Peter Gorrie wrote an article in Sunday’s Toronto Star criticizing the Harper government for rolling back “key” environmental protections by sneaking them into the budget bill.
I need to be about as circumspect as possible when writing about this issue, because for over five years I worked in an office dedicated largely to completing environmental assessments relating to the legislation Gorrie discusses in his article: the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Chances are I’ll end up working there again. So you’ll have to pardon me for being a bit opaque.
The Navigable Waters Protection Act is one of Canada’s oldest pieces of legislation and was passed when Canadians still got around largely by canoe; in that era, the public right of navigation on waterways was uncontested. If someone put up a bridge that you couldn’t navigate under and you couldn’t get your kids to school or your logs to market, that was serious. Now we have sidewalks, trains, subways, paved roads–how many people do you know who commute to work by canoe? The law has essentially not been touched since.
But a few years ago a judge ruled that a navigable waterway included any waterway you could float a canoe in any section during even part of the year. That drainage ditch that floods during the snow melt to a level deep enough that you could theoretically float a canoe on it for 50 feet or so during April? It’s now a navigable waterway. A river with a waterfall at one end and a non-navigable rapids twenty-five metres away that is theoretically navigable in between? Counts as a navigable waterway. Sure, you’d have to dunk your canoe in underneath the waterfall and drag it out of the river again in five minutes–but no matter.
Since a permit under the NWPA is a trigger for an environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act,anything crossing a drainage ditch is potentially subject to environmental assessment.
Here’s the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s EA Registry. A search shows 97 active EAs within Ontario alone of bridges and culverts triggered by the NWPA. In most cases, the implementation of best practices for bridge and culvert construction and repair will mitigate environmental impacts for these projects.
The definition of a “navigable waterway” absolutely needs to be changed.
Now, the method for doing so in this case is not the best, I agree. A budget does not seem the proper vehicle, and they did not consult as broadly as they could have. The potential for abuse through the use of ministerial orders definitely exists. But no, I do not believe that this was done as a broad-based assault on the public right of navigation–only as a way of undoing the absurd effects of a ruling which has hampered the proper application of this legislation for far too long.