Building a Canada Water Agency

Late last year, the federal government released a discussion paper on the Canada Water Agency. The paper outlines objectives this Agency could advance in order to enhance freshwater management across Canada. The government is seeking feedback on this discussion paper, and will be accepting comments until March 1st. 

So, what do we think of this Discussion Paper and the prospect of creating a Canadian Water Agency in general? 

Well, we are in favour of a Canada Water Agency. Right now, the way our water is managed across the country can be quite uncoordinated and varies dramatically from province to province in terms of how watershed governance happens and who is involved; what laws, policies and standards are on the books; what kind of data and information is available and how it is housed and accessed, etc. The twin climate and biodiversity crises are putting pressure on our shared waters like never before so it is imperative that we do everything we can to increase our capacity and ability to safeguard our waters, the lifeblood of ecosystems and the cornerstone of community and economic health. 

It is very early in this process, and the government has not made any concrete proposals for how a Canada Water Agency will be structured or what, precisely, it will do. The discussion paper notes a number of opportunities and considerations under different themes. But at this point, they are only soliciting feedback, not proposing any specific paths forward.

So, how do we respond to this on-the-right-track but somewhat vague discussion paper?

The Canadian Freshwater Alliance recently worked with Our Living Waters, the Forum for Leadership on Water and dozens of other organizations and groups across the country to develop a shared response to the discussion paper. Instead of responding to and prioritizing each of the ten objectives laid out in discussion paper (we think the objectives are appropriate, that none should be considered out-of-scope, and that it is possible and even desirable to work on these objectives simultaneously), we focussed on five foundational pillars that we think should be mainstreamed into every aspect of the Canada Water Agency's development, structure and operations. We believe that these pillars embody the water governance and management paradigm shift that is needed to protect and restore the health of fresh water in Canada. The joint submission is below. 

If you would like to give feedback on the discussion paper or the development of the Canada Water Agency in general, you can do so until March 1st, 2021 using their online survey tool. We welcome you to borrow as heavily from our submission as you'd like! 

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Five Foundations Pillars for the Canada Water Agency

(A joint submission from members of Canada's water community)


The Canada Water Agency must meaningfully advance the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Working towards reconciliation must be done in partnership with Indigenous peoples and, therefore, may look different across the country, but the Agency should contribute to:

  • Fulfilling the federal government’s stated commitment to advancing government-to-government, nation-to-nation relationships by developing pathways and providing resources for the co-governance of shared waters with Indigenous Nations.
  • Recognizing, respecting, and upholding Indigenous inherent, Aboriginal, and treaty water rights and roles.
  • Recognizing, respecting, and upholding Indigenous worldviews and knowledge systems related to water, as defined by Indigenous peoples.
  • Fulfilling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, with a particular focus on repudiating concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands and the laws, policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts (Calls to Action 45-47).
  • Fulfilling the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), with a particular focus on ensuring Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights (Article 18) and that Indigenous peoples have granted their free, prior, and informed consent before decisions are made that affect them (Article 19).

Knowledge Creation and Mobilization

Effective water management and governance is hindered by knowledge gaps across the country. We cannot ensure the health and security of fresh water in Canada unless we have a strong understanding of their current status, how they are being impacted, and how they could continue to change in a climate-impacted future. The Canada Water Agency can play a key role creating and mobilizing the knowledge – both Western and Indigenous science and knowledge – needed to predict and respond to water problems and opportunities by:

  • Convening freshwater experts to develop a knowledge creation and mobilization framework that addresses identified data gaps, creates standard protocols and guidelines for data analysis, assesses existing data collection capacity, and identifies the most appropriate leverage points for the Canada Water Agency to add value.
  • Supporting existing data collection efforts by enhancing funding and other supports for nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, Indigenous Nations and organizations, and community-based water monitoring programs.
  • Acting as a knowledge liaison that facilitates collaboration between water experts across governments, nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, and the private sector.
  • Coordinating a central repository that focuses on collecting, interpreting, and disseminating water information and data in an accessible format for different levels of government, the water community, and the general public.
  • Focusing on the role of good quality data and information in enabling better water management decisions by ensuring that decision-makers have the knowledge and tools they need to make decisions in the best interests of the watershed.
  • Generating future water scenarios and forecasts to contribute to climate resilience and adaptation planning, which could include predicting floods and droughts, prioritizing water quality issues, predicting and mitigating the risk of harmful algae blooms, and understanding future water supply and use.

Cooperative Federalism

Canada is a federation in which the responsibilities for managing fresh water are shared among different levels of government. This shared governance model is a source of strength, but it also creates fragmentation and communication gaps that adversely affects our water management systems and the health of our water resources. The Canada Water Agency has a key role to play leading a strengthened cooperative federalism approach to shared water decision-making and management. The Agency can do so by:

  • Emphasizing a pan-Canadian approach to water management that respects and enhances the jurisdiction of provincial, territorial, Indigenous, and municipal governments by providing high-level coordination and capacity support to these jurisdictions.
  • Strengthening transboundary water management by prioritizing healthy and intact watersheds as the basis of water management.
  • Committing capacity to anticipate, investigate, avoid, and resolve water-related disputes between and within jurisdictions.
  • Providing national scale leadership and guidance on water management best practices, including water-related climate change adaptation strategies.
  • Committing to the recognition of Indigenous self-government and legal systems as a foundational and evolving component of cooperative federalism.

Watershed Approach

Addressing water governance fragmentation across the country requires a new approach that emphasizes the importance of watershed boundaries in all freshwater decision-making. The watershed approach takes into account interconnected ecological, social, economic, and cultural values that must be balanced to ensure the wellbeing of communities and ecosystems across the watershed. The Canada Water Agency can help lead this new approach by:

  • Developing a pan-Canadian strategy for promoting water governance according to watershed boundaries, including strategies for realigning siloed freshwater management capacities within the federal government and a roadmap for watershed-based collaboration between jurisdictions.
  • Building durable watershed-level partnerships for water management and decision-making with provinces, territories, municipalities, and Indigenous governments.
  • Linking partnerships to clear outcomes that include building resilience to extreme events, identifying priority areas for watershed restoration, and ensuring effective environmental flow regimes are in place across all levels of jurisdiction and authority.
  • Supporting the protection and restoration of freshwater ecosystems, including mainstreaming ecosystem services valuations into all water management decision-making processes, prioritizing and protecting environmental flows across all water management decisions, and promoting nature-based solutions to address pressing water challenges.

Deep Reform

The Canada Water Agency is a stepping stone, not an end game. Beyond the establishment of a new institution, efforts to strengthen federal freshwater leadership must also address Canada’s outdated federal water laws and policies. This work involves a broad range of actors both within and outside the federal government, but the Agency can play an important role conducting holistic analysis, convening relevant federal departments, and engaging with other levels of government on water-focused policy and legislation. Specifically, the Canada Water Agency should prioritize:

  • Leading renewal of the Canada Water Act, including the opportunity for Indigenous Nations to participate in a legislative co-drafting process that is consent-based, rooted in nation-to-nation relationships, and consistent with UNDRIP.
  • Assisting the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with developing regulations for freshwater habitat protections under the renewed Fisheries Act.
  • Operationalizing recommendations for legislative reform that emerge from the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development’s study of federal freshwater policies and legislation.
  • Undertaking integrated legislative and policy reviews to ensure water management coherence across the federal government.