When you think about policy documents you probably think about dense legal jargon that usually has no consequence to you or your life. In my blog this week, I share with you some key Canadian water policies and events since Confederation, in the hope of making complex water policies easily understandable. Water policy documents govern the water of the country we live in and have a role in the accessibility of our (and our neighbours) water. By understanding Canada’s water history and the current legislation today, I hope you take action in your own community for swimmable, drinkable and fishable water for all.
Late 15th Century to 1867–
- Colonization of Indigenous peoples took place on “Canadian” soil.
- Canadian Confederation is founded on July 1, and the Department of Marine and Fisheries was created to oversee the seacoast and inland fisheries.
- Fisheries Act was established. It prohibited ‘prejudicial or deleterious substances’ to be released in waters, that could result in injuries to fishing grounds or pollution.
- Parliament prohibits the discharge of lumber mill waste, including sawdust and its byproducts into navigable waterways. This is to maintain water quality as the sawdust effects the fish and fish habitat.
- Debate on the water management of rivers begins with John A. Macdonald and Ontario premier Oliver Mowat, disagreeing on the building of harmful river facilities to push along Canada’s timber trade. This is the first of many debates on public versus private economic interests on waterbodies.
- Ottawa decided they were to “protect, preserve and propagate the fish” and that the provinces were to “have the sole right to catch the fish so preserved and protected”.
“I feel it to be my duty to inform you, that unless more stringent measures are adopted immediately, our God Fishing business with become depleted as the Lobster Fishery has reached”- Excerpt from J.O Morrisons Letter in 1894. Source: Collections Canada.
- Administrators and others who manage water learned that they could protect drinking and household water through chlorination more affordably than caring for the groundwater source directly.
- Senator Napoleon Belcourt stated that “the individual and the public as well, have an inalienable and indefeasible right to pure water”, during fatal typhoid outbreaks affecting vulnerable populations.
- Chlorination use increases, and was used as a “magic bullet” by health officials in water quality maintenance. This disengaged activism in protecting sources of water supply by water managing bodies.
- Drought affected many within the Great Depression era, and new programs to enhance water storage or make flows regular were developed provincially and locally.
- In Ontario, water hydroelectricity was explored due to the need for increased energy generation. There was disagreement on how internal water diversions for energy would affect boundary waters, and how the energy that was produced would be shared among boundary stakeholders.
- There was an expected post-war reconstruction era, including expansion and development of water and sewage infrastructure across Canada which was provincially and federally funded.
- Post-war automobile traffic also increased, and more citizens became aware of the water bodies and natural wonders of Canada.
Postcard of Maligne Lake, AB (misnamed as Liard River in the Rockies, Alcan Highway) with stamp dating to 1950. Source: Explore North.
- Washing machines became more common place, and phosphate detergents were used without an understanding of their effects, which stimulated excessive algal growth in waterbodies. This problem of excess nutrients in waterways still permeates today.
- Provincial agencies for pollution control were formally established. Provinces were solely responsible for safeguarding water quality, even though many premiers urged the Prime Minister to take preventative policy action, as a result of the diverse and regular pollution occurring in their provinces.
- Environmental public interest groups also formed during this time, engaging with politicians to seek change to water policies and management.
- This decade is filled with discussions of potential water export to our southern neighbour, the US. Of these proposals include NAWAPA (North American Water and Power Alliance), which was a “continent-wide plan for the collection, redistribution and efficient utilization of water running off to the seas totally unused or partially used”.
Proposed diversion of natural flows of the Yukon, Copper, Kootenay, Fraser, Peace and Columbia Rivers headwaters, to provide water to the south. Source: NAWAPA Website
- Critical responses to NAWAPA surfaced after the proposal, where Canadian policy makers were sharing that it is our (Canada’s) resource to use with our discretion, and stressed the need to safeguard our water for the generations of Canadian citizens to come.
- At the same time this US-Canada water debate was occuring, interprovincial boundaries of prairie water resources were determined by the Prairie Provinces Water Board.
- The Canadian government established the Canada Waters Act (CWA) in 1970, and the Department of Environment in 1971, to address Canadian citizens’ concern with freshwater security. The CWA is to “address any aspects of water resource management that relates to restoring, maintaining or improving the quality of water” where in parts of the country water quality management has become a “matter of urgent national concern”. There has been criticism to what the CWA has actually done to intervene when water quality management has become a national concern.
- The province of Manitoba tried to assert that mercury pollution coming from their provincial neighbours affected their fish, therefore their water policy laws can be used in court against the companies; the Supreme Court did not rule in their favour.
- Indigenous groups emphasize their rights in resource use through their connection to the environment in proposals on hydroelectric dams, and other water projects on their lands (Ontario hydroelectric dams are one example).
- In 1987 the Federal Water Policy came into place following extensive discussions and consults across Canada in 1984-1985. The Federal Water Policy’s overall objective is “to encourage the use of freshwater in an efficient and equitable manner consistent with the social, economic and environmental needs of present and future generations”. Twenty- five specific policy recommendations were made for five strategic directions: water pricing, science leadership, integrated planning, public awareness and legislation.
- Free trade negotiations (now NAFTA) between the US and Canada, and later Mexico had Canadians anxious of the possibility of water exports. (Canadians are still anxious today regarding NAFTA and water trade, with the political climate in the US having changed hands.)
- Some news articles stated that Canadians anxiety was ‘truly strange’ as water is so abundant a resource “it falls from the sky”. Many Canadian scientists scoffed at the naive reporters sharing that Canada should export their water to willing buyers. In the end water found in Canada remained in the hands of Canadians.
- Canadians thought that safe drinking water access for all had been achieved in Canada, but with communities like Walkerton, North Battleford and Kashechewan experiencing water quality crises; the public’s eyes opened. Without national drinking water standards, provinces replied to the separate crises and invested in technological changes and structures to ensure drinking water safety. (Note: First Nations reserves are under federal jurisdiction for infrastructure including water infrastructure, not provincial).
- In the 2000s (and well before) drinking water on reserves and to First Nations communities was found largely inadequate. Reports that determine this include: 2005 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Chapter 5: Drinking Water in First Nations Communities, Report on the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations vol 1, and the National Assessment of Water and Wastewater systems in First Nations Communities (2009-2011). The Report on the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations vol 1, was published under the authority of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, though Métis, Inuit and Non-Status First Nations peoples are not mentioned in the report. The other two reports listed above have no mention of Métis, Inuit and Non-Status First Nations peoples as well. All of these reports call for the federal government to focus on water as a priority, and to improve the provision of safe drinking water in First Nations communities. In the 2000s we see small government commitments to development of infrastructure and training in First Nations communities to address the problems.
- As a result of the National Assessment in 2009-2011, the federal 2016 budget committed an additional 1.8 Billion dollars over the next five years to address health and safety needs, ensuring proper facility operation and maintenance. Their goal was to end long term drinking water advisors on reserves within five years.
- In 2017, the federal government committed an additional $49 M over three years, and in 2018 an additional $173 M to improve water infrastructure, operator training and innovative First Nations-led technical service delivery models.
- In 2019, an additional $739 M each year over 5 years was committed to maintaining no long term drinking water advisories via the federal government.
- As of July 10, 2019 eighty-five long term drinking water advisories (water advisories over a year) had been lifted, with 58 remaining to be resolved by March 2021. Short term drinking water advisories (less than a year) don’t have any federal commitment to address.
- When the Liberal government was elected into Parliament they made commitments to infrastructure development across Canada, including the commitment to lift the long term drinking water advisories detailed above. Critics state that the roll-out of these initiatives and the funding has been slow across the country and, they question if non-disclosed internal reasons are the result. The federal government shares it is external reasons that have slowed the process, such as excessive paperwork from accepting community proposals and on-the-ground construction delays.
- Make it Safe is one initiative by concerned citizens, that shares stories of First Nations communities who lack access to reliable and clean water. This initiative calls for more prompt and widespread action from the federal government in addressing their citizens concerns.
- The Council of Canadians advocate for new, updated Federal Water policy, that looks at water security and protection more seriously. The image below is some of their concerns with the existing water management, and steps they see need to be implemented by government.
Council of Canadians Alternative Federal Budget 2019- Federal Water Policy. Source: Council of Canadians
- Global Water Futures, is another activist group that recognizes the need for new federal water policy to address the changing needs of our country within the current climate crisis.
As the 2010s come to a close and the 2020s open a new decade in a few short months, what do you want to see in federal, provincial, or local water policy? What within this article strikes a chord and really pushes you to get involved in any aspects of water rights, policy or join water groups? I invite you to research the history and/or policies shared above further, and to use this new knowledge to engage in your community and country. Happy change-making my friends.
Benidickson, J. (2017). The Evolution of Canadian Water Law and Policy: Securing Safe and Sustainable Abundance. McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law & Policy, 13(1), 59-104.
Image by roegger via Pixabay.