Freshwater groups at forefront of efforts to modernize federal environmental laws

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After almost two years of consultation, last month, the federal government tabled two bills in the House of Commons that will make significant changes to two of Canada’s oldest and most important laws for freshwater protection. Reforms to the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act are part of a broader effort by the federal government to reform Canada’s environmental laws. And two members of the Our Living Waters Network are playing key roles coordinating environmental and conservation organizations working together to strengthen these vital pieces of legislation. Tony Maas with the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW) is focused on the Fisheries Act, and Lindsay Telfer with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance on the Navigation Protection Act.

Bill C-68 proposes amendments to the Fisheries Act, while the larger and more comprehensive Bill C-69 focuses on three different laws: the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, The National Energy Board Act and the Navigation Protection Act. Both tie back to mandate letters issued to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard and Minister of Transport from the Prime Minister indicating they are to work together to restore lost protections (resulting from changes to the Act between 2009 and 2012 by the previous federal government) and incorporate modern safeguards to the Fisheries and Navigation protection Acts.

“Over 20 groups from across the country have been working together over the past two years to propose changes to strengthen and modernize the Fisheries Act,” explains Tony Maas, “Thanks to the coordinated efforts and diverse expertise of Canada’s environmental and conservation community, many of the ideas we put forward in via the government’s consultations are reflected in amendments included in Bill C-68.” Public responses to Bill C-68 by a number of groups can be found at www.fisheriesact.ca.

Maas points to a number of proposed changes that will restore and modernize the Fisheries Act including: return of the prohibition on harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat (HADD) and its application to all fish (not just those of commercial value); inclusion of measures to rebuild depleted fish populations; and introduction of a public registry. “If the public registry is done well,” Maas says “It will allow the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to track all projects - large and small - that have the potential to impact fish habitat across the country. This information is critical to assessing and addressing the cumulative effects that impact the long-term health of fish, fish habitat and aquatic ecosystems.”

Proposed amendments to the Navigation Protection Act in Bill C-69, Telfer describes, were not as robust as what we saw for the Fisheries Act, pointing to the possible role that NGO collaboration can in fact have in producing outcomes. “We were not as organized as a community, in response to amendments to the Navigation Protection Act, throughout the consultation phase in 2016,” said Telfer “Though with a number of central organizations working collaboratively - including other OLW members like WWF-Canada - we hope to make progress on how navigable waters across the country are protected.”

Amendments to the Navigation Protection Act, including renaming the law to the Canadian Navigable Waters Act, would see some lost protections returned to navigable waters across the country - at least those that meet a new definition for what constitutes a ‘navigable water’. Any major project, taking place on any navigable water in the country, would be required to undergo an approval process. Concerns remain around what will be defined as major projects and what type of project would fall under a new class, dubbed “medium works”, which would only require formal approval if on a waterbody listed in a Schedule of waters - a controversial element the current Act introduced in 2012 that remains unchanged through amendments proposed in Bill C-69).

Groups, such as the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, will continue to draw attention to the government’s decision to maintain the Schedule through this final stages of changes to the law “We do not believe that just because a water is in an unpopulated area of the country that it does not deserve equal protections as waters in southern, more populated regions,” says Telfer, drawing attention to the small number of 164 waterways currently listed in the Acts Schedule, “We, therefore would like to see all projects, that are not minor, on all navigable waters in the country undergo a review and approval process.”

We are now in the final stages of reforms to both the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act. Bill C-69 has passed second reading in the House of Commons and is currently under study by the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Bill C-68 will follow a similar process, beginning later in April. The many groups working on these laws are staying the course - they are continuing to collaborate to ensure we get the strongest possible laws in place to protect key freshwater values. Stay tuned at Get Navigation Protection Right and Get Fisheries Right for details on how you and your supporters can help to ensure the government makes good on its commitments to restore and modernize key laws for protecting our most precious resource.

Lindsay Telfer
About Lindsay Telfer
Mom, organizer, educator, outdoor enthusiast, justice advocate
Freshwater groups at forefront of efforts to modernize federal environmental laws
Freshwater groups at forefront of efforts to modernize federal environmental laws
Imagine a Canada where all waters are in good health: