Closure of provincial Conservation Library renews calls for end to balanced budget legislation

The province announced in September it would close the provincial Conservation and Environment Library, located in the VIA Rail Station on Main Street. Stefan Tkacz

The province’s decision to close the provincial Conservation and Environment Library is based on poor policy, critics charge.

Announced in September, the library, located in the VIA Rail Station on Main Street, will close down by the end of the year.

The library was the only full and intact public record of environmental licences in the province and the only registry which complies fully with the Environment Act, says Gaile Whelan Enns, director of Manitoba Wildlands, a non-profit environmental public research organization that relies on the library.

“There was no notice, public discussion or any effort to make contact with users before making this decision,” Whelan Enns told The Uniter.

The library is a partnership between the province’s conservation and water stewardship departments, along with Environment Canada and the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, according to the province’s website.

Jean-Marc Prevost, spokesperson for Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh, said the closure is intended to improve public access to library resources, including working to create centralized access to those resources by partnering with the Manitoba Legislative Library.

However, public access to environmental records is essential to having citizen oversight of issues affecting the environment in Manitoba, Whelan Enns said.

The location of the Legislative Library is not accessible to the public, she said.

“The public library collection of the registry is hampered by a lack of knowledgeable curators,” Whelan Enns said.

According to Prevost, the province plans to create electronic access to the registry allowing access to the research and technical reports.

Under the Tomorrow Now plan, an eight-year environmental strategy the NDP announced in June, the minister wants an online system that will reach out to Manitobans in all communities to strengthen the current system of paper reports, Prevost said.

“The Minister wants Manitoba to become a centre of eco-literacy and his first step is to close the library?” questioned Whelan Enns. “Accessing large charts and graphs, as well as engineering documents and maps, on computer doesn’t make sense.”

There was no notice, public discussion or any effort to make contact with users before making this decision.

Gaile Whelan Enns, director, Manitoba Wildlands

Closing the library will only save about $25,000, Whelan Enns added.

According to Lynne Fernandez, an economist from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the decision to close the library stems from misguided economic policy on the part of the province.

The province is choosing to not fund the library because of its adherence to balanced-budget legislation, introduced under former Progressive Conservative Premier Gary Filmon in 1995.

Balanced-budget legislation removes the government’s ability to go into deficit or to raise taxes without a referendum, while having to pay down the province’s debt by law.

These tools are just as necessary as lowering taxes and running a surplus, she said.

“We need all of these economic levers to use in combination when dealing with all economic circumstances,” Fernandez said.

“It is a stupid piece of legislation. Prohibiting borrowing money when needed is crazy.”

According to Fernandez, the unwillingness of the NDP to change this policy is the result of neoliberal thinking that markets can solve most, if not all, societal problems. The NDP used to oppose the legislation and find ways around it when it wants to, she added

“The NDP need to take more chances. They are scared of election punishment. They need to stop policy posturing and riding the wave of popular discourse.”

The province did not respond to questions concerning the fate of the two staff, nor how much Environment Canada or the Council of Environment Ministers contribute to the library, by press time.

Published in Volume 67, Number 13 of The Uniter (November 28, 2012)

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