Federal, provincial and territorial overview


This information from the Minister’s transition binder was current as of November 2019. We don’t update this page as it is part of the historical record.

Canada, as a geographically large federation, divides up distinct powers assigned to the federal government and provinces based, for the most part, on the Canadian Constitution. Protection of the environment is not, however, specifically addressed under the Constitution. It has become an area of concurrent jurisdiction as governments have taken action according to their respective authorities. Constitutional jurisprudence continues to evolve in this area.

The constitutional authority of the federal environmental legislation is founded on criminal law, as well as the principles of peace, order, and good government and on federal constitutional powers such as international borders, international relations, trade and commerce, navigation and shipping, seacoasts, and fisheries.

Provincial environmental laws are based on provincial constitutional powers, such as over municipalities, local works and undertakings, property and civil rights, provincially owned (public) lands, and natural resources. Territorial governments exercise delegated powers under the authority of the Parliament of Canada. The devolution of powers, or the transfer of province-like responsibilities from the federal government to territorial governments, is ongoing with agreements finalized in Yukon (2001) and in the Northwest Territories (2014), and an Agreement-in-Principle negotiated with Nunavut (2019). Every jurisdiction has an environmental ministry or agency, but environmental responsibilities can be widely shared within each government. Some jurisdictions have distinct departments/ministries that are responsible for some aspects of wildlife management and conservation. The separation of mandates can be very subtle: in British Columbia for example, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy is the lead on the invasive species file while the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations delivers invasive plant management programs. As with the federal government, other departments or ministries’ mandates can also have a significant environmental component such as those responsible for natural resources, fisheries, or health.

Given the shared responsibilities and authorities among levels of governments on environmental issues, close federal, provincial and territorial collaboration is essential to achieving meaningful results on the environment, and for successfully delivering on Environment and Climate Change Canada’s strategic priorities.

Environment and Climate Change Canada’s role

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) officials maintain direct links with provincial/territorial (PT) counterparts bilaterally or multilaterally through Federal-Provincial-Territorial (FPT) working groups addressing specific issues of common interest. FPT meetings on technical matters happen throughout the year at all levels - working level officials through to Ministerial. ECCC’s scientific expertise is an important resource for the PTs, bringing together a critical mass of research and analysis that supports many PT initiatives, and is particularly welcomed in many areas by jurisdictions of limited capacity.

FPT Ministers with common interests or portfolios are often organized in councils, which meet on a regular basis, ensuring sharing of information and best practices. The main FPT body addressing national environmental issues is the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). The 14 FPT Ministers meet at least once a year to discuss national environmental priorities, and determine work to be carried out under the auspices of CCME. The chair rotates between the 14 Ministers on an annual basis at the annual meeting. CCME furthers the Canada-wide environmental agenda through results-oriented and consensus-based dialogue, while respecting the unique roles and responsibilities of member jurisdictions. The Council seeks to achieve positive environmental results by focusing on issues that are national in scope and that require collective attention from a number of governments. For example, the last meeting in Halifax in June 2019 addressed issues such as climate change, air quality, and plastic waste.

The department also enters into agreements (Memoranda of Understanding, administrative agreements, equivalency agreements, and collaboration agreements [e.g., Species at Risk]) with provincial or territorial governments to streamline the administration and management of environmental regulations. For example, intergovernmental agreements are used to address transboundary water governance through joint FPT participation on domestic water boards. In addition, Canada has long-standing bilateral Ministerial agreements with PTs to manage Canada’s water quantity monitoring network. Canada also engages in this area at an international level through the International Joint Commission (IJC), in partnership with the United States. Environmental emergency management is also an area of shared jurisdiction where ECCC works closely with PTs. Warning Preparedness Meteorologists, located across Canada, further support each PT’s Emergency Management Organizations and the unique needs of the jurisdictions through informal, but established, partnerships.

PTs also address environmental issues through other multilateral and regional fora. For example, several discussions have taken place on environmental issues among the Premiers of the Council of the Federation and in ad-hoc meetings, such as the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers, convened in Stowe, Vermont in August 2018 or the Western Premiers’ Conference in June 2019.

Although the federal government formally represents Canada in international environmental negotiations (e.g., international transboundary water management under the International Joint Commission IJC participation), PTs are regularly involved in negotiations that relate to issues within their jurisdiction. British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Québec were all represented at the Ministerial level at the last meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Katowice, Poland in December 2018. Provinces and territories will also regularly send representatives to other international environment fora such as the Convention on Biological Diversity or the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As only national governments are usually members of international organizations (the IUCN is one exception), PT delegates normally act in an observer capacity.

PTs are diverse in terms of population, area, and resources, and thus they can face unique challenges with regard to environmental issues. ECCC monitors environmental events and policy developments in provinces and territories, provides analysis where required and maintains information factsheets or provincial/territorial data relevant to the environment.

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