Skip to content

Feds leave 99 per cent of lakes, rivers unprotected

There is no clear commitment from the Trudeau government to put pipeline or powerline reviews for these waterways back into the Navigation Protection Act.


By Emma Lui, published in The Hill Times, June 28, 2017

The list of broken election promises by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is growing longer, with another one added last week.

Last Tuesday, the Trudeau government tabled its response to the House Committee on Transport, Infrastructure, and Communities’ recommendations on the Navigation Protection Act (NPA), formerly the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA).

The Trudeau government had the opportunity to keep its promise and restore protections to lakes and rivers in Canada, but didn’t. Instead, it is leaving 99 per cent of lakes and rivers unprotected from dam, pipeline, fish farm, mining, or other industrial projects. This means that if a company proposes to build an industrial project “in, on, over, under, through, or across” 99 per cent of lakes and rivers in Canada, the company does not have to apply for a permit under the act even if the project could affect boating, recreation, or other forms of navigation.

There is also no clear commitment from the federal government to put pipeline or powerline reviews back into this legislation. The government’s report, tabled by Transport Minister Marc Garneau, includes reference to a process that can be used to add navigable waters to the current schedule of 97 lakes, 64 rivers, and three oceans. The government will consult with First Nations and other stakeholders about this process and other issues throughout the summer. Alarmingly, this essentially leaves the responsibility with communities to make the case for a local lake or river to be protected.

Under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the federal government is obligated to obtain free, prior, and informed consent on policies and laws affecting water. This is especially important given there are countless lakes and rivers that run through the traditional territories of indigenous peoples.

During the October 2015 federal election, Trudeau’s Liberal Party criticized the Harper government’s “elimination of the Navigable Waters Protection Act” and solemnly promised to “review these changes, restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards.”

Many of the submissions to the committee, including by First Nations, called for protections to be put back on all waterways. Yet the Trudeau government fails to take the most straightforward action possible: restoring the gutted protection that had been in place for decades to protect 31,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers across Canada.

It is becoming ever more clear that the Trudeau government is carrying on the legacy of Stephen Harper’s former Conservative on water and greasing the wheels for the pipeline and extreme energy industry. The federal response to an access to information request by Greenpeace revealed that Harper’s 2012 budget bill changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act were guided by the advice of industry associations. Big Oil and Big Hydro were among the corporations lobbying against restoring the NWPA around pipelines and power lines.

Earlier this year, and in stark contrast to the Trudeau government’s approach on water, New Zealand and India took bold steps to protect their rivers. New Zealand granted the Whanganui River the same legal rights as a human being. Days later, India legally recognized the Yamuna and Ganges rivers as “living entities.” These historic decisions recognize the importance of water and its undeniable links to nature and life.

Restoring protections for the NWPA for every lake and every river is a key opportunity for Trudeau government to show leadership on water protection. The federal government needs to make protecting water a priority; it shouldn’t be left to the rest of us to prove the case.