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

Spout Lake Road and the many potholes. (Barbara Hansen photo - submitted)
Lac La Hache experiences flooding, potholes

Barbara Hansen: Lