Hap Wilson: Building Access to Water and Defending an Age-old Human Right

This piece is a guest blog by author, explorer, and trail builder Hap Wilson as part of our series weaving together the cultural, environmental, and historic significance of Canada’s navigable waters.


It is the duty of the federal government to protect the public right of all Canadians to navigate waterways in a fair and transparent manner. This sole authority over navigation is granted under Section 91(10) of the Canadian Constitution.


One hundred years ago, the Privy Council established the “floating canoe” test for navigability -this protected the public's right to navigate any waterway that could literally float a canoe. This definition included not only known navigable waters, but the future use of ‘potential’ waterways.


In 2012, this was all flushed down the toilet in order to placate the avaricious demands of corporate interests. Yet, we were getting it all wrong even before those century-old rules were cut-down behind closed doors.


If you were to look at the Indigenous rights, perspectives, and rules that govern the use of waterways we would see a sacred and reciprocal relationship with their respective territories over millennia. Contrary to the typical colonialist doctrine, the use of Canadian waterways is more than a ‘right’, it is an earned privilege that requires the management of the health of waterways and waterbodies upon which we are dependent.


And yet, the environmental community has gradually moved away from defending the environment for its own sake. Decades ago, when I first got involved with the environmental movement in central Canada, saving wilderness waterways and old-growth forest, we had to divorce ourselves from the philosophical plea to save Canada’s wilderness. Over time, our principles incorporated human-centered interests - dollar value tourism (adventure, eco-tourism, and cultural tourism) or paddling a canoe down a wilderness river - what amounted to the weakest link in our campaigns.


I’ve been building access for navigation and mapping out threatened waterways for backcountry recreation since 1977. I’ve covered over half of this country in most provinces. I do know and have learned first-hand, that if we looked at wilderness as a disappearing commodity, the Canadian wilderness is probably our most valued asset. Canada encompasses well over two-million rivers and creeks. If we look at our wild rivers and lakes inventory (which is skewed depending on the resource you look at: Atlas of Canada states that we have 31,752 lakes in Canada; whereas the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry claims that Ontario alone has over 250,000!). Today, only a paltry few lakes are preserved or protected – 62 under the Schedule of the federal Navigation Protection Act.


But tourism is not all that’s at stake. Canadian waterways and navigable rivers include thousands of years of cultural use by Indigenous communities, particularly in Ontario. In the Anishinaabe language, these trails are known as the “nastawgan” in NE Ontario, or the “onigum” in NW Ontario - the traditional territory of Cree, Chippewa, Wyandot among other Ontario First Nations communities. In fact, these are the world’s largest, still intact aboriginal trail systems.


Unfortunately, Heritage status does not guarantee any protection for water trails and portage paths. Unlike the United States, which has a National Trails Systems Act and pairs federal agencies with NGOs to protect national trails, Canada has more to do to protect these important cultural spaces. Though the Canadian Heritage Rivers System was set-up in 1984 by federal, provincial and territorial governments to conserve and protect some of Canada's most iconic waterways - the Schedule of the Navigation Protection Act excludes over half of these Heritage RiversIn a recent book, I wrote about the Seyesi Dene and the Seal Heritage River and how economic interests - such hydro-electric or major mining resource development -overshadow heritage values.


Important historical routes, even ones lacking heritage status, remain popular today. Many of these rivers also lack protection under the Navigation Protection Act and are at risk of obstructions. Case in point – the controversy over Swift River Development Corporation’s building of a power dam on the Moon River in Bala, Muskoka, where access to a pre-historic portage has been denied. Locals claim that the alterations to the beautiful site will mar the landscape, and pose dangers to the enjoyment of the Bala Falls. Arrests have been made when people try to access the river. As an ‘expert’ witness, I made it clear that this was part of a historic and pre-historic navigable waterway. However, the Moon River is among the millions of waters that were not shortlisted for protection i.e. on the Schedule of the Navigation Protection Act.


Two things are certain: the fight to protect navigable waters in Canada will not end; secondly, all rivers and lakes will eventually find their way to the three oceans.


About the Author

Hap Wilson is an author, trail builder and fellow of the Explorer’s Club as well as the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He is a founding member of the Earthroots Toronto and active on their Wild Rivers campaign. Hap is the recipient of the prestigious Bill Mason Award for lifetime achievement in river conservation. Hap has written countless wilderness guides for wild rivers, and guided numerous video expeditions for CITY TV and Bob Hunter (founder of Greenpeace) documenting river diversion on the Dumoine River and the historic Hayes River. His most recent book, “Lake Superior to Manitoba by Canoe” (Firefly) knits together the Trans Canada Trail from Thunder Bay to Manitoba (900km) researching old canoe routes for yet another guidebook.  Wilson has already paddled more than 60,000km. covering many parts of Canada and embarked on over 300 expeditions as wilderness guide and pathfinder.