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By Jon Thompson
A Memorandum Of Understanding has been signed and federal funds will flow to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) through 2013 but no transfer has yet been arranged.
After seven months of negotiations, Minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Keith Ashfield signed the memorandum with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) on May 9.
IISD president and CEO Scott Vaughan praised the federal government for allowing experiments to continue over the summer at the 58-lake whole-ecosystem research station, some of which have been monitored consistently for 44 years.
While the responsibility for future liability and potential remediation of the site will be discussed in a yet-to-be-negotiated final transfer agreement, Vaughan said one potential model could see an advisory board tabled to approve future research proposals, at which the federal and provincial governments would have a seat.
“The governance structure we’ve put in place, to a large degree, defines the risk faced by the IISD. That’s why we’re spending a lot of time looking at that step,” Vaughan explained. “This isn’t a done deal by any means but at least now there are parameters we have to address.”
Vaughan sees potential for local communities to play a role in ELA and intends to visit the site in the coming weeks.
Kenora MP Greg Rickford said his respect for the confidentiality agreement surrounding negotiations prohibited him from speaking publicly but he has been listening as a divided but critical mass expressed the world-renowned research station was a local political priority.
“It goes without saying that at times, this was difficult for me as the pressure mounted from groups external to the riding and most importantly, constituents but I think as folks will realize, a very complex process has taken place. It has been a good faith exercise by our government and my role was to stay briefed on it and we’ll be overseeing that elements of the MOU are lived up to.”
Rickford said ELA would return to its roots if it were to transfer to the IISD, praising the institute for its arm’s length public and private funding model.
“Throughout this debate and as it matured particularly over the past couple of months, even our harshest critics and detractors recognize that the IISD would ultimately be the best operators for this facility. Given the mandate of the (DFO) in contrast to the (MNR), the IISD will actually have a broader mandate to perform certain kinds of research on those lakes.”
While senior ELA researcher Carol Kelly disagrees with Rickford’s assessment of his detractors, she is “cautiously optimistic” following Thursday’s announcement. Kelly was encouraged by that morning’s phone meeting between ELA director of ecosystem studies Dave Gillis and scientists asking, for the first time in a year, what they would need to ensure their projects can operate in 2013.
“We think the federal government should never have made this decision to close ELA. The $2 million they were spending on it was a good investment in terms of health cost savings due to the regulations that have been put into place from ELA work, ” she expressed. “Looking forward, we think it’s still a good investment. If IISD can raise money from donors to support it, we hope Ontario and Manitoba and perhaps even the federal government will continue to give some steady ongoing support that will maintain ELA’s stability. That’s what will keep the place independent.”
Come September, a 1993 ELA agreement between Parliament and Queen’s Park will expire and negotiating responsibility for a final transfer will fall to Ontario.
On Apr. 23, Ontario announced it would financially support the ELA through 2013. Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Laurel Broten praised the federal government for its funding announcement but as the ELA remains in federal hands until a 1993 agreement expires in September, it’s undetermined how Ontario would have flowed funds to the site.
“I don’t want to speculate on what could have been done,” she said. “We were engaged with the federal government. We were enaged with the Manitoba government. We were engaged with the IISD. There are many developments left to resolve but the immediate is how things should develop in the short-term. We were prepared to put dollars up.”
Kenora-Rainy River MPP Sarah Campbell asserted none of the major hurdles of a final transfer were addressed in the memorandum, adding she saw no coincidence in the announcement coming a day after national attention turned to scientists who were being denied access to ELA. She claimed there was nothing “materially different” from the announcement Ontario made weeks ago regarding its intention to fund the facility.
“Someone has to step up to the plate to come up with a long-term commitment. Can this province work together with the province of Manitoba and can they come up with something?
“What will be put in place to protect the future of the Experimental Lakes Area and insulate it from the government of the day deciding it’s no longer in its mandate?”
Manitoba is the core-funding agent of the IISD, contributing over $10 million to its operations and programs since 2008. Last week, Premier Greg Selinger committed to funding ELA if the federal government “does its part.” A spokesperson for the Premier clarified Manitoba intends to contribute directly to ELA once Ontario and Canada make final transfer arrangements.