Navigable Waters gain protections as C-69 passes at the Senate

I feel a little bit like I’m the ball in a game of political ping pong—from climate emergencies, to pipeline approvals, to modernized fisheries laws, to tanker bans—it’s been a wild race to the finish line for conversations that impact the futures for our waters. 

On Thursday evening (June 20th) the Senate passed Bill C-69, restoring some of the lost protections to our navigable waterways across the country. The bill also contained important renewal of impact assessment laws and energy regulations - I’ll leave analysis on these elements to my colleagues at West Coast Environmental Law, Nature Canada, Environmental Defence, and EcoJustice who have been at the forefront of those elements.  

And, of course, thousands of Canadians (like you!) that took action to demand stronger, better laws that protect people and the environment!

With the passage of Bill C-69 navigable waters across the country gain important protections.  

In 2012, Canada’s navigable waters laws were narrowed to only a few hundred lakes, rivers and oceans. Hundreds of thousands of waterways lost their legal protections under the changes.

The new Canadian Navigable Waters Act extends protections for any major project happening on any navigable water in the country.  

You may notice the nuance in that statement. Whereas before 2012 most projects taking place on any navigable waters had federal oversight.  Now only major projects on any navigable waterways as well as projects taking place on a list of priority waterways will have this high level of oversight.

A quick, and simplified, overview of some of the changes to our Navigable Waters laws:

  • Federal approval will be required for all major projects on any waterway meeting the new definition (which is mostly good but we’ll have to see how it’s defined in practice).
  • Most modifications to major projects need to be logged in a public registry but won’t require a new approval.
  • Medium impact projects on the list of “priority” waterways will also need to seek approval.
  • Medium impact projects on non-scheduled waterways will need to post intent and consider public input on project impact.
  • Minor projects are exempt.
  • A new public registry will make available proposed, approved, and in review projects.

Though we accept that the new Canadian Navigable Waters Protection Act is not perfect -- for example, the consideration of environmental impacts of projects was not reinstated—it does represent a step forward for navigable waters protection in Canada.

The failure of Bill C-262 however, is concerning. This Bill would have enshrined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law.  In light of pipeline approvals fraught with Indigenous opposition, it sends a clear message that talk of reconciliation is just that, talk. Brings to mind the old adage: actions speak louder than words.

In order for us to truly build innovative environmental laws ready to embrace the true value of clean air, healthy forests and vital waters we - as residents and community members - need to set the expectation of our leaders. Our next chance to do this nationally is months away with this falls federal election. Now is not the time to sit back and watch, it is time to step up and engage!

Check out 100 Debates for the Environment and make the environment the election issue of 2019!