The midnight sun shines over the ice-covered waters near Resolute Bay at 1:30 am as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent Saturday, July 12, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The midnight sun shines over the ice-covered waters near Resolute Bay at 1:30 am as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent Saturday, July 12, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Canada has 20% of the world’s freshwater reserves — this is how to protect it

Researchers suggest the need for a Canada Water Agency dedicated to water management across the country

By University of Ottawa professors Eric Champagne, Lauren Touchant, Marie-France Fortin and Thomas Burelli

The federal government has been working since 2020 to create a Canadian agency dedicated to water management across the country. Public consultations ended on March 1, and the Indigenous engagement process will continue throughout 2021.

But many questions and expectations remain about the nature of the new Canada Water Agency. Water governance encompasses all the administrative, social, political, economic and legal processes put in place to manage water. In other words, it is these societal processes that determine how governmental and non-governmental groups develop measures and make decisions in the area of water management.

We are members of the University of Ottawa Forum on Water Law and Governance, a research network that has identified a series of law and governance issues that need to be considered by the future Canada Water Agency.

The urgency to act

As the global demand for freshwater steadily increases, Canada seems to be in a privileged position: it holds 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply and nine per cent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources.

However, when it comes to the urgent issue of freshwater management, many factors come into play. These include climate change, which is occurring more rapidly in Canada than elsewhere and has pronounced environmental consequences, access to drinking water in Indigenous communities and flood policies. All of these issues contribute to the need to create a Canada Water Agency.

Environment and Climate Change Canada released a discussion paper on the future agency in December 2020, and held public consultations through virtual national and regional forums in January and February 2021. Indigenous engagement is ongoing.

Legal challenges

Canadian water law is hindered by interjurisdictional issues and a lack of co-ordination between government groups. Many proposals have been made to overcome these obstacles.

For starters, there are discussions about possible co-operative efforts in the light of the constitutional division of powers and the impact of recent case law on co-operative federalism. There have also been calls to reform the Canada Water Act to reconsider freshwater management through watershed management.

More integrated collaboration between different governmental and non-governmental groups has also been encouraged. Finally, some advocate for a complete paradigm shift, to an Indigenous perspective of water as a life-giving (and life-taking) spiritual entity.

Political issues

The creation of the Canada Water Agency must address the fragmentation of water management, multi-level governance issues and the specifics of Canadian federalism.

Its creation would be the culmination of renewed political interest following the Walkerton crisis in 2000, where E. coli contaminated the muncipality’s water, killing seven and making more than 2,000 sick. It would also be an opportunity to revitalize the federal water policy, which has been gathering dust since 1987.

The role of municipalities

While the institutional environment and relationships that characterize water management in Canada are complex, the future Canada Water Agency could nonetheless promote the creation and sharing of knowledge, as well as citizen participation.

Municipalities, which play a fundamental role in infrastructure and in the protection of aquatic ecosystems, could also be recognized as key players in Canadian water management within the agency. This would be an opportunity to modernize the framework for federal-municipal relations in Canada.

Water dynamics

Despite a move towards integration and harmonization of water management, it’s important to consider the different sectors associated with water and to reflect on the dynamics of water management.

Several water management bodies, like the Lake of the Woods Control Board or the International Joint Commission, have been trying for several years to set objectives that take the territory or ecosystem into account.

It is also necessary to consider the diverse dynamics of water. This means, for instance, considering the specifics of the agriculture sector or the health sector, with respect to water needs, impacts on water, access to water or issues related to environmental justice.

Relevant models elsewhere

While the creation of a Canada Water Agency is a domestic initiative, looking at international perspectives is interesting for at least three reasons:

1. The Canadian initiative is an opportunity to question and even challenge imagined national sovereignty over water, since the management issues go largely beyond the borders of Canada.

2. Canada also has the opportunity to learn from several innovative foreign experiences. This is the case of the French Water Agencies, which have enabled the emergence of a form of water democracy and which are now essential actors in environmental protection. This is also the case in New Zealand, where the Whanganui River has been granted legal personhood as part of reconciliation efforts between New Zealand and the Māori.

