On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Ontario would put cash on the table to save the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a span of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario that has been the site of most of the world's best research on environmental threats to fresh water. The announcement is a stay of execution for the ELA, which is in the process of being shut after Ottawa withdrew its funding.
Wynne promised an unspecified amount of "operating dollars" for the ELA, while indicating that Ontario will also look for support from Manitoba and some sort of ongoing help from Ottawa. Ultimately, Wynne said she would like to turn the ELA over to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Environmentalists wasted little time in applauding Wynne's announcement. However, informed sources know there are several issues here that could derail this stay of execution.
First and foremost, Wynne must know by now that this is a federal government that cannot be wooed, massaged or intimidated into doing something it doesn't want to do. In other words, if you want a staring contest, you might want to stay away from federal Tories.
After threatening last year to close the ELA, Ottawa ceased funding at the end of March, just as it said it would. To ensure everyone understood its resolve, Ottawa banned scientists from the facility and began dismantling some of its structures. This was a pretty impressive piece of political performance art. Actually dismantling the buildings was hardly necessary. It was a show of force to let everyone know there would be no last-minute reprieve.
In that context, Wynne's offer to continue negotiations with Ottawa seems rather pointless, if only because Ottawa has made it pretty clear it doesn't want any part of the ELA.
Ottawa was resoundingly criticized for its decision to pull ELA funding. Scientists around the world condemned the decision. It has been used by critics as evidence of the Tory government's disdain for science in general and the environment in particular. And yet, even after all that criticism, Ottawa had no intention of blinking.
And in many respects, this Tory government is only practising a strategy that has been used for years in Ottawa. It is actually rare for a federal government to reverse course on a funding decision; it's even rarer for provinces to step in to backfill something that was previously funded by the federal government. That's why things like the ELA tend to die as scheduled.
Provinces generally believe offering to replace federal money sets a dangerous precedent that might actually encourage Ottawa to cut other programs. It's like a child refusing to eat whatever you made for dinner; make them a peanut butter sandwich once, you'll be doing it every time you sit down for a family meal.
And that brings us to the second troubling aspect to Wednesday's development. Manitoba has had every opportunity to step up and save the ELA. It's not clear the province's position has changed with Wynne's offer.
A spokesman for the premier said for now, this is a negotiation between Ottawa and Ontario. Manitoba will support the IISD to fund research but is not offering operating money.
Manitoba has demonstrated its own resolve in avoiding the backfilling of federal spending cuts. Manitoba did not, for example, step in with money to build a vaccine-manufacturing facility after Ottawa quashed a promising proposal to establish it in Winnipeg. Nor did the province dig into its own pocket to save the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. research facility at Pinawa in the mid-90s.
In both instances, Manitoba stood to benefit enormously from both facilities proceeding. They represented economic growth and high-skill, high-knowledge jobs. But backfilling those federal decisions would have meant having to make a lot of peanut butter sandwiches in future negotiations.
That leaves the fate of the ELA hanging on a series of "ifs." If Manitoba doesn't come to the table with operating money, and if Ottawa remains firm in its decision to cut the ELA off, and if Wynne's budget is defeated next week and an election is triggered in Ontario, then this week's news won't have meant a whole lot. If those scenarios come to fruition, supporters of the ELA will find themselves back at square 1, desperately searching for a saviour while watching Ottawa proceed methodically with the demolition of the entire project.
For the sake of the ELA, we should all hope Wynne sticks around long enough to make good on her pledge. And that somehow Manitoba finds a way of supporting it without setting its own dangerous precedent.
As for the federal government, we hope they don't pull a muscle tearing down the ELA structures.