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Murky Waters: When Governments Turn Water Management into a Business

Last week, I joined Jamie Brownlee, teacher and researcher at Carleton University, Chris Hurl, Assistant Professor at Concordia University, and Erika Shaker, Senior Education Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, for the first launch of the new book Corporatizing Canada in Ottawa.


Maude Barlow, Honorary Chairperson for the Council of Canadians, gave a great introduction and highlighted the trend of corporatizing of public services with a story from the book about how some Calgary police cars have logos of oil companies on them.


Chris Hurl gave a broad overview of corporatization focusing on neoliberal corporatization where governments commoditize public services and run public services as a business. Erika Shaker spoke about her chapter, The Rise of the Corporate Cashroom and Jamie Brownlee talked about his chapter Pipelines, Regulatory Capture, and Canada’s National Energy Board.


I gave an overview of my chapter, Murky Waters: When Governments Turn Water Management into a Business, and how governments are changing to operate like corporations in water management. I talked about how this can threaten people’s ability to access clean, safe and affordable water. 


I began by summarizing the threats to clean, safe water including: 

  • A lack of clean water in First Nations 

  • Governments promoting polluting and thirsty industries like oil and gas development and industrial agriculture are examples

  • Drought and climate change 

  • Weakened environmental legislation and how including the environmental and water legislation gutted by former Harper government gutted that isn’t restored by the Trudeau government’s Bill C-69

  • The commodification and corporatization of water 

In my chapter, I outline some of the trends of water corporatization based on David MacDonald’s work on corporatization, including commoditization, myopia and productivism.


An example of corporatization I include in my chapter is how the Ontario and B.C. governments are managing water takings and allowing Nestle to pump water. In Ontario, Nestle is pumping up to 4.7 million litres every day on two expired permits. In B.C., Nestle has been pumping 300 million litres every year. 


Public-Private Partnerships or P3s are often criticized as a form of privatization. At the launch, I talked about how P3 can be an effect or outcome of corporatization because water services are operated separately from other public services on a for-profit basis and operated under full cost recovery models which can make it easy for governments to bring in the private sector. 


There aren’t many P3s in Canada. Moncton has a P3 involving Veolia which is set to expire next year and groups have banded together to see Moncton’s municipal water service brought back into public hands.


Yet the Trudeau government is further promoting P3s through the Canada Infrastructure Bank. 


EPCOR is the most striking example of the corporatization of water in Canada. The company EPCOR is owned by the City of Edmonton but the city actually has no representation on the board of directors. EPCOR operates as a for-profit corporation and it owns and operates water and wastewater services in more than 75 communities in Western Canada and the US. Concerns have been raised about transparency and accountability. 


Trade agreements like NAFTA and the TransPacific Partnership (renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TransPacific Partnership and is quickly moving through the House of Commons) promote the commodification and the corporatization of water by defining water as a  “tradeable good,” “service” and “investment” 


But communities everywhere are working to have the UN human rights to water and sanitation. Communities are also promoting water as a commons and public trust to protect it for current and future generations. Respect for Indigenous title, water rights and laws is also critical. As my chapter notes, “Most lands and watersheds in Canada are located on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples.” The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must be implemented and the free, prior and consent of Indigenous peoples must be obtained in projects, policies or legislation affecting water. 


In southern Ontario, groups like Wellington Water Watchers, Save Our Water and the Guelph Chapter of the Council of Canadians continue to apply pressure on the Ontario government to protect water against Nestlé’s extractions. 


The Blue Communities Project is taking root around the world to uphold the human right to water, phase out bottled water and promote public water services. 


There are nearly 20 Blue Communities in Canada including Victoria, Thunder Bay and St. Catharines. The Sisters of St. Joseph became a Blue Community last year. And communities in Switzerland, France, Brazil and Germany are going blue. Learn how to make your community a Blue Community


The Ottawa launch of Corporatizing Canada was organized by Octopus Books. The Corporatizing Canada book tour continues with events in London (October 17), Montreal (date tbc), Kingston (November 13), Prince Edward County (November 14) and Wakefield, QC (November 22). 


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