A Learning-Focused Analysis of Canada's Impact Assessment Act

AuthorAlan P Diduck an d A John Sinclair
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A Learning-Focused Analysis of Canada’s
Impact Assessment Act
Alan P Diduck and A John Sinclair
The opportunities for learning during an impact assessment (IA), and
from one assessment to another, are well recognized in academic, prac-
tical, and policy circles.1 Learning from the evidence presented during
the course of an IA can help optimize decision making about approv-
als and conditions. As well, public and Indigenous participation pro-
grams can be structured to enable opportunities for learning among the
people, groups, organizations, and governments that are involved. Such
learning can help build common ground and legitimatize decisions
that are based on common interests.
Learning through experience is essential for improving IA practice
over time. Suitably structured follow-up can improve future planning and
design, impact predictions, and mitigation measures. Similarly, ongoing
or regular legislative reviews can assist in rening or transforming legal,
1 Heli Saarikoski, “Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as Collaborative Learning
Process” (2000) 20 Environmental Impact Assessment Review 681; A John Sinclair, Alan P
Diduck & Patricia J Fitzpatrick, “Conceptualizing Learning for Sustainability Through
Environmental Assessment: Critical Reections on 15 Years of Research” (2008) 28
Environmental Impact Assessment Review 415; Anna Johnston, Federal Environmental
Assessment Reform Summit Proceedings (Vancouver, BC: West Coast Environmental Law,
2016); Fabia Bozzola Cruz, Fernanda Aparecida Veronez & Marcelo Montaño, “Evi-
dence of Learning Processes in EIA Systems” (2018) 36:3 Impact Assessment and Project
Appraisal 242.
     492
policy, and administrative measures that implement an assessment
regime. In short, learning from each other, from the successes and fail-
ures in an IA, and from one assessment to another can improve the cap-
acity of IA actors and regimes to achieve sustainability and related public
policy goals. If IA requirements are to be more than just hoops for pro-
ponents to jump through in order to gain project approval, assessment
must be centred on learning. To achieve this, the potential for learning
by all participants must be recognized throughout the assessment pro-
cess, from the earliest preplanning phases through to the monitoring of
eects and outcomes.
The purpose of this chapter is to analyze the learning potential pre-
sented by the Impact Assessment Act (IAA).2 We appraise the Act in search
of provisions that enable or block opportunities for learning. We adopt
a multilevel approach in that we examine opportunities for learning at
multiple levels of social organization; that is, we employ varying social
units of analysis, all of which are highly relevant in the context of IA. In
particular, we examine opportunities for learning by people, commun-
ities of practice (small groups with shared interests and/or concerns),
organizations, and governments. Given that communities of practice,
organizations, and governments do not learn in the same sense that
individuals do, we employ dierent conceptualizations and denitions
of learning processes, each suitable to its particular social unit of analy-
sis. Others have employed similar analytical approaches in IA studies.3
The principal aspects of the statute that we appraise deal with
meaningful public participation, knowledge development (and, in par-
ticular, using multiple knowledge bases), follow-up programs, and con-
tinuous improvement (including legislative review and evolution). The
appraisal relies on best practices identied in the literature and recom-
mendations made by experts4 during the development and review of the
2 SC 2019, c 28, s 1.
3 Thomas B Fischer et al, “Learning Through EC Directive Based SEA in Spatial Plan-
ning? Evidence from the Brunswick Region in Germany” (2009) 29:6 Environmental
Impact Assessment Review 421; Luis E Sánchez & Ross Mitchell, “Conceptualizing
Impact Assessment as a Learning Process” (2017) 62 Environmental Impact Assessment
Review 195; Cruz et al, above note 1.
4 Expert Panel for the Review of Environmental Assessment Processes, Building Common
Ground: A New Vision for Impact Assessment in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Environ-
mental Assessment Agency, 2017), online (pdf): Government of Canada www.canada.ca/

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