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opinion

Michael ValpyKevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Michael Valpy is a senior fellow at Massey College and a fellow at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.

The will of the people – what's it mean, eh?

In its 2017 poll on public attitudes toward water, the Royal Bank of Canada said Canadians for the 10th year in a row view fresh water as Canada's most important natural resource "by far" and that 91 per cent see fresh water as part of their national identity.

Likewise, one of Canada's leading survey firms, EKOS Research, in its search for what symbols Canadians believe contribute most to their national identity on the 150th anniversary of Confederation, found that pristine environment nearly tops the list, outranking the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Canadian identity is shaped largely by a kind of state nationalism, a dialogue between Canadians and their governments and public institutions about how things should be done.

In a study published in mid-June – the first national assessment of Canada's freshwater ecosystems in decades – the World Wildlife Fund of Canada reported that each of the country's 25 major watersheds is facing multiple environmental threats, while the data needed to track changes and guide policy makers are either inaccessible or simply non-existent.

David Miller, president of WWF-Canada, called it "a recipe for inaction." In fact, while the WWF-Canada report was being researched and prepared, the previous and present national governments tiptoed smartly backward from monitoring and protection.

In 2012, the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA), one of the oldest pieces of statutory protection enacted by Parliament (in 1882), was defenestrated – tossed out the window – by the Conservative administration.

The NWPA had evolved through judicial interpretations into meaning that protection of navigability on any body of water big enough to float a canoe – somewhere between two million and 2.5 million rivers and 8,000 to 31,000 lakes plus three oceans (the uncertain count presumably illustrates what WWF-Canada means by inaccessible or non-existent data) – also meant protecting navigable waters from environmental degradation.

Thus almost any "work" affecting a navigable body of water – pipeline rights of way, oil- and gas-well access roads, gravel mines, waste treatment facilities, bridges, dams, wharves, discharges or other acts – could trigger an environmental assessment.

The 2012 amendments changed the name of the NWPA to Navigation Protection Act – removing the word "waters." It limited the triggering of an environmental assessment to a list of only 162 bodies of water instead of all navigable waters. Major rivers such as the Stikine and the Liard in British Columbia were excluded; every river was excluded in the Northwest Territories except the Mackenzie.

The government also weakened provisions of the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Species at Risk Act.

The 2015 election comes along and the Liberals promised to "review these changes, restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards." The Globe and Mail reported that within months of their electoral victory, they were feeling pressure from industry to reconsider their pledge.

This spring, the Liberal-dominated House of Commons transport committee made recommendations to do virtually nothing with the revised Navigation Protection Act – leaving the tiny number of protected waters unchanged, basically eliminating the pro-active responsibility of the state and proposing only that the government put in place a more streamlined way of adding waterways to the protected schedule and work more collaboratively with Indigenous communities.

The government's response was to endorse what the committee's Liberal-majority said.

Opposition to the old act came primarily from industry associations, municipalities and transport department public servants who didn't like responsibility for environmental assessments.

Randy Christensen, a lawyer for the environmental legal group Ecojustice, says there's no indication the national government will assemble an effective central registry of Canada's water resources, or if individuals or organizations will be granted court standing to legally challenge specific projects that risk debasing waterways. In any event, he said, litigation is not an answer to protecting public rights; it should be a last resort.

Transport department officials must have known what the WWF-Canada study would say. The governing Liberals, Mr. Christensen said, could have proposed, at minimum, triggering assessments where species potentially were at risk or with known habitat concerns.

They didn't.

That is not the public will.

Justin Trudeau marked World Environment Day Monday with a paddle on the Niagara River and a plea for climate action. The prime minister said Canada 'won’t walk away' from global efforts to stop climate change.

The Canadian Press

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