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Three reasons why the Liberals broke their promise on the Navigable Waters Protection Act

Toronto-area Liberal MP Judy Sgro chaired the Standing Committee that failed to restore protections for lakes and rivers.

In 2012, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government decimated the Navigable Waters Protection Act by removing federal oversight on pipelines and power lines from it and by reducing its scope to just 159 lakes and rivers, leaving more than 31,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers without federal scrutiny.

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

Now, 17 months after being sworn into office, the Liberal-dominated Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities have made their recommendations on the Act – which clearly fail to restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards as had been promised.

Rather than relisting all lakes and rivers, they recommend: “That the government maintain the Schedule but rapidly improve the process of adding waterways to the Schedule by making it easily accessible, easy to use and transparent and that a public awareness campaign be put in place to inform stakeholders of the process.” Furthermore, the committee weakly recommends, “That the government require that Transport Canada provide reasons why a waterway is or is not added to the schedule.”

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow comments, “This was an opportunity for the Standing Committee and the Trudeau government to show leadership on water protection, and it is deeply disappointing that they have failed to do so. Freshwater protections are crucial to upholding the human right to water.”

Barlow highlights, “Without protections for all lakes and rivers, Trudeau’s election promises ring hollow.”

Water campaigner Emma Lui, who presented to the Standing Committee, adds, “The federal government should immediately restore protections on all lakes and rivers and then consult with communities on how to strengthen the act. The federal government is obligated to obtain free, prior and informed consent under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our only hope now lies with communities that will defend local water sources for their children and grandchildren.”

One reason the Liberals may not have restored protections could be attributed to corporate lobbying. In May 2016, The Globe and Mail reported, “The Liberal government is feeling pressure from industry over a campaign pledge to restore regulations… Lobby groups are anticipating possible changes such as the relisting of specific rivers and navigable waters that the Harper government had removed from regulations.” Big Oil and Big Hydro would have been among the corporations concerned about restored regulations around pipelines and power lines.

A second reason could be the slashing of water protections now happening under the Trump administration in the United States. Trump has repealed the Stream Protection Rule which sought to protect 10,000 kilometres of streams from having mining waste dumped in them. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has expressed concern about “any potential competitiveness imbalances” between Canada and the US.

And a third reason could be that restoring protections to waterways simply did not fit into the Liberal government’s agenda of approving pipelines that cross waterways, including the 890,000 barrel per day Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline that crosses 1,309 water courses in Alberta and British Columbia. The Liberals are also still considering the 1.1 million barrel per day TransCanada Energy East pipeline that would cross nearly 3,000 water bodies between Alberta and New Brunswick.

The Council of Canadians is deeply disappointed and will now ramp up its campaign to protect every lake and every river.