Current Literature: Environmental Assessments and Public Consultations


“Current Literature” is a recurring feature highlighting recent publications of interest on the science-policy interface.

Despite the fact that Canada has had a formal environmental assessment (EA) process since the 1970s, it remains highly criticized by academics and practitioners alike (MacKinnon, 2017). Currently, the federal government is undertaking a review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to determine how to improve the legislation that governs the process. In anticipation of new legislation being released, academics have been developing recommendations for the next generation of EA.

One of the main criticisms levelled against the current process is a general lack of public participatory mechanisms to involve stakeholders in the decision-making process. Public participation has long been considered an essential part of EA. As academics develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of social-ecological systems, they are emphasizing the importance of including meaningful public participation in the next generation of EA (Gibson, Doelle & Sinclair, 2016). This blog post reviews three recent publications by Sinclair and Diduck (2016), Gibson, Doelle, and Sinclair (2016), and MacKinnon (2017), on the subject of public participation in EA with regard to recommendations on best practices to improve the EA process (see also an earlier post on public consultations). The publications all discuss what is meant by meaningful participation.


Dialogic Participation

While the current Canadian EA process does include a limited level of public consultation, not all consultations are created equal. The authors of all three papers emphasize the importance of active participation by stakeholders and the interested public.

In their conception of EA civics, Sinclair and Diduck discuss Canada’s use of “passive” engagement techniques. In this model, members of the public are invited to participate in the decision-making process through letter writing campaigns, or by attending informational meetings. This type of engagement is described as passive because while the public can influence the final outcome, it does not share power in making the decision. Thus, Sinclair and Diduck try to shift the paradigm of Canadian EAs to a more open and democratized activity. Such a process would require more deliberative participation practices, such as task forces and negotiations. To achieve this openness, communication should be non-adversarial to build relationships and increase trust between the groups.

Mackinnon (2017), too, argues that principled negotiation is an important component of a successful EA. He argues that through negotiation, opponents can reach a decision that is agreeable to all parties. If all groups can reach a point where they feel the project meets most of their requirements, it is more likely to lead to sustainable long-term development.

Gibson et al. (2016) emphasize the importance of trust for successful EA processes. The current system is driven by the proponent(s) of a project, which leads the public to believe that the assessment process is biased towards approval. A successful EA process should address these concerns to make the decision more credible, and to cultivate a sustainable culture. Gibson et al. suggest establishing multi-stakeholder advisory groups during an assessment to allow open dialogue among proponents, stakeholders, and civic officials. The advisory committees would have an official role, giving them a stronger voice and more authority over the decision-making process.

Democratizing the process also means making sure that the public has access to the resources to participate effectively. Gibson et al. want to increase public engagement with funding and capacity building for any group that needs it. They also suggest that the engagement process should not be overly formal to make the setting more comfortable for members of the public. These adjustments would make it easier for members of the public who might normally not engage in the discussion to participate actively in the discussion.

Access to Information, Built-in Learning Process, and Adaptability

Effective public participation will require an adaptive, deliberative process that is focused on learning. Each publication emphasizes the importance of reflexivity and transparency to improve public participation in the EA process.

Sinclair and Diduck (2016) write that the key to effective public participation is access to information. Access to relevant and timely research, as well as information about current and past projects, should be communicated clearly to the public so that people may understand the process and make informed decisions. To that end, Sinclair and Diduck recommend that Canada create a common-law library with all the available information. They suggest that this library would encourage an adaptive learning process to improve assessments over time. It would foster a climate of mutual learning for proponents, government, and the public together. This learning process would help satisfy what Sinclair and Diduck see as the ultimate goal of EA civics, to create understanding and capacity within the public domain that will facilitate a transition to a sustainable future (Sinclair & Diduck, 2016).

Access to this data and information would also help Canadians to re-conceptualize the EA process as being continuous, wherein the lessons learned from one project assessment could be used strategically to inform subsequent projects across the country. Sinclair and Diduck suggest that understanding EA as an iterative process, with individual projects connected to the larger goal of sustainable human use, will improve decision-making over time.

Gibson et al. (2016) also emphasize the importance of continuous learning throughout the EA process. One way to accomplish such learning, they write, is to make the EA process open for public participation throughout its entire lifecycle, from initial conception of a project until the end of potential effects from project implementation. The public would then be able to collaborate continuously throughout the process, which would allow for long-term learning and lasting sustainable practices.

MacKinnon argues that because ecological systems are highly complex, the assessment process must address considerable scientific uncertainty. It is not possible for current science to predict the exact impacts of a hypothetical development, which means that the decision-making process must be flexible and adaptive, as a way of reducing the scientific uncertainty inherent in the practice of EA. According to Gibson et al. (2016), the EA process can be made more adaptive with a built-in review process. Public reviews would increase transparency, and help to build trust among the participants.

Valued Ecosystem Components

Since the 1980s, Valued Ecosystem Components (VECs) have been an essential part of meaningful public engagement on EA (MacKinnon, 2017). VECs are any aspects of an ecosystem that carry value by a stakeholder or a community that might be affected by a development project. Because EA cannot be expected to test every aspect within an ecosystem, VECs provide a way to identify those components that are most important to humans, and thus can best address the concerns of the public.

In his work, MacKinnon suggests that VECs should continue to guide research activities. He argues that identifying ecosystem components that are important to humans enables the decision-makers to focus an assessment on issues that are relevant to the public. The current process does not adequately address the public’s concerns. It is, therefore, necessary that the EA process become more open and participatory so that the stakeholders can help in determining what aspects of an ecosystem matter to them.


All of the publications argue that Canadian regulations for EA need to encourage more active participation from members of the public. To achieve this level of engagement, they recommend different techniques to decentralize the decision-making process and open negotiation throughout the lifecycle of an EA project. The authors all see a value in encouraging active participation, both as a tenant of environmental justice, and as a strategic way of securing a more collaborative and sustainable future for development in Canada. The authors emphasize the importance of making information accessible as a way of promoting informed participation in future environmental assessments.



Gibson, R. B., Doelle M. & Sinclair, A. J. (2016). Fulfilling the promise: Basic components of next generation environmental assessment. Journal of Environmental Law & Practice, 29, 257-283.

MacKinnon, A. J. (2017). Implementing science in environmental assessment: A review of theory (Unpublished master’s thesis). Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Sinclair, A. J. & Diduck, A. P. (2016). Reconceptualizing public participation in environmental assessment as EA civics. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 62, 174-182.


Author: Rachael Cadman


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