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Why the Trudeau government must restore the Navigable Waters Protection Act

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Water samples collected from Sherbrooke Lake, Big Mushamush Lake, Little Mushamu

This morning I presented to the Standing Committee on Transport, Communities and Infrastructure via video conference at their last meeting to review the Navigation Protection Act (NPA), formerly the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA).

This is the act that was gutted by the former Harper government, leaving only 97 lakes, 62 rivers and 3 oceans protected under the act. The Trudeau government has committed to review environmental and freshwater legislation including the NPA, the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

I was invited back to present for the second time today because when I presented previously on October 27, Conservative member of Parliament and Vice-Chair Luc Berthold tried to introduce a motion that would see that no more witnesses would present before the committee on this review. Debate on the motion took up most of the meeting and I had little time to raise concerns about the NPA's impacts on lakes and rivers.

Today, I expressed to the Standing Committee, "Justin Trudeau had campaigned on restoring and strengthening many of the freshwater and environmental protections that the former Harper government had weakened. But the Trudeau government's recent approvals of the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipelines as well as the Site C dam raises serious concerns about his government's commitment to protect lakes and rivers in Canada. Many of our chapters and supporters have expressed concerns about projects that threaten navigable waters in their communities."
I added, "The Trans Mountain pipeline crosses and threatens roughly 1,300 waterways. Oil spills like the one that happened on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan impacted navigation. Parts of the river and a nearby lake were closed for two to three years because of the spill. These projects, which were approved with weakened legislation put in place by the former Harper government, seriously threaten local waterways which communities rely on for boating, drinking water, fishing, recreation, [and] local tourism. Local economies rely on healthy, navigable waterways."
Government representatives often say that the role of the NWPA/NPA is not to protect the environment; that's the role of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. This was repeated again at the Standing Committee’s meeting today. But the previous Navigable Waters Protection Program's website made clear, "The Navigable Waters Protection Program is responsible for the protection of the public right to navigation and the protection of the environment through the administration of the Navigable Waters Protection Act." The current language on the Navigation Protection Program's website has been scaled back, but the program still considers the safety of navigation, access to waterways, recreational and traditional use of navigable waters, and environmental effects when reviewing a project for approval.
Standing Committee members also talked about the regulations under the former NWPA as "red tape" or a "burden" on companies or governments who are looking to build pipelines, dams, mines and other projects. This view on water protection is deeply disturbing. The purpose of the former NWPA was to protect the right of people to navigation and environmental protection, which are interconnected.

With the risks that pipelines, dams, mines and other projects pose to water sources, it is critical that the federal government stringently review these projects. These types of review should not be rushed. Communities and residents from coast to coast rely on healthy, clean waters for drinking, fishing, transportation, boating and their livelihoods.

This view that protecting water is more "red tape" or a "burden" demonstrates what Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow calls the myth of abundance. Governments and companies assume that water resources are endless. Governments approve projects like the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipelines without adequate consideration on how they could impact watersheds now and in the future. It is the responsibility of governments to protect water and scrutinize projects that threaten water.

In order to protect water, we need governments to see the importance of water to communities and local economies. We need governments that are willing to implement laws that stringently protect water through rigorous project assessments and reviews.

In order to protect lakes and rivers, the Trudeau government must:

  • Restore and enhance the NWPA so that all lakes, rivers and waterways are fully protected.
  • Reinstate and strengthen federal scrutiny of large pipelines and powerlines under the NWPA and assessment of waterways under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
  • Hold public consultations, create an independent expert panel and incorporate feedback to strengthen the NWPA.
  • Consult with Indigenous peoples and incorporate the obligation to obtain free, prior and informed consent into the NWPA so that Indigenous treaty and water rights are respected and a nation-to-nation relationship is truly established.
  • Implementing strict safeguards for waterways within the framework of the United Nations-recognized human right to water and sanitation.

Read the Council of Canadians recent report "Every Lake, Every River: Restoring the Navigable Waters Protection Act" to learn about the pipeline, mine and dam projects that are going forward under the weakened NPA.

Click here to read the Council of Canadians and Environmental Defence's joint brief to the Standing Committee on the NPA.

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Image: The Council of Canadians/South Shore Chapter NS

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