activists a] club to harass landowners and stop all agriculture, recreational activity, forestry, hunting and fishing on private lands.”

It might at this point make some sense to read the actual bill “as introduced,” and do to a Where’s Waldo to search in vain for the legislation’s all-out “assault on landowners and their rights.”

It was all a lie, of course, a Big Lie, which one of Baxter’s sources — “a forestry insider, deeply frustrated and concerned about what he calls the campaign by ‘vested interests’ to kill the bill” — rightly described as “the most Trump-like thing” he has seen in Nova Scotia.

But it was effective. While Rankin himself limply complained to reporters the coalition’s attempt to paint the act as an attack on landowners or to pit one region of the province against the other was “not a productive way” to deal with the situation, he made no attempt to counter their lies with truth.

Instead, he did what governments here have done since there have been governments here: he caved to those powerful private interests.

Jeff Bishop of Forest Nova Scotia. Photo: Joan Baxter

It almost certainly won’t be his last time.

The faux “coalition” of pretend “concerned private landowners” is gloating and already girding for its next battle.

Forest Nova Scotia Executive Director… er, Coalition spokesperson Jeff Bishop told the business news site allnovascotia.com that what I would call his group’s successful hijacking of the democratic process “is really the way the democratic process is supposed to work.”

Bishop added his group now wants in on determining how the much-delayed Lahey Report, which Rankin has promised he will implement before the end of the year, actually gets put in place.

“We’ve asked about that,” Bishop told reporter Brian Flinn, “about how can we play a role in that as professionals in the sector — to make sure the regulatory regime lines up with what we do on a day-to-day basis… We’re hopeful we will be engaged in that process.”

Now that’s… depressing.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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