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Making Waves

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Analysis of Canadian water politics by the Council of Canadians' national water campaigner.

H2O in #elxn42: Your guide to water and the federal election

| September 26, 2015
Photo: Flickr: theo_reth

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With the election three weeks away, water has barely made it on the radar of federal political parties. Want to learn what the different parties' positions are on key water issues? What should you ask parties at all-candidates debates or when they come knocking at your door? This blog gives an overview of some key water issues, parties' positions and includes questions to ask local candidates at debates, when they come to your door or even in the Twitterverse. Leading up to October 19, it's up to us to make sure federal parties know the importance of safeguarding water.

Water and the economy

Days before the federal leaders debate on the economy, former University of Alberta scientist David Schindler challenged federal party leaders to link water with the economy. Schindler told the Calgary Herald , "The first thing we ought to do is pressure our federal and provincial politicians for some regulations on everything from population development to water use. We are still the world's most profligate water users...Second, we need those climate regulations now … if we don't get on top of this in the next 10 years, we are going to see incredible suffering."

After the debate, the Globe and Mail printed the article In Globe debate, leaders ignore Canada's No. 1 resource: water. The article points out, "So many opportunities to bring up what should be the topic du jour – yet no one touched it apart from a quick shot from Mr. Trudeau, the Liberal Leader, at Mr. Mulcair over the NDP Leader's time as Quebec's environment minister, which Mr. Mulcair instantly dismissed."

The article adds, "That is regrettable, given that the Prairies are coming through a drought, given that Northern California is on fire, given news this week that Lake Powell, which supplies water to Nevada, Arizona and California, has lost more than half its water – and given, most significantly, that the United States is talking about renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty, which, for 51 years, has ruled over the dams and hydroelectric projects of the Pacific Coast's most important waterway."

Water is a critical part of our economies. The GDP of the Great lakes region is roughly $5 trillion and if it were a country, it would rank as the third largest economy. The 1.6 million jobs created in this region often depend on clean, reliable sources of water.

(Photo of Fraser River in Hope, B.C.,CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Junichi Ishito modified)

In 2011, the commercial fishing industry in British Columbia had a wholesale value of $845.3 million. Low water levels resulted in dead salmon on Vancouver Island this summer. The province also banned fishing throughout most of the southern part of B.C. including the Fraser River due to historic levels of drought.

Last year, UNESCO announced that they wanted a buffer zone around Gros Morne National Park and previously indicated that Gros Morne could lose its World Heritage Status if fracking was approved. Tourism is a $1 billion industry in Newfoundland and Labrador and provides sustainable jobs to people in the province. The National Farmer’s Union has warned about the dangers of fracking to water, food and farmland and has called for a moratorium on fracking.

Water and environmental protection are often pitted against job creation, particularly when it comes to resource development. This is a huge myth given that only 1% of jobs in Canada were in the oil, gas and mining sectors in 2013, totally roughly 226,020 jobs. The industries that actually produce the most jobs are trade (15%), health care and social assistance (12%), manufacturing (10%), professional, scientific and technical services (8%), construction (7%) and education services (7%).

If parties are serious about job creation, what we need to be focusing on is green jobs. Blue Green Canada’s report, More Bang for Our Buck, found that for every two jobs created in oil and gas, fifteen jobs could be created in clean energy.

To read more facts that dispel the myth that you can’t protect the environment and have jobs, click here.

Water and sanitation in Indigenous communities

At any given time there are well over 100 drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities. Heading into September, there were approximately 160 Drinking Water Advisories in effect in 116 First Nations communities across Canada, including British Columbia. Some of these communities have been under drinking water advisory for 5, 10 or even nearing 20 years.

Take Shoal Lake 40 First Nation for example. Since 1914, the community has been forcibly displaced by the federal government in order to provide the City of Winnipeg with direct access to drinking water. Energy campaigner Andrea Harden-Donahue has pointed out, "Cut off from the mainland by a Winnipeg-built canal, the community has access only to non-potable tap water and must rely on imported bottled water. This isolation has constrained normal development, imperiled the lives of members walking across thin ice, and restricted the First Nation's access to essential services ever since. Shoal Lake 40 has been on a boil water advisory for over 18 years."