3. Finally, the future Canada Water Agency will be scrutinized and studied beyond Canada’s borders. This will have implications for the activities of the International Joint Commission and will contribute to international thinking in the field of water management.

The importance of next steps

Recent surveys show that Canadians consider water to be their country’s primary natural resource. Merrell-Ann Phare, commissioner of the International Joint Commission, told the conference we hosted that “the Canada Water Agency is potentially a groundbreaking governance innovation in Canada”.

The next steps will therefore be critical. Environment and Climate Change Canada has to move forward in preparing a report that incorporates the comments received during the public consultation.

The recently released federal budget plan 2021 includes $17.4 million of funding for this initiative over two years, starting this year. While this proposal appears to confirm government commitment, the proposed schedule may be disrupted if a federal election is called in the fall.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Climate changeDrinking waterWater

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Skeena Bulkley-Valley MP Taylor Bachrach has been working across party lines to have rail safety issues addressed. An April 27, 2020 train derailment blocked five intersecting tracks on the CN rail line in Prince Rupert close to the waterfront on Bill Murray Drive. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Bachrach pushes for rail safety and wants NW voices to be heard

Residents and community leaders are concerned about safety and preparedness in the NW

Over 8000 BC Hydro customers have been affected by the power outage. (BC Hydro outage map)
Power outage affects 8000 BC Hydro customers in Prince Rupert area

BC Hydro has assigned crews to restore power

Josie Pottle rocks out to placing painted rocks by more than 14 different Prince Rupert childcare organization staff and tots for rock gardens around the city to mark May as Childcare Awareness month. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Childcare month is rocking it in Prince Rupert

More than 14 local childcare organizations participated in making rock gardens

Volunteers at the AFFNO drive-in movie theatre night at the Jim Ciccone Centre on May 8, directed traffic and braved the rain before the movies started. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
It was lights, camera, action for AFFNO’s drive-in movie night

Volunteers and moviegoers watched a double feature in both official languages

Pembina Prince Rupert Terminal has entered into a one-year agreement with Mitsui & Co. for the majority of its production for supply to the Asian markets, Pembina announced on May 6th. (Photo: Supplied
Prince Rupert Terminal highlighted in Pembina first quarter

Pembina announced one-year agreement with Mitsui & Co. to supply Asian market

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

Keith MacIntyre - BC Libertarian
Penticton’s Keith MacIntyre new leader of the B.C. Libertarian Party

The Penticton businessman was voted in by members of the party on May 8

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a 'person of interest' in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
Man sought in suspicious Kootenay death found in Lake Country

Philip Toner is a person of interest in the death of Brenda Ware

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP reported to 287 mental health calls between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 1. (Black Press files)
‘It’s not the police’s responsibility to deal with mental health calls’: Vernon RCMP

RCMP remind public to take care of mental health and well-being, while better solutions are sought

Thompson Rivers University campus is in Kamloops, B.C. (KTW file photo)
Thompson Rivers the 1st B.C. university to supply free menstrual products

The university will offer the products this September

Fraser Health is using ‘targeted’ vaccination clinics in high-risk areas of the Lower Mainland. (Fraser Health photo)
B.C.’s COVID-19 decrease continues, 515 new cases Tuesday

426 seriously ill people in hospital, up from 415 Monday

The site of Sunfest, Laketown Ranch, will be open for camping this summer. (Citizen file)
Sunfest country music bash won’t be shining on B.C. in 2021

Annual Vancouver Island Festival cancelled due to COVID-19, along with Laketown Shakedown

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation elected chief councillor Moses Martin, who was also Chantel Moore’s grandfather, speaks to media in Port Alberni on Aug. 16, 2020, during a visit from NDP leader Jagmeet Singh following the police shooting of Chantel Moore. (Elena Rardon photo)
Mother of 2 shot by police in critical condition, says B.C. First Nation chief

Community ‘devastated’ by third member of 1,150-person Vancouver Island nation shot in less than a year

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham promotes the government’s BuyBC food program in 2019. (B.C. government)
Money running out for fresh fruit, vegetables, milk in B.C. schools

‘Looking at ways to support this type of program,’ minister says

Most Read