“Current” issues: why we need to talk about water law in Canada

Julia Redmond is a first year law student at McGill and an associate managing editor with the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science in interdisciplinary studies from McMaster University, with a focus in environmental science and policy.

If you live in Canada, you have probably been fed the myth that we are a nation of abundant clean water. Three-quarters of our country’s population live within 161 km of the US border, especially along the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence, where availability of water does not feel like an issue. (Of course, many others still feel the effects of a disturbing lack of clean water, in particular on aboriginal reserves; there are still dozens of boil-water advisories in place in aboriginal communities across the country.) In reality, Canada does have more water than most countries in the world — but this does not necessarily translate to availability.

https://flic.kr/p/ag7FKS: Paddlers on the Hart River, part of the Yukon’s disputed Peel Watershed. (Juri Peepre for Protect the Peel)

This water accessibility myth has consequences, be it on people’s day-to-day living, spirituality, work, or leisure. Water is essential, and yet it is not discussed as a legal or governance issue nearly enough. Thinking we have got it covered when it comes to water means that there is less public pressure and motivation to improve water governance — yet it needs improvement.

Various groups have insisted on a new governance structure that can better protect water resources, including academics and research groups, the government itself, and non-governmental organizations. Ultimately, Canada’s water governance challenge is not only a result of the myth of abundance; it also flows from the structure of our Constitution. It seems that water resource management was perhaps not top of mind leading up to 1867 when powers were divided up, leaving fisheries, navigation, and international waters to the federal government, and water resources and supply to the provinces, who delegate to municipalities.

This arrangement leads to different approaches to governance and managing its gaps. Manitoba, for example, had (until recently) an entire Ministry of Conservation and Water Stewardship — the only one of its kind in the country. British Columbia has implemented its own attempt at unified water legislation. Ontario enacted some reforms in response to the Walkerton crisis, while also relying on the Environmental Bill of Rights and its associated Commissioner for environmental stewardship. Like so many areas of Canadian law, water is complicated by our unique brand of federalism.

The last real attempt to make any kind of unified strategy to resolve issues and improve water management was 30 years ago, which is hardly current. While the surprisingly progressive Federal Water Policy (1987) has been praised for its call for the equitable and efficient use of freshwater respecting the needs of future generations, it did not lead to the kind of action needed to fulfill its objectives. No notable efforts have been made since for a unifying water policy.

There is some hope that the tide is turning, however. Water law and resource management has been getting more attention because it overlaps significantly with climate change, which has generally become a higher priority on government agendas at all levels. Water-related crises — like the flooding in Alberta in 2013 — have made it hard to ignore water governance issues, if only temporarily.

https://flic.kr/p/qHQBT9: Nestlé’s purchase of a well in the Township of Centre Wellington sparked public outcry. (Daniel Orth)

There have also been recent examples of the public speaking up and questioning government action on water. One such incident arose in the Township of Centre Wellington, Ontario, where Nestle purchased the rights to the municipality’s groundwater to bottle and sell it. Nestle had not only bought the water company — they had outbid the Township itself, who aimed to protect water from commercial interests. Residents started advocacy efforts, echoing the Environmental Commissioner’s warnings. All this eventually led the Premier to include water as part of her government mandate.

Even more recently, water management has gotten attention in the judicial branch, at the Supreme Court of Canada. March 22 was a watershed moment in more ways than one, as aboriginal and environmental groups came together to fight for protection of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, a massive, untouched water system. The case arose out of a dispute between First Nations groups and the Yukon government after the breakdown in negotiations for industrial development of the area. The decision will have significant  implications for the duty to consult as well as for water law.

With the hearings of First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun, et al. v. Government of Yukon done, it is difficult to say yet what will happen. However, no matter which way the case goes, it highlights the importance of addressing water issues at a national level. We can only hope this opens the floor for a bigger conversation, because it is about time for Canada to talk more openly and take action on water issues.

Interested in learning more about water law and resource management? We suggest these articles from our past issues:

10:1 Environmental Monitoring and Ecosystem Management in the Oil Sands: Spaceship Earth or Escort Tugboat?

8:2 Book Review: Inga Winkler, The Human Right to Water: Significance, Legal Status and Implications for Water Allocation

4:2 Book Review: Karen Bakker, ed., Eau Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water

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