The Letter Campaign


In response to proposed endangered species legislation (see A History of SARA), a total of four letters were sent by the scientific community to the federal government. The first campaign (1995 letter), spearheaded by environmental lawyer Stewart Elgie, Dr. Dan Schoen, and Dr. David Schindler, obtained over 150 signatures. Two years later, a second letter (1997 letter), also organized by Stewart Elgie, obtained 300 signatures. The third campaign was again organized by Stewart with Dr. Amir Attaran and the assistance of members of the Zoology Department at UBC, and by Prof. G. Scudder FRSC and Prof. David Schindler FRSC. This letter (1999 letter) had over 640 signatories.

The final campaign was in response to Bill C-5 (2001 letter) and obtained a remarkable 1,331 signatures. Many of the requested changes to this piece of legislation were made in the final version of the Bill (the majority of which came into force on June 5 2003). It is this letter campaign which is discussed below.

-top of page-


(Adapted from Stewart Elgie's Briefing Notes on the Federal Species at Risk Act):

In its original incarnation the Species at Risk Act (SARA) was virtually identical to Bill C-33, a Bill widely criticized for being too weak (Bill C-33 died on the order paper in 2000 when an election was called).

Critical weaknesses in Bill C-5 were, particularly:

  • It did not protect endangered species' habitat, even in areas of federal jurisdiction. An animal's nest or den were protected, but not the habitat area it is dependent on (for breeding, feeding, staging, etc.). Any form of habitat protection was left to Cabinet's discretion

  • It failed to protect the habitat of fish or migratory birds outside of federal lands and waters, even though these areas are legally recognized as areas of federal responsibility.

  • It did not use the existing COSEWIC endangered species list as the starting list in the Act. Instead, it started with no species listed or protected.

  • The federal Cabinet, not COSEWIC, was to decide which species to list as endangered which would make it possible for species to be left off the list for political reasons (as has happened routinely in provinces: only 30% of the species identified as endangered by COSEWIC have been listed by provincial cabinets that have endangered species legislation (i.e. 70% have been left unprotected).

  • There was no independent review mechanism to ensure the law was effectively enforced (not even a non-court process which was agreed to by industry).

  • Funding to be used to support and assist private conservation efforts by landowners and companies (about $15million/yr) was only a fraction of what is needed to help recover existing species at risk (about $50 million/yr). [These figures refer to money for on-the-ground conservation, not funds for bureaucratic costs]

  • It failed to provide 'interim' habitat protection between the time of listing and the completion of a recovery plan a period of up to 2.5 years. During this time, a species habitat could legally be destroyed (except its actual nest or den).

  • It did not allow citizens to seek independent review if government is failed to enforce the law ( the 1996 Bill gave this power). It did not even provide a 'non-court' appeal process which had been agreed to by major industries.

Thus, in its original form SARA was weaker than many provincial endangered species laws (4 of the 6 (Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick and PEI) make habitat protection mandatory) and much weaker than U.S. and Mexican endangered species laws, both of which, with limited exceptions, provide mandatory habitat protection for all species on all lands.

Many interested parties from conservationists to scientists to industry associations were unhappy with the proposed law and took action.

A coalition of major industry and conservation groups (including the Canadian Pulp & Paper Association and the Mining Association of Canada) agreed on the need for stronger legislation (including mandatory habitat protection in federal jurisdiction areas, and science-based listing) and filed a written brief asking for these improvements.

The scientific community had, in the past, sent three separate letters to the federal government calling for strong endangered species legislation (see Introduction) in response to proposed endangered species legislation at that time (see A History of SARA).

In response to Bill C-5 a fourth, 2001 letter, one of the largest scientific sign-on letters in recent history, was composed and sent on September 10, 2001 to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. 904 Canadian, 378 American and 8 Mexican scientists and an additional 41 scientists from various countries around the world participated, bringing the total signatories to 1,331 people.

Among these people were: environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki, anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. David Schindler (winner of numerous distinguished national and international research awards and a fellow of the Royal Society of London), the president of the Ecological Society of America, Dr. Stephen Carpenter; the President of the Society for Conservation Biology, Reed Noss; Dr. Michael Soulé, co-founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and the Wildlands Project; and 113 Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada (the most respected scientific body in the country).

-top of page-

Recommendations made by Scientists in their Third Letter

  • Mandatory habitat protection - particularly for species that migrate or range across Canada's national borders (as failure to protect these species undermines U.S. and Mexican efforts to protect them)

  • A science-based listing process with no political involvement - this included recommendations to:
    1. use the COSEWIC list
    2. protect COSEWIC's independence and expertise by having a respected scientific body be consulted on all COSEWIC appointments, and requiring that at least half of COSEWIC's members come from outside government

  • Respect of COSEWIC's future listing decisions - with a minimum requirement that COSEWIC's listing decisions should take effect within a fixed time unless Cabinet exercises a 'veto' and provides reasons.

  • A return to the original (1997 Bill) definition of "wildlife species" - specifically the change of "biologically distinct population" to "geographically or genetically distinct populations" as "biologically distinct" is a vague concept.