Chief Stewart Redsky decried, "For 100 years, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has had to pay so Winnipeg could get fresh water" when the Conservative government continued to refuse to commit to the construction of Freedom Road, an access road Shoal Lake 40 First Nation community needs for survival and sustainability.

The Green Party has repeatedly called on the Conservative Government for to end the community's forced isolation. In July, both Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair  committed to funding the Freedom Road to Shoal Lake 40. While this is a step in the right direction, the 2011 federally commissioned National Assessments as well as the Alternative Federal Budget call for $4.7 billion over 10 years to  ensure that water and wastewater systems are able to grow in Indigenous communities.

The Conservative Party: Year after year and despite repeated requests, the Conservative government has allocated a mere $165 million for drinking water in First Nations communities. This is inadequate for ensuring clean, safe water and sanitation for Indigenous communities.

The Green Party commits to working towards a nation-to-nation partnership and recognizing Indigenous rights and title. Leader Elizabeth May has declared that "facing the scandal of inadequate drinking water" is an urgent priority for the party.

The Liberal Party: In response to a World Water letter from the Council of Canadians, the Liberal Party wrote, "In  November  2011,  the  Liberal  Party  of  Canada  sought,  and  received,  unanimous support on the motion to protect and ensure clean drinking water for all Canadians, including First Nations." There are proposals of implementing Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) for Atlantic First Nations. In his speech to the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships last November, Trudeau also points to First Nation communities as an opportunity for P3s: "We can also fix the shameful lack of investment in our First Nations communities, because this isn't just about laying new roads or putting down tracks; it's about all of us, the country we want to live in, and the one we want to pass down to our children." See the Water and Wastewater  Infrastructure section below for more about the dangers of P3s.

The New Democratic Party: In Mulcair's Plan, A New Era: Nation-to-Nation, the NDP commit to establishing a nation-to-nation, implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and improving essential physical infrastructure including and drinking water facilities.

Questions to ask local candidates and party leaders:

- 73% of water systems in First Nations communities are at medium to high risk. Will you commit to the $4.7 billion needed to ensure Indigenous communities have adequate water and wastewater services?
- (How) will you implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the human right to water in Indigenous communities?
Gutting of environmental legislation and muzzling scientists
In the last ten years, the Harper government has slashed critical funding and safeguards for water protection. In Blue Betrayal: The Harper government's assault on Canada's freshwater, Maude Barlow describes the Conservative government's record of gutting water protections.

Under the Harper government, a total of $102.1 million will have been cut from water research and programs from 2011–12 to planned spending in 2016–17. The muzzling of scientists in Canada have made international headlines.


Gwich'in ultra-marathoner Caribou Legs ran from across Canada this summer to draw attention the the 99% of lakes and rivers no longer protected under the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The run was supported by the Council of Canadians, as part of the larger #Pledge2Protect campaign which calls for Members of Parliament to reinstate environmental protections for all lakes and rivers.

To read more about the changes to the Navigation Protection Act, click here. To read about, the cuts to water research and programs, click here.

The Conservative Party: The Harper government passed sweeping changes to environmental legislation in budget bills in 2012. 99% of lakes and rivers in Canada no longer have federal protection under the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The Fisheries Act, once Canada's strongest piece of environmental legislation, no longer protects fish and fish habitat. 3000 environmental assessments were canceled when the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was changed. Many risky projects were given the green light without federal scrutiny.

The Green Party: Leader Elizabeth May was extremely outspoken about the cuts and changes to environmental programs and legislation. The Green Party's platform promises to "rebuild the public science capacity lost during the past decade by providing $75-million annually to add critical science capacity to Environment Canada, Health Canada, Parks Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans."

The Liberal Party: Water Critic Francis Scarpaleggia spoke out against the delisting of the 99% of lakes and rivers. Trudeau has promised to restore credibility to environmental assessments and protect wildlife and waterways.

