Into the Weeds: Why Manitoba is Ditching its Pesticide Ban and What it Means for the Rest of Canada

At a Legislature press conference, Wharton emphasized these changes were prompted by significant public dissatisfaction with the existing rules. “Stakeholders and members of the public raised several concerns about the original legislation,” he said, “including increased costs and…the lack of effectiveness of current products on the market.” A provincial survey, he noted, revealed that 70 percent of respondents wanted the current pesticide law changed.

“An increase in usable green spaces”: In announcing the repeal of his province’s pesticide ban, Jeff Wharton, Manitoba’s Minister of Environment, Climate and Parks, (left) cited increased costs and public displeasure as reasons for the change; pictured on right, downtown Winnipeg.

Such a groundswell of opposition is no surprise to Kam Blight, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM), which encompasses all of Manitoba’s 137 municipalities including Winnipeg. “We are certainly happy with the province’s decision,” Blight says. “Every single municipality across the province has seen their weed control costs skyrocket since 2014.” Given the experience in Steinbach and elsewhere, out-of-control weed growth in public spaces has become “a nasty problem,” he remarks in an interview.

In addition to the disappointing look of lawns and roadways across the province, Blight points to some important practical and economic implications as well. When not acting as president of the AMM, Blight runs a native grass seed farm near Portage La Prairie. And from this perspective, he says the pesticide ban “has been very negative for the agricultural industry. When you consider how many roadways and parks border on farmland, weed control affects farmers as well. It’s been a massive issue.” With towns or cities no longer able to effectively kill weeds on their own green spaces, neighboring farmers’ fields are also suffering as the weeds spread. Weed control is about more than just looks.

“A massive issue”: Kam Blight, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, (top) says the reversal of the pesticide ban will save municipal governments money and protect farmland from blowing weeds while Dave Hinton, chair of government relations for the Manitoba Nursery Landscape Association, (bottom) appreciates the common sense approach of the changes.

Another problematic aspect, according to Dave Hinton, chair of government relations for the Manitoba Nursery Landscape Association, reads in the provincial ban’s arbitrariness. Unlike other provinces that banned all use of cosmetic pesticides, Hinton points out that Manitoba only prohibited their application on lawns and grass; many not-quite-forbidden products are still sold in retail stores for use in gardens.

This legislative quirk placed chemical pesticides out of reach of lawncare companies, but left them available for use on lawns by homeowners prepared lie at their local hardware store about why they wanted the product, as a CBC-TV investigation revealed. “It put the professionals at a disadvantage,” says Hinton, who owns Weedman lawncare franchises in Winnipeg and Brandon. He questions why trained employees should be prevented from using such products, but not untutored homeowners. “We’ve been fighting for seven years to get some common sense on this,” he snaps.

Discontentment over the ban has been building since the legislation took effect during the final term of Premier Greg Selinger’s NDP government. His Progressive Conservative successor, Brian Pallister, announced a review of the legislation almost as soon as he won office in 2016 – then inexplicably sat on the file for nearly six years. The consultation process’s results were never even publicly released until Wharton, a member of new Premier Heather Stefanson’s cabinet, included them as a backgrounder to his announcement last month.

While no reason was given for the long delay, it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of clarity. Of more than 2,100 comments the government received in 2016 – the vast majority of which came from individuals, not businesses – fewer than 10 percent said they considered the law to be having a positive impact on the province. Over 1,400 respondents said the impact was negative. And 70 percent wanted the ban either scaled back or eliminated. It appears Manitoba’s legion of dandelion-haters is large and loud.

What About the Children?

While news of the repeal appears to enjoy broad support throughout Manitoba, not everyone outside the province is pleased. Laura Bowman is a staff lawyer at Ecojustice, an environmental law charity based in Toronto formerly known as the Sierra Legal Defense Fund. Bowman’s organization has participated in numerous legal challenges against pesticide use dating back to the first ban enacted in the town of Hudson, Quebec in 1991.

Ecojustice has been active for decades in the fight against cosmetic pesticide use at all levels of government, says staff lawyer Laura Bowman.

That case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2001 and established the right of municipalities to set their own rules for pesticide use that ignore or supersede federal regulations. This crusade spread to the provincial level when Quebec became the first to ban cosmetic pesticides in 2003. Relentless activist pressure over the ensuing decade motivated most other provinces to follow suit, including Ontario in 2008 and Manitoba in 2014.

“Since the early 2000s, there has been a big push to ban cosmetic pesticides at the federal, provincial and municipal levels,” Bowman observes. “And these bans have been quite effective at reducing pesticide use.” But now, she warns, “We are seeing the industry lobbying to roll back these pesticide bans because they were effective.” From Bowman’s perspective it is a manipulative pesticide industry, not a wide cross-section of homeowners, municipalities and businesses, that is behind Manitoba’s change in policy. As for the observation that homeowners themselves appear keen to use these products to beautify their own property, she dismisses the entire concept as pure frivolity: “I question the objective of creating these pristine green places where children can’t play.”

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