Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/2/2016 (1453 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If you ask Canadians about the environment, the most frequent response is not their concern about climate change but about water. Water seems to be a common thread running through our collective vision of Canada.
We have good reason to be concerned. The eastern Great Lakes — most notably Lake Erie — are once again in decline, reversing years of progress under the Canada/U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Our sixth great lake, Lake Winnipeg, is in terminal decline. The drinking-water supply of more than 100 indigenous communities is unsafe and requires boiling before use.
We appear to have lost "hydraulic stationarity" — our ability to predict, within a defined range, the probability of extreme weather events and subsequent floods — probably because of climate change. The frequency and intensity of floods and droughts are accelerating. In every region of the country there are concerns for surface- and ground-water quality under pressure from resource extraction, poorly controlled chemical releases, nutrient enrichment related to urban and rural land use and the cumulative effects of many of our other routine activities.
What role does our federal government play in water issues? The Harper government took a minimalist position, deferring to the provinces as the "owners" of the resource by virtue of the 1930 Natural Resources Transfer Act. The provinces are fully onside with this view, although their complacency may prove ill-advised as the water rights of indigenous people become better defined.
Ownership aside — a curious concept for a substance that flows downhill, seeps into and leaks out of the ground, evaporates into the air and returns to Earth as rain and snow far from where it originated — there are many good reasons for active federal involvement in water issues across the country.
First, water flows downhill. With the exception of the islands of P.E.I. and Newfoundland, every jurisdiction is upstream and downstream of someone else.
In Manitoba’s case, we are downstream from almost everyone else. The international boundary is as porous as those of the provinces and territories. Canada’s constitutional authority for international and interprovincial matters and its responsibility (now being devolved) for the territories, mandates our federal government’s involvement in the pervasive transboundary nature of water.
Second, Canada has a fiduciary responsibility toward indigenous people who in turn have rights guaranteed by our Constitution, some of which are water-related. The federal government has no choice but to be involved in water issues affecting indigenous people.
Third, water across the country is being affected by cross-border pollution, both water-borne and airborne, originating inside and outside Canada, the control of which can only be exercised by the federal government.
Fourth, pollution by exotic chemicals is an emerging problem that can best be addressed by improving our (federal) chemical regulatory system. Finally, the Constitution has ceded responsibility for fisheries and navigable waters to the government of Canada; the present incumbents have promised to resuscitate its authority — rescinded by their predecessors — in these areas.
There is a federal water policy. It was written in 1987 and has been largely ignored since. It has many good features but clearly needs revision. A lot has changed in 28 years. If the new folks in Ottawa are serious about water — there is but one mention of it in the prime minister’s guidance letter to the minister of environment and climate change — that’s where they can start; a revamped policy statement declaring what role this government will play in water.
Perhaps even before that, it can get its own house in order. There are more than a dozen ministries with responsibility for some aspect of water. Whether or not it wishes to follow Manitoba’s example of consolidating water functions in a single ministry (since unwisely dismantled), the government needs to cut through this chaos and rationalize its water institutions and management.
Provincial, territorial, indigenous and local governments must be consulted as the government develops its policy statement; but at the end of the day, this will be a declaration of the government of Canada defining its water-related responsibilities, in other words, a federal, not a national, water policy. Its focus will be on matters such as First Nations water issues, revitalization of the International Joint Commission, strengthening federal water laws, inter-jurisdictional water issues in Canada, and rationalizing the institutional foundation for implementing federal water policy.
Because responsibility for water does not rest solely, or even largely, with the federal government there is also a need for a national water strategy that embraces all orders of government. Without the leadership of the national government, such a strategy will remain a much-discussed, but never realized, ideal. A starting point would be the creation of a national forum for water involving provinces, territories, indigenous and local governments. The Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment — involving the governments of Canada, the provinces and territories — has provided a forum for inter-governmental water discussions, but this role has sadly withered in recent years. A water forum — either newly minted or building on an existing institution — could be the engine driving a national water strategy. Early federal leadership could be demonstrated by enhanced involvement in regional water issues such as Lake Winnipeg, reviving the intergovernmental co-operation principles contained in the Canada Water Act, strengthening federal water research capacity, developing national drinking-water standards (believe it or not we don’t have any) and promoting the principles contained in the recent Alberta/Northwest Territories McKenzie River Basin Bi-Lateral Water Management Agreement.
Climate change, the consequences of which are largely water-related, is the declared No. 1 environmental priority of the new federal government. While attacking the causes of climate change we cannot ignore the management of its consequences.
Norman Brandson was deputy minister of the former Manitoba departments of Environment, Water Stewardship and Conservation from 1990 to 2006.