|INTRODUCTION. Environmental decision-making related to policy, often includes an overall objective that advances opportunities for sustainable development. Advancing the concept of sustainable development draws on, and influences forms of governance. The use of the term governance represents an ideological shift from the authoritative control associated with the term “government”. With governance, power is distributed among actors. In practice, this implies a broader collaboration between organizations, associations, individuals and various levels of government, both formally and informally. Overall, governance structures have shifted to embody greater public engagement. The incorporation of participation and engagement in governance is attributed to outcomes that include: acceptance and support of the policy, reduced conflict, broader information resources, and social learning. The dissertation focused on the critical component of sustainable development governance, public participation, in the context of environmental assessment and related decision-making. Specifically, how participation in policy development and environmental decision-making is informed, and limited, based on existing information management capacity. Through case studies, this dissertation examined the development of land use planning policy and application of Environmental Assessments (EA), to identify barriers to, and facilitators of, the public participation process. Three research questions provided a guide to exploring this subject: 1. What does participation look like in land use planning legislation and EA processes, with respect to case specific limitation and challenges? 2. How can information be gathered, managed and shared to build needed capacity and meet community goals? 3. What is an approach to information management that can serve to improve the range of available information, and overcome the existing barriers to accessing technical and academic resources, to support streaming of relevant information into the participatory process?
METHODS. Fort Albany First Nation, a remote Cree community of the western James Bay region of subarctic Ontario, Canada, was the focal community of the present study. People of this community have significant connections to the land, and the land is rich with natural resources. Thus, the Cree identify meaningful participation in decision-making related to land-and-resource planning and development, as being imperative. Participatory action research was an overarching method employed throughout the present study. Data sources for this project included field notes, interview data, project reports and EA documents, meeting minutes, hearing and legislative transcripts, archival information, and policy documents. The approach to analyzing the data generally incorporated the development of an evaluative framework and deductive review.
RESULTS and DISCUSSION. Chapter 2. The Far North Act (2010) Consultative Process: A New Beginning or the Reinforcement of an Unacceptable Relationship in Northern Ontario, Canada? The consultative process with respect to consultation in the “Far North” region of Ontario was examined, from the treaty-making period (early 1900s), through to the land use planning period represented in the Far North Act (2010). The focus of the evaluation was the approach to consultation used in Ontario, to advance policy. The inadequate consultative process used in the advancement of the Far North Act (2010) was characterized by a minimum standard for consultation being used. Terms were fixed prior to the process, limiting outcomes and frustrating those attempting to engage in the process. Further, timelines were too condensed to allow for meaningful participation, and unequal power distribution was evident, resulting in a threat of future litigation. Nonetheless, meetings and workshops, as well as testimony given by community members and leadership demonstrated meaningful consideration of the proposed legislation and social learning. However, the actual participatory method used in this case, public hearings, limited the potential to realize learning outcomes. The testimonies at public hearings were largely ignored. Chapter 3. The Streamlining of the Kabinakagami River Hydroelectric Project Environmental Assessment: What is the “duty to consult” with other impacted Aboriginal communities when the co-proponent of the project is an Aboriginal community? The case involved an upstream First Nation acting as a co-proponent for a project that would potentially affect downstream First Nations communities. Evaluation of the Kabinakagami Hydro Project Class EA process revealed severe limitations to effective participation by affected communities, even though the co-proponent was a First Nation. Moreover, guiding policies based on better practices for improved participation and consultation in environmental decision-making existed, among all actors. Noteworthy was that no specific guideline to guide the participatory process when a co-proponent of a development project was a First Nation – and from what was learnt from the case study – it cannot be assumed that First Nations will deal with other First Nations respectfully and fairly. The participatory methods used (information sessions, a meeting, and public comment) provided little opportunity for meaningful participation. Significant information was offered in the comment period, describing concerns about the consultation process and the scope of the studies underway. The response, however, demonstrated limited flexibility to adjust the process or consider changes to project design or implementation. This meant that participants in downstream First Nation communities were not streamed into the process. Chapter 4. Drawing a line in the muskeg: A systematic review of Environmental Assessment information, curated and evaluated, to advance evidence-based environmental decision-making to benefit communities, policy makers and proponents in a remote area of Northern Ontario, Canada. The collaborative-geomatics informatics tool provided a useful decision-support tool to gather relevant information, and evaluate previous EA processes carried out in the region. In this way, the decision-support tool builds capacity, all the while providing protection of intellectual property, as the tool is under First Nations control being password-protected. Typically, there are challenges to establishing a unified and consistent approach to mapping, but the informatics tool has the ability to house a range of information that is accessible, and can be flexible and usable in a variety of ways. The tool has been populated with available written and online information that are relevant to environmental decision-making needs for the Cree. The tool has been equipped and formatted with database querying “apps” developed specifically for the needs of the Cree through their input, and existing information has been synthesized and summarized to give an understanding of the state of information and information gaps present in the region. This is the beginning of an information-management system that will help the lands-and-resource group from the community to be prepared to participate in ongoing EA processes, with the added capacity to challenge the thoroughness and accuracy of information that is advanced by proponents and their consultants.
CONCLUSIONS. While sustainable development is an important objective driving both EA and land use planning activities in the region, considered broadly, the activities that have surrounded the policy and EA activities examined in this dissertation have demonstrated limited meaningful change in underlying elements needed to achieve transformative change. A shift from “Government” to “governance”, with a change in power distribution, has not occurred. Opportunities for public participation were present in each of the cases examined, but were limited to public hearings, information sessions, meetings, and public comment. Although beyond passive sharing of information, the process has not fostered ongoing dialogue or built relationships; it has been a one-way exchange rather than dialogue. Access to the process was provided, but with limited ability to ensure that contributions made by participants were reflected in the outcomes. Nonetheless, participants in the process demonstrated growing capacity to engage in decision-making despite scarce resources, limited time, administrative capacity, and information. Unfortunately, my work has revealed that while there is an awareness of, and an existing administrative policy to, support meaningful participation and consultation for environmental decision-making in the Far North region, it is not being adopted in a meaningful way to realize the benefits of participation in the process. The result is an increasingly litigious environment. Governments have shown little interest in stepping into a leadership role to invest in early relationship development, as a way to more effectively approach and ensure community support, and the long-term success of development projects. This leaves impacted communities and private companies with the task of navigating this process to advance their respective goals with little regulatory oversight or intervention.