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What will Trudeau (un)do to protect freshwater in Canada?

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In March 2015, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow released a report -- Blue Betrayal: The Harper government's assault on Canada's freshwater -- that examined then-prime minister Stephen Harper's record on freshwater protection. Even then she highlighted, "It is important to state that the Harper government is not the first to have neglected Canada's freshwater heritage. Successive federal Liberal and Conservative governments have bought into the myth of water abundance and have allowed serious deterioration of our lakes, rivers and groundwater."

Barlow stated that, "The Harper government has taken clear steps to gut the regulatory framework that -- modest as it was -- offered some protections to lakes, rivers and groundwater in Canada, and turned policy and practice upside down to advance the interests of the energy industry."

Specifically, she noted among our top concerns:

1. The Harper government allowed a loophole in the Metal Mining Effluent Regulation of the Fisheries Act to give the green light to mining companies to dump their toxic waste into lakes. Environment Canada has released the names of 29 natural water bodies that mining companies have applied to use as toxic waste dumps.

2. The government further gutted the Fisheries Act by allowing the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to authorize the dumping of deleterious substances into water inhabited by fish as long as that deposit does not kill more than 50 per cent of the fish at 100 per cent concentration over a 96-hour period.

3. The Harper government modified the Navigable Waters Protection Act exempting pipelines, which are a huge threat to Canada's waterways. Major pipelines and interprovincial power lines can now cross over and under more than 31,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers without federal scrutiny. The few remaining protections of navigable waters have been transferred to the National Energy Board.

4. Harper also weakened the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act which had required an environmental assessment of all major construction projects under federal jurisdiction, including near waterways that cross provincial boundaries. The new rules give Cabinet the right to determine which projects will be assessed and to ignore the findings of ones they permit.

5. And the Harper government has turned the National Energy Board into a "captured regulator" that is basically an enabling partner with the big energy companies. The National Energy Board consists of members who are pro-energy lawyers and engineers with ties to the industry, rather than experts in public health, environmental assessment or pipeline safety, or any First Nations representatives.

Among the promises made by the Liberals in their election platform, they stated:

"Stephen Harper's changes to the Fisheries Act, and his elimination of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, have weakened environmental protections. We will review these changes, restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards. ...We will modernize the National Energy Board, ensuring that its composition reflects regional views and has sufficient expertise in fields like environmental science, community development, and Indigenous traditional knowledge."

The Council of Canadians intends to be a watchdog in this area to push the Liberals to make good on these promises and to ensure that Canada has the highest standards for water protection.

The first challenge that has appeared to emerge on this front is the composition of the National Energy Board.

On Jan. 1, the Globe and Mail reported, "The Liberal government appears to be stymied in its campaign pledge to remake the National Energy Board as it signalled that it will not demand the resignation of last-minute Conservative appointees to the embattled regulatory agency." Those appointments to the NEB included a consultant to Kinder Morgan Canada (which is seeking approval for the Trans Mountain pipeline), the board's deputy chair, and two part-time members with ties to the Conservative party. However, none of these individuals were asked to step down by the Minister of Natural Resources.

The newspaper notes, "[The] Conservative appointments and the renewal of sitting members' terms means the Liberals will not have an opportunity to appoint a full-time member of the board until 2020." It's not clear at this point why the Liberals couldn't still appoint a broader-range of people to the NEB and take actions to democratize the body.

To read Barlow's paper Blue Betrayal: The Harper government's assault on Canada's freshwater, please click here.

For more on our national water campaign, click here.

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