The New Democratic Party: Leader Thomas Mulcair has committed to establishing a thorough, credible and efficient system of environmental assessments. The NDP launched a campaign to reinstate protections to all the lakes and rivers in Canada, starting with the Canadian Heritage Rivers. Since April 2013, NDP MPs have introduced several private member's bills to restore waterway protections.

Questions to ask local candidates and party leaders:

- Will you commit to reinstating changes to other environmental legislation and reallocating the more than $100 million cut from critical water research and programs?
- What changes will your party make to federal legislation and water research to ensure that water is adequately protected.

Extreme energy in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin

In Liquid Pipeline: Extreme energy's threat to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, Council of Canadians Chairperson Maude Barlow outlines the web of pipelines, refineries and oil shipments that threaten the Great Lakes.

She warns, "The chemicals used in these fracking operations pose a direct threat to the water of the Great Lakes as well as the health of millions people who depend of them for drinking water."

Oil refineries are not only energy intensive but also water intensive.The federal government's push to expand the Alberta tar sands will affect the Great Lakes Basin because of the many pipeline and transport projects of bitumen.

St. Lawrence River

Photo: Source (modified)

Last year, Suncor transported the first tankers carrying bitumen on the St. Lawrence River without any federal environmental assessment.

The Conservative Party: Under Harper's watch, the government increased limits on the size of tankers permitted from 32 metres to 44 metres wide on the St. Lawrence River.

The Green Party has committed to defending the St. Lawrence River and placing a moratorium on drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Harper government only allocated $8 million of new funding for Great Lakes protection each year, and even no new funding in some years.

The Liberal Party: While the Liberal Party has renewed its commitment to the protection of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River Basin, more details are needed.

The New Democratic Party has said energy projects  impacting  the  Great  Lakes  and  St.  Lawrence  need  full,  prior, informed  consent  of  the  local  communities  and  an  assessment  that considers broader regional and national considerations. It has committed to fighting for an  environmental  review  process that achieves these goals.

To read about the parties positions on pipelines, click here

Questions to ask local candidates and party leaders:

- How will you protect the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway from extreme energy projects?
Fracking and transport of Liquefied Fracked Gas

Communities have been raising a number of serious concerns about fracking including the risk of drinking water contamination. A US study shows that drinking water in Pennsylvania was contaminated by fracking. There are also risks to climate change, public health, ecosystems and wildlife. The potential for earthquakes and the lack of safe methods to dispose of fracking wastewater are other key threats associated with fracking.

There has been a wave of moratoria in Eastern Canada including in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

There are 19 proposals to build Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), also known as Liquefied Fracked Gas (LFG), terminals along the Pacific Coast. LFG pipelines and terminals pose a risk to community safety, drinking water sources, marine life, salmon and other fish

A 2014 EKOS Research poll found 70% of Canadians support a moratorium on fracking until it is scientifically proven to be safe. This support for a moratorium cuts across party lines: nearly half of Conservative voters support a moratorium. The highest support for a moratoria came from NDP voters: 87% of them support a national moratorium as do 78% of Liberal voters.

The Conservative Party promotes fracking and even dismissed the concerns raised by Council of Canadian Academies report Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada, a report that the Conservatives commissioned themselves.

The Green Party is the only party that supports a national moratorium on fracking.

The Liberal Party passed the National Environmental Assessment of Fracking resolution at 2014 convention but do not oppose fracking in principle.

The New Democratic Party calls for mandatory disclosure of fracking fluid components and a review of water legislation protections, but doesn't support fracking ban.

Questions to ask local candidates and party leaders:

- 70% of Canadians support a national moratorium on fracking until it is scientifically proven to be safe. Will your party support a national moratorium on fracking?

Water and wastewater infrastructure

Canada's public water and wastewater infrastructure is aging. More than 40% of Canada's wastewater infrastructure is rated in fair to poor condition today. Our drinking water infrastructure is in better shape, with only 14% in fair to poor condition. Yet the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates the cost of replacing systems graded "poor" or "very poor" to be $15 billion. The Canada needs a long-term plan to maintain and replace water infrastructure across the country. According to the Alternative Federal Budget, $2.6 billion is needed annually for the next six years to replace the "poor" or "very poor" systems and ensure that other systems are maintained and upgraded as needed.

