When Quebec’s election campaign isn’t devolving into a skirmish over immigration levels, it occasionally raises important issues that don’t get the airing they deserve.
Such as water. More specifically, why the province – and, by extension, the country – is giving so much of it away.
According to statistics obtained by Radio-Canada, Quebec companies paid royalties totalling $3.2-million to use more than one-trillion litres of fresh water in 2017-18.
That’s not a large amount of money for a huge amount of water. And Quebec is not alone in giving the stuff away at low cost. Its fee structure is 85-per-cent lower than neighbouring Ontario’s, for instance, but as such, it is still a fraction of an already low number.
The fact is that Canada is handing a key resource to industry for vanishingly little in return. At the same time, households are paying more and more for their water consumption.
As an illustration of that, in metered-consumption cities like Toronto and Vancouver, homeowners would pay a total in the millions of dollars for one-billion litres of water, but a trio of Quebec aluminum plants paid only $2,500 for the same amount in 2015.
Of course, every country offers incentives to industry. Canada has an abundance of fresh water, and governments are right to let companies use it at a competitive rate.
But when one considers water royalties in other countries, Canada’s rates seem like a downright steal. For instance, the top rate Quebec charges is $70-per-million litres drawn. In Europe, prices range between 30 and 140 times higher.
Last fall, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission noted wryly in a report that "we take our most precious natural resource for granted.”
The report argued for comprehensive residential and commercial metering across the country to ensure greater fairness, and the adoption of a user-pay, cost-recovery approach to foster conservation and fund infrastructure.
That’s as good a point as any to begin the conversation. We musn’t wantonly jack up the cost of water. But there is room for a dialogue about what is fair and appropriate.