-top of page-


On June 11, 2002 The House of Commons passed a well-revised version of Bill C-5. A summary of amendments made by the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, "counteramendments" made by the government and additional changes made to the final bill before it was passed are available here.

The MPs that you may have contacted via this website (and hundreds of you did) forced an extraordinary parliamentary procedure that allowed a strengthened Bill to be considered. This version of the Bill specifies that listing will be by COSEWIC (with a 9-month window where government can explicitly reject listings), and that habitat protection in most areas of federal jurisdiction would be mandatory following the presentation of a recovery strategy or action plan. The offices that did the hard work in the end were those of Charles Caccia, Clifford Lincoln, and Karen Kraft Sloan.

As of November 20, 2002 Bill C-5 went officially before the Senate. The Bill had officially "died" over the summer, but was resurrected under new rules (first with a new designation [Bill C-1] and then, again, as Bill C-5). At this time various Environmental Lobby Groups pressed for substantial amendments (including our specific concerns about how "residence" is defined for protected species, and increased protection of transboundary species) and met with the Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources. A brief prepared by the Sierra Legal Defense Fund outlines the changes they asked the Senate to consider.

In December, 2002 Senate made many unanimous recommendations, but did not change a word for fear of killing the bill completely. The Species at Risk Act passed through the Senate and received Royal Assent on December 12, 2002.

The following are excerpts from the Senate committee spokesperson and the official press release from the Federal Government:

Senate Committee spokesperson, the Honourable Mira Spivak:

"Honourable senators, Bill C-5 comes before us, as you have heard, with observations but unamended. That is because a majority of the committee members believe that the bill could be lost entirely if it were amended. That is a pity. It would certainly have been a stronger bill, as almost all of our witnesses told us, if we had pursued amendments put forward by the House of Commons Environment Committee but not approved by the House. However, as a poor second best, we have set the table for future amendments. I am not alone in this view. It was a consensus opinion. As the committee's observations say right off the bat: ...we firmly believe that passage of this legislation marks only one step in the work that needs to be done to adequately protect species at risk in this country. Future amendments to this legislation should address outstanding concerns and further strengthen it."

Official Federal Government press release:

OTTAWA, December 12, 2002 - The Species at Risk Act (SARA) received Royal Assent today, binging to a close a nine-year legislative process to protect Canada's species at risk and their critical habitat. The new legislation will come into force in 2003.

"Today we fulfilled a commitment made by this government to ensure protection for species at risk and the places where they live," said the Honourable David Anderson, Minister of the Environment. "SARA is the result of an extensive consultation process that has seldom been seen in Canadian history and the legislation enjoys broad support among Canadians. This inclusive process will continue as the Act provides for openness and transparency at all stages."

SARA is one of three elements of the government's Strategy for the Protection of Species at Risk. Under the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, the Government of Canada works with provinces and territories on a common approach to protecting species at risk in Canada that includes complementary legislation and programs to protect habitat and species. "Protecting species at risk is a shared responsibility of all governments in Canada," said Minister Anderson. "This Act ensures the federal responsibility is met, and it also helps to fulfill some of Canada's international obligations under the Biodiversity Convention."

The other key component of the federal Strategy is stewardship, a cornerstone of the Government of Canada's approach to species protection. Canada's Stewardship Agenda, approved earlier this year by federal, provincial and territorial Ministers of Wildlife, encourages Canadians to work together in a landscape approach to protect habitat, contribute to the recovery of species at risk and conserve Canada's natural heritage. One such initiative is the federal government's Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk, which funds projects that support habitat conservation and stewardship. Hundreds of projects involving Aboriginal organizations, landowners, businesses, industries, and non-government organizations have been approved over the last three years. The Government of Canada committed $45 million to the Habitat Stewardship Program over 5 years.

Minister Anderson also noted the link between the passage of SARA and the Government of Canada's overall environmental agenda. "SARA complements many other environmental initiatives," he said. "For instance, our actions on climate change also protect species and their habitats - we know climate change affects the forests and waters that support species." The species at risk legislation ensures that species are assessed under a rigorous and independent scientific process that operates at arm's length from the federal government. It also requires the development of recovery action plans for species that are found to be most at risk, and recognizes the essential role of Aboriginal peoples in the conservation of wildlife by requiring the establishment of a National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk.

SARA will come into force by an order in council in 2003. In the period leading up to the order in council, the Government of Canada will develop the regulations required under the Act, including regulations on compensation.

Postscript: Two-thirds of SARA came into force on June 5 of 2003 (sections 2, 31, 37-56, 62, 65-76, 78-84, 120-133 and 137). This includes the establishment of COSEWIC as a legal entity and the preparation of recovery strategies and action plans for species currently on the legal list.

As of June 1, 2004 the rest of the Act will come into force, including basic prohibitions, prohibitions against the destruction of critical habitat and all other enforcement measures.

-top of page-

We would like to thank all of those who lent their scientific credentials and credibility to this endeavour. We believe our collective efforts played a small role in making a bad bill a bit better.


Arne Mooers and Reuven Dukas