Environment Canada’s plans to shut down most of the federal water monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories have been quickly reversed after an outcry from territorial politicians and aboriginal leaders.
“That was not authorized and the Minister (of Environment) has ordered those to be started back up again,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said of the monitoring stations during a stop in this community on the edge of Kluane National Park.
It was revealed earlier this month that Environment Canada plans to cut nearly 800 jobs as part of a cost-cutting effort and the department has warned that more cuts will come as it tries to meet budgetary demands imposed by the Conservative government.
But it appears that cuts to water monitoring were not what the federal government had in mind.
Mr. Harper was in this town to showcase a new park visitors’ centre which the Conservative government has helped build with $9-million from federal coffers.
This was intended to highlight his government’s commitment to environmental heritage, one of the four pillars of its Arctic policy, along with asserting Canadian sovereignty, promoting social development, promoting economic development, and improving northern governance.
Each of the four days of Mr. Harper’s sixth annual tour of the Arctic has been devoted to highlighting a different pillar.
Protection of the environment is particularly important in this region where climate change is dramatically altering the landscape and the seaways.
Aboriginal leaders and environmentalists expressed shock this week after Michael Miltenberger told the legislature in the Northwest Territories that the water monitoring would be significantly curtailed.
“Water is life for Dene,” Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “We are stewards of the land and water, and this is a critical moment in time when we must step up to ensure land and water is protected. “
If any monitoring stations are to be closed, the Dene must be consulted, he said. “And if the federal government refuses to live up to their responsibilities to monitor water quality and quantity in Denendeh,” said Chief Erasmus, “the Dene Nation is willing to take on this role in partnership with First Nations and governments.”
John Bennett, the executive director of Sierra Club Canada, said the Arctic water monitoring system is our early warning system. “The data tell us what is happening with water quality and pollution. Knowing what's in the water can prevent Walkerton-like tragedies,” Mr. Bennett said.
Seven people died and 2,300 became ill in 2000 when bacteria seeped undetected into the Ontario town’s water supplies.