Endangered Species in Canada: The Federal Government

This article is a follow-up to An Introduction to Endangered Species in Canada and focuses on how the federal government is legally required to protect endangered species including commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The next article in this series will focus on federal programs and initiatives working to help us meet the SDGs. To find any important definitions, please see An Introduction to Endangered Species in Canada.

Federal Legislation

When it comes to the protection and recovery of endangered species in Canada, legislation and its enforcement is incredibly crucial. There are a few truly integral pieces of federal legislation, such as the Species At Risk Act (SARA), the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk (“Accord”), and the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSPSR).

The Species At Risk Act (SARA)

In June 2003, SARA was first proclaimed and established as 1 of 3 parts of the Government of Canada’s strategy for protecting species at risk. This 3-part strategy also includes commitments under the Accord, and activities under the HSPSR. The Act:

  • Complements the existing laws and agreements providing legal protection for Canada’s wildlife species and conservation of biological diversity
  • Aims to prevent the extinction of wildlife species, and ensure the necessary steps are in place for species recovery
  • Recognizes that the protection of wildlife species is a joint responsibility and that all Canadians have a role to play in the protection of wildlife
  • Applies to all federal lands in Canada, all wildlife species listed as being at risk, and their critical habitat

The purpose of this Act is to prevent Canada’s indigenous species, subspecies, and distinct populations from becoming extirpated or extinct, to provide for the recovery of endangered or threatened species, and encourage the management of other species to prevent them from becoming at risk. More specifically, this Act: 

  • Established the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as an independent body of experts responsible for assessing and identifying species at risk;
  • Required that the best available knowledge to be used to define long and short-term objectives in a recovery strategy and action plan;
  • Create prohibitions to protect listed threatened and endangered species and their critical habitat;
  • Recognized that compensation may be required to ensure fairness following the imposition of the critical habitat prohibitions;
  • Be consistent with Aboriginal and treaty rights and respect the authority of other federal ministers and provincial governments. 

The Act provides federal legislation to prevent wildlife species from becoming extinct and to provide for their recovery. Under SARA, different federal agencies have different responsibilities and levels of authority. In general, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change is responsible for the overall administration, except for situations in which the Act gives responsibility to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. We have established the following graphic depicting which federal agencies and special councils are responsible for certain actions and activities relating to wildlife species at risk under the Species at Risk Act

Figure 1 – Authorities & Responsibilities Under SARA

The Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk 

Federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for wildlife commit to a national approach for the protection of species at risk. The goal is to prevent species in Canada from becoming extinct as a consequence of human activity. In October 1996, these ministers created the Accord, which lays out basic principles of species conservation as well as a number of commitments to protect species at risk. Under the Accord, the Ministers recognize that intergovernmental cooperation is crucial to the conservation and protection of species at risk, that they must play a leadership role, and that complementary legislation and programs are essential to provide effective protection for species at risk and their habitats throughout the country. In September 1998, the ministers strengthened provisions of the Accord by placing greater emphasis and recognition on stewardship. Under the Accord, 6 provinces (NS, NB, QB, ON, MB, NL) have specific legislation to protect species at risk. Several provinces have since amended existing wildlife laws to deal explicitly with species at risk, while other provinces and territories are working on developing legislation. 

The Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) administers the Accord. Under the Accord, ministers agreed to coordinate their activities through CESCC. The Council, established in 1998, is composed of the federal ministers of the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, and Heritage, in addition to provincial and territorial ministers who are responsible for the conservation and management of wildlife species. The role of CESCC is to:

  1. Provide general direction on the activities of COSEWIC, the preparation of recovery strategies and the preparation and implementation of action plans; and 
  2. Coordinate the activities of the various governments represented on the Council relating to the protection of species at risk. 

The Council held its inaugural meeting in 1999 and has met once a year since. A major objective at these annual meetings is to review progress in implementing commitments under the Accord.

More specifically, the Accord recognizes that:

  • Species do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries & cooperation is crucial to the conservation & protection of species at risk;
  • The conservation of species at risk is a key component of the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, which aims to conserve biological diversity in Canada;
  • Governments have a leadership role in providing sound information & appropriate measures for the conservation & protection of species at risk & the effective involvement of all Canadians is essential;
  • Species conservation initiatives will be met through complementary federal, provincial & territorial legislation, regulations, policies & programs;
  • Stewardship activities contributing to the conservation of species must be supported as an integral element in preventing species from becoming at risk; and
  • Lack of full scientific certainty must not be used as a reason to delay measures to avoid or minimize threats to species at risk.

Commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals

Figure 2 – SDG 14
Figure 3 – SDG 15

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were first established and agreed upon by many of the world’s leaders, with the deadline year of 2030. This timeline allowed for 15 years worth of dedicated action by the number of governments involved, to achieve the ideal sustainable and equitable outcomes for all countries. Two of the 17 goals focus on efforts relating to endangered species; SDG #14 – Life Below Water and SDG #15 – Life on Land.

Since 2015, there have been a number of governmental and organizational documents and reports relating to Canada’s efforts and progress on the goals, such as Canada’s National Strategy for the Sustainable Development Goals, and Where Canada Stands, a Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report. Each of these documents and reports is vital to the understanding and analysis of the progress being made per each goal for our country for specific time periods. One of the most integral documents is the Government of Canada’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS).

Every 3 years the federal government releases a new FSDS, including the government’s sustainable development goals and targets, as required by the Federal Sustainable Development Act, with the most recent one being released in 2019. Under this Act, the legal framework is provided for the FSDS, which sets out the Government of Canada’s environmental sustainability priorities, establishes goals and targets, and identifies actions for their achievement. More specifically, it outlines what will be done across the board to “promote clean growth, ensure healthy ecosystems, and build safe, secure, and sustainable communities” over a 3-year period.

Under this most recent version of the FSDS (2019-2022), 13 aspirational goals were established, such as FSDS Goal: Healthy Wildlife Populations (SDG 14: Life below water; SDG 15: Life on land) to illustrate the ideal for Canada. While the 2019-2022 FSDS does not contain current data, it does include an online progress reporting tool with data from the previous FSDS (2017-2019). However, unfortunately, much of the data has not yet been updated for 2019, making the information already over 2 years old. This makes it more difficult to know where we are exactly in terms of our progress.

However, according to the most recent data available, our progress on the FSDS goals relating to endangered species are as follows:

Conserve 10% of coastal & marine areas through networks of protected areas & other effective area-based conservation measures by 2020. The most recent data available shows that as of the end of 2019, 13.8% of Canada’s coastal & marine areas were conserved through a network of marine protected areas & other effective area-based conservation measures, including 8.9% in protected areas. On track
Manage & harvest all fish & invertebrate stocks & aquatic plants sustainably, by applying ecosystem-based approaches by 2020. Of the 177 major fish & invertebrate stocks assessed in 2018, 96% were harvested at sustainable levels. Attention required
Conserve at least 17% of terrestrial areas & inland water through networks of protected areas & other effective area-based conservation measures, by 2020. The most recent data available shows that, as of the end of 2019, 12.1% of Canada’s terrestrial areas & inland water were conserved through a network of protected areas & other effective area-based conservation measures, including 11.4% in protected areas.Attention required
Maintain & improve the condition of 90% of ecological integrity indicators in national parks by 2019. The most recent data available shows that of the 119 national park ecosystems assessed in 2019, 86% were maintained or improved. Attention required
Ensure species that are secure remain secure & populations of species at risk listed under federal law exhibit trends that are consistent with recovery strategies & management plans by 2020. As of November 2019, out of 130 species at risk listed under federal law (for which trends could be determined) 55 (42%) showed progress towards population & distribution objectives. Most species (8,115 of 8,145) that could be examined for changes in national extinction risk level between 2010-2015 did not change. 9 had genuine improvements in status, while the status of 21 deteriorated. Attention required
Ensure 59% of managed migratory bird species have population sizes within an acceptable range by 2025.In 2016, of the 358 bird species with adequate monitoring data, 57% had populations within an acceptable range. New data not available
Provide a stable or improved level of biodiversity in agricultural working landscapes to ensure efficient management of water & soil quality for food production by 2030. Unavailable New data not available
Increase or maintain the number of Canadians visiting parks & green spaces & increase participation in biodiversity conservation activities relative to a 2010 baseline by 2020. UnavailableOn track
Table 1 – FSDS Progress Relating to Species at Risk

This progress, along with the progress analyzed by us in our October 2020 article, The Sustainable Development Goals Canada: Are We On Track? (see Table 2) illustrates how Canada still has significant progress to make when it comes to its goals relating to species at risk and their habitats.

Table 2 – SDG Progress – Canada

As you can see, Canada has continued to face significant and/or major challenges in a number of areas, having only succeeded at the achievement of 2 out of 17 of the Goals – SDG #4 Quality Education and SDG #7 Affordable & Clean Energy. As illustrated, both SDGs 14 & 15 continue to face significant challenges.


Overall, there are a number of federal documents and legislation that are vital to the protection and recovery of Canada’s species at risk. While our nation has a number of programs and policies in place, in 2021 we still remain too far away from meeting our national goals under our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. If we hope to achieve these goals by 2030, efforts and funding for these efforts must be increased, and soon.

Keep an eye out for our next article on endangered species in Canada and the specific programs and projects being carried out in an effort to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

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