(Photo: Flickr: oxygeon)

Yet the Harper government has promoted Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) as a solution to municipalities infrastructure needs. The P3 Canada fund, created in 2009 by the Harper government, requires municipalities to enter into P3 agreements with a for-profit company if they want federal funding for infrastructure projects over $100 million. P3s are more costly and can increase rates, decrease the quality of a service, result in job cuts and eliminate accountability and transparency. P3 contracts are lengthy contracts – often lasting up to 30 years - and are frequently negotiated behind closed doors. They often violate principles of local democracy.

The Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs have been discussing a P3 model for the 33 First Nation communities in the Atlantic with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. This raises serious concerns about the potential for increased water prices and access to drinking water by First Nations who are already struggling with access. It also presents a threat to sovereignty and local democracy of Indigenous communities and potential for trade challenges if any wanted to cancel a P3 agreement.

Read more Political Director Brent Patterson's article about how the P3 Fund forces privatization here.

The Conservative Party: The federal budget this year mentioned the $1.25 billion announced for all infrastructures under Public-Private Partnership model from the 2013 budget and allocates an additional $750 million to the P3 Fund in 2017.

The Green Party has raised concerns about the ability of P3s to generate the financing needed, the Greens has proposed has proposed encouraging RRSP tax treatment for investments made in municipal bonds and continues commitment to funding water and wastewater treatment facilities. 

The Liberal Party: Party Leader Justin Trudeau has committed he will double infrastructure spending.  Last November, he gave a speech to the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships where he promoted risky Public-Private Partnership (P3s) as a solution to infrastructure needs.

The New Democratic Party: The NDP have raised concerns about P3s and their threat local sovereignty. In the past they have asserted that water is a public resource, not a commodity and promote investment in public infrastructure to expand and improve our water and wastewater systems.

Questions to ask local candidates and party leaders:

- What is your position on Public-Private Partnerships for water and wastewater services?
- P3s are more costly and can increase rates, decrease the quality of a service and result in job cuts. How will your party ensure that water and wastewater services are publically funded and community run?

Canada needs a National Water Policy

Canada is in urgent need of a National Water Policy that recognizes the human right to water and protects our water sources. The existing Federal Water Policy is from 1987 and badly needs updating. Since then, tar sands development has expanded and horizontal, multi-stage fracking has increased exponentially. These and other current water issues must be included in a new National Water Policy.

Recent articles in the Globe and Mail, Yahoo News, and the Vancouver Sun signal that the debates on bulk water exports are resurfacing - and not only because of Thomas Mulcair’s comments as environment minister in Quebec. A National Water Policy must include a ban on bulk water exports.


Specifically, the National Water Policy must:

  • Establish national enforceable drinking water standards.
  • Recognize water as a human right.
  • Respects Indigenous water rights.
  • Declare surface and ground water a public trust.
  • Create a national public water infrastructure fund.
  • Provide a strategy to address water pollution including reinstating changes to environmental legislation, removal of the Schedule 2 loophole, a ban on fracking and a just transition away from tar sands and all fossil fuels.
  • Invest in water and wastewater infrastructure, particularly in First Nations communities.
  • Ban bulk water exports.
  • Exclude water from NAFTA, CETA and all future trade agreements.

For more detail, read the water chapter of the Alternative Federal Budget.

Questions to ask local candidates and party leaders:

- Will you develop a National Water Policy that recognizes water as a human right and Indigenous water rights, invests in water and wastewater infrastructure and transitions away from tar sands and other fossil fuels?
- Do you support a ban on bulk water exports?

Take Action for Water!

There are many more critical water issues that are not covered in this guide including nutrient runoff from agriculture, transporting oil by rail and muzzling of scientists. Leading up to October 19, take action to protect water by learning more about these issues. Be sure to ask your local candidates and party leaders about their positions on water issues that are important to you. Ask them at all-candidates debates or when they come to your door. Write a Letter to the Editor or use Twitter or Facebook to ask them these questions and let them know water is important to you. It is up to us to make sure water is protected for our generation and for future generations!


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