Heritage rivers under threat

Conservatives attempt to eliminate waterway protection with proposed legislation changes

Environmentalists say that proposed legislative changes in the federal government’s omnibus budget bill will strip away protections from the majority of Canada’s waterbodies. Dylan Hewlett

Proposed legislative changes in the federal government’s omnibus budget bill will strip away protections from the majority of Canada’s waterbodies, environmentalists say.

Tabled in parliament Oct. 18, Bill C45 proposes to replace the country’s Navigable Waters Protection Act with the new Navigation Protection Act.

Buried in the bill’s 400-plus pages, implementing the new act would reduce protections against development to about 160 waterways across the country.

Taken into consideration with a previous Conservative omnibus budget bill – which stripped away pipeline projects from the act’s scope, according to media reports – the proposal is the third time the Conservatives have tried to eliminate waterway protection since 2009, according to federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

“They are gobsmacking a law we’ve had since the 1880s brought in by John A. MacDonald,” said May. “Not even all of our heritage rivers will be protected anymore.”

The original Navigable Waters act, introduced in the 1880s, was meant to alert the public of plans to expand development along waterways and ensure those developments didn’t obstruct navigation of a waterway.

In 1997, it was used to guide developments crossing the Manigotagan River that led to the creation of a new provincial park.

In Manitoba, thousands of lakes, streams and rivers were protected through the act, said Eric Reder, campaign director for the Manitoba Wilderness Committee.

Replacing the act would afford protection to only three lakes and a few rivers, he said.

“Unregulated and poorly planned industrial projects can have a wide ranging impact on our natural areas,” said Reder. “This will completely devastate our boreal wilderness landscapes.”

There needs to be an involved and open process to fairly consider bridging a waterway, but that tool has been removed, he added.

“Everything (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper does communicates the federal government has no responsibility for the environment,” Reder said.

NDP environment critic Megan Leslie called the proposed changes a “dream” for the oil and gas sectors.

Any possible scientific oversight to development is gone, with final authority on projects resting in the hands of cabinet, she said.

“This bill is entirely about meeting the needs of industry,” Leslie said.

Both May and Leslie accused the government of ignoring science.

“All of Harper’s policy decisions are about his desire to have six million barrels a day coming out of the tar sands. It’s all about removing barriers to this,” said May.

“We need to show them public opinion matters. If we work together as citizens we can exert our power,” Leslie added.

Kelly James, a Transport Canada spokesperson, said the new act reduces red tape delaying the construction and maintenance of major capital infrastructure.

“A regime that is more efficient, effective and transparent will allow for substantive projects, such as highways, bridges and major electricity transmission lines, to move forward in a timely fashion, without being held up for years because of a backlog of low risk applications,” he said.

“These reforms will enable the Government to focus resources on the busiest waterways.”

Leslie conceded opposition parties are unlikely to stop passage of the bill.

However, the NDP is planning to hold Canada-wide consultations leading up to the 2015 election to develop an energy strategy aimed at transitioning Canada back to renewable energy.

“If we shut off the coal tonight, my constituency in Halifax would freeze to death this winter,” she said. “We need to develop a strategy for a just transition and work towards that vision together.”

Conservative MP Joyce Bateman and NDP Transport Critic Olivia Chow were unable to provide comment by press time.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers were also unable to comment by press time.

Published in Volume 67, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 24, 2012)

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