The midnight sun shines over the ice-covered waters near Resolute Bay at 1:30 am as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent Saturday, July 12, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The midnight sun shines over the ice-covered waters near Resolute Bay at 1:30 am as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent Saturday, July 12, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Canada has 20% of the world’s freshwater reserves — this is how to protect it

Researchers suggest the need for a Canada Water Agency dedicated to water management across the country

By University of Ottawa professors Eric Champagne, Lauren Touchant, Marie-France Fortin and Thomas Burelli

The federal government has been working since 2020 to create a Canadian agency dedicated to water management across the country. Public consultations ended on March 1, and the Indigenous engagement process will continue throughout 2021.

But many questions and expectations remain about the nature of the new Canada Water Agency. Water governance encompasses all the administrative, social, political, economic and legal processes put in place to manage water. In other words, it is these societal processes that determine how governmental and non-governmental groups develop measures and make decisions in the area of water management.

We are members of the University of Ottawa Forum on Water Law and Governance, a research network that has identified a series of law and governance issues that need to be considered by the future Canada Water Agency.

The urgency to act

As the global demand for freshwater steadily increases, Canada seems to be in a privileged position: it holds 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply and nine per cent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources.

However, when it comes to the urgent issue of freshwater management, many factors come into play. These include climate change, which is occurring more rapidly in Canada than elsewhere and has pronounced environmental consequences, access to drinking water in Indigenous communities and flood policies. All of these issues contribute to the need to create a Canada Water Agency.

Environment and Climate Change Canada released a discussion paper on the future agency in December 2020, and held public consultations through virtual national and regional forums in January and February 2021. Indigenous engagement is ongoing.

Legal challenges

Canadian water law is hindered by interjurisdictional issues and a lack of co-ordination between government groups. Many proposals have been made to overcome these obstacles.

For starters, there are discussions about possible co-operative efforts in the light of the constitutional division of powers and the impact of recent case law on co-operative federalism. There have also been calls to reform the Canada Water Act to reconsider freshwater management through watershed management.

More integrated collaboration between different governmental and non-governmental groups has also been encouraged. Finally, some advocate for a complete paradigm shift, to an Indigenous perspective of water as a life-giving (and life-taking) spiritual entity.

Political issues

The creation of the Canada Water Agency must address the fragmentation of water management, multi-level governance issues and the specifics of Canadian federalism.

Its creation would be the culmination of renewed political interest following the Walkerton crisis in 2000, where E. coli contaminated the muncipality’s water, killing seven and making more than 2,000 sick. It would also be an opportunity to revitalize the federal water policy, which has been gathering dust since 1987.

The role of municipalities

While the institutional environment and relationships that characterize water management in Canada are complex, the future Canada Water Agency could nonetheless promote the creation and sharing of knowledge, as well as citizen participation.

Municipalities, which play a fundamental role in infrastructure and in the protection of aquatic ecosystems, could also be recognized as key players in Canadian water management within the agency. This would be an opportunity to modernize the framework for federal-municipal relations in Canada.

Water dynamics

Despite a move towards integration and harmonization of water management, it’s important to consider the different sectors associated with water and to reflect on the dynamics of water management.

Several water management bodies, like the Lake of the Woods Control Board or the International Joint Commission, have been trying for several years to set objectives that take the territory or ecosystem into account.

It is also necessary to consider the diverse dynamics of water. This means, for instance, considering the specifics of the agriculture sector or the health sector, with respect to water needs, impacts on water, access to water or issues related to environmental justice.

Relevant models elsewhere

While the creation of a Canada Water Agency is a domestic initiative, looking at international perspectives is interesting for at least three reasons:

1. The Canadian initiative is an opportunity to question and even challenge imagined national sovereignty over water, since the management issues go largely beyond the borders of Canada.

2. Canada also has the opportunity to learn from several innovative foreign experiences. This is the case of the French Water Agencies, which have enabled the emergence of a form of water democracy and which are now essential actors in environmental protection. This is also the case in New Zealand, where the Whanganui River has been granted legal personhood as part of reconciliation efforts between New Zealand and the Māori.

3. Finally, the future Canada Water Agency will be scrutinized and studied beyond Canada’s borders. This will have implications for the activities of the International Joint Commission and will contribute to international thinking in the field of water management.

The importance of next steps

Recent surveys show that Canadians consider water to be their country’s primary natural resource. Merrell-Ann Phare, commissioner of the International Joint Commission, told the conference we hosted that “the Canada Water Agency is potentially a groundbreaking governance innovation in Canada”.

The next steps will therefore be critical. Environment and Climate Change Canada has to move forward in preparing a report that incorporates the comments received during the public consultation.

The recently released federal budget plan 2021 includes $17.4 million of funding for this initiative over two years, starting this year. While this proposal appears to confirm government commitment, the proposed schedule may be disrupted if a federal election is called in the fall.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Climate changeDrinking waterWater

Just Posted

Friends, family and members of Semiahmoo First Nation met at the Surrey Provincial Court Tuesday morning for the verdict of two teens charged in the death of Paul Prestbakmo. (Tracy Holmes photo)
Friends, family ‘praying for right decision’ in South Surrey mechanic’s stabbing death

Judge’s verdict expected today in 2019 death of Paul Prestbakmo

North Surrey Sport and Ice Complex. (Photo: larkgroup.com)
North Surrey rink, Newton playground earn B.C. excellence awards

Awards presented by BC Recreation and Parks Association

The George Massey Tunnel will be closed overnight May 28 and 29 to test the tunnel’s fire suppression system and overhead lane control signals. (Black Press Media file photo)
Overnight Massey Tunnel closures coming May 28, 29

Closure to allow safe testing of tunnel’s fire suppression system and overhead lane control signals

Missing Surrey man Bernard Grempel. (Photo: Surrey RCMP)
Surrey RCMP seeks help to find missing man

Bernard Grempel was reported missing on Sunday and hasn’t been seen since Friday

Members of Whalley Legion Junior Band at an event in the early 1980s. (Facebook photo)
SURREY NOW & THEN: When the city’s ‘official band’ marched with Whalley Legion title

A weekly look back at Surrey-area landmark sites, events and people

Members of Whalley Legion Junior Band at an event in the early 1980s. (Facebook photo)
SURREY NOW & THEN: When the city’s ‘official band’ marched with Whalley Legion title

A weekly look back at Surrey-area landmark sites, events and people

Derek Descoteau with his trusty dog Harvey. (Photo submitted)
Friends provide continuing comfort for family in wake of unresolved senseless B.C. murder

Case remains before the courts five years after Derek Descoteau’s abrupt stabbing death in Chemainus

Two small dogs were also discovered by the officer, one had died, and the other was taken by animal control and sent for veterinary care with the BC SPCA. (File Photo)
Body discovered in parked van in Mission with 2 dogs, 1 dead

Remains in state of decomposure, surviving dog sent for veterinary care with BC SPCA

A prowling coyote proved no match for a stray black cat who chased it out of a Port Moody parking lot Friday, May 14. (Twitter/Screen grab)
VIDEO: Cat who chases away coyote asked to join Port Moody, Vancouver police 

Caught on camera Friday, the black cat jumps out from under a parked car and runs the wild animal out of a vacant lot

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The top photo is of a real carbine rifle, while the bottom photo is the airsoft rifle seized from a Kelowna man on May 15. (Contributed)
RCMP issue warning: ‘Imitation firearms need to be dealt with responsibly’

A man brandishing his airsoft rifle in public had his weapon seized by Mounties on Saturday

Abbotsford Regional Hospital. (Black Press Media files)
Canada marks 25,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began

6 in every 10,000 Canadians died of COVID-19 since March 9, 2020

Staff-Sgt. Svend Nielsen, with the 100 Mile House RCMP. (Melissa Smalley - 100 Mile Free Press)
14-year-old boy killed in serious ATV crash near 100 Mile House

Youth was travelling with a group of peers when the incident occurred last Friday

Most Read