What are navigable waters?

The Canadian courts have defined "navigable waters" as any lake, river or stream that is deep enough to float a canoe. Tens of millions of water bodies across Canada qualify as "navigable" under this definition. For years, the Navigable Waters Protection Act required that any work that could impact the flow of navigable waters—using the "float a canoe" definition—would need approval prior to construction.

However, in 2012, an omnibus bill reformed the Navigable Waters Protection Act and made it so that a list (called a "schedule") of only 64 rivers and 97 lakes would qualify for these protections. 

In 2018, Bill C69 was introduced. Bill C69 would again reform navigable waters legislation, expanding protections that were removed in 2012. However, the proposed legisation does not fully restore the protections that were lost.  "Navigable waters" in the new legislation would only include rivers and lakes that are actually or “reasonably likely” to be used for commercial, recreational or Indigenous navigation and where currently:

  • there is public access (including by navigating along a river or other water body);
  • there are multiple owners of the land along the river or lake; or
  • the federal or provincial government is the owner of lands along the water body.¹
¹ West Coast Environmental Law. (February 2018). The problems with the new Canadian Navigable Waters Act



Photo by: Christine Mettler. Kouchibouguac River, New Brunswick.