Environmental students make an impact

The charged battle of environmental activists versus developers is the picture the media often portrays when industrial development occurs.

But there is another side: that of policy and sometimes legislated processes related to the environmental effects of projects which must be followed by developers before a particular development gets the green light.

Providing education and training in these processes is the focus of Concordia’s one-year graduate Diploma in Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA).

The director of the program, Professor Monica Mulrennan, says it’s been a long time coming for this relatively new program, but with the EIA act implemented in 1995 by the federal government, a demand for experts trained in impact assessment followed.

The idea behind the program, Mulrennan explains, is to provide students with the opportunity to work in this field by obtaining a background in both the social aspects as well as biophysical concerns in EIA.

“Up until now there hasn’t been that many professionals that have been specifically trained in EIA. The legislation, the policy and procedures of EIA are quite complex, so our students are given a very good training of the processes and various procedures involved.”

The program is a 30-credit, one -year diploma which includes a compulsory set of courses on EIA concepts and methods, a selection of social science and biophysical courses, and an elective option which includes an internship position with an agency involved in EIA.

Applicants have varied backgrounds, including undergraduate degrees in geography, biology, political science and engineering.

Veronique Vendette, who has a background in biology and a motivation to change environmental policies, decided to apply to the program this year.

“If as an individual, the person wants to work to change the way developmental projects are planned and implemented, in order to have a sustainable society in the long run, then the program is for them,” she says.

“It is not for everybody that wants to work in the environmental field, but again it is oriented towards minimizing the impacts that development has on our environment.”

Real life issues only!

Almost at the end of her first semester in the DEIA program, Vendette reports that she has already learned a great deal about the workings of EIA as well as gaining an appreciation for real world experiences through case study analysis.

“It is important to work on real life issues, rather then made up examples, because you can grasp the material better.

The Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course [for example] is focusing on the present road diversion project in the West Island.

The city wants to have a boulevard go through the Bois-de-Liesse Nature-Parc, destroying the little green space we have left on the Island.”

Unique Quebec situation

In Quebec, the assessment plan is quite unique, involving public opinion hearings where recommendations can be made by the Bureau Audience Publique de l’Environnement (BAPE) to the government, who then decides if a project proceeds.

Impact assessments are performed on all types of development proposals, ranging from the small-scale projects such as a road extension, to the large-scale such as a hydro dam or offshore oil development.

The difference lies mainly in the procedure followed. “Most of the small, usual developments that occur…will just be screened and [meet] the basic requirements that are legislated,” says Mulrennan.

“Many of the larger scale projects are subjected to the full environmental impact assessment…these [EIAs] have very complex requirements on the developer…and they have to [meet] these requirements.

Then on the basis of the requirements, a decision is taken as to whether this project should go ahead.”

Professor Kathy Roulet, who has a background in environmental assessment working for the Ontario government, understands the political process that developments must take.

“Its very contemporary as far as EIA processes around the world go,” says Roulet. “If the project is large, after they have done their EIA statement, there is public comment…One of the last steps would be the BAPE hearing…[they] would make a recommendation to the minister and then the government makes a final decision.”

Roulet has worked in determining what jurisdiction the legislation was applied to a project. “I worked on… trying to come to a determination of whether the project was subject to the Federal or Provincial Act,” she says. “A project that’s still in the news even though I worked on it in the 80’s, is the Red Hill Creek expressway in Hamilton. There was ongoing discussion until up to about 18 months ago on whether it was subject to the federal or provincial legislation, or indeed the municipal environmental assessment requirement.”


To prepare for work similar to this, the program sends out students on an internship option following completion of core courses with a company or the government, which has already secured some graduates with work in Health Canada and some private law firms.

Working for an organization like the Canadian Development Agency or conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, or Earth Watch are some of the options that appeal to Vendette, who would like to do outdoor work as an internship.

“I would also like to do some fieldwork, just because I love being outside, and learning more about ecosystems, and the GIS expertise I will gain will be extremely valuable.”

With much competition in the EIA field, an internship of her choice might not be readily available, but her interest in changing legislature from within the system remains.

“I want to change our current lifestyles, and it is as important to change it at the individual level than at the policy level.”

Concern for the environment is certainly a prerequisite in this field, but Roulet warns that the political reality cannot be avoided in impact assessment.

“Any kind of decision making, whether it is in environmental assessment or EIA…is all done in a political reality. No decision is perfect, no decision can be made in a totally sterile context, void of any political realities.”

Clearly, the issue of a development’s green content involves more grey area than black and white, and involves details that the environmental activist versus developer picture simply can’t do justice to.


For more information, please contact Annie Pollock in the geography department by phone at 848-2424 ext. 2050 or by e-mail at [email protected] or go to web site at http://artsci-ccwin.concordia.ca/geog/deia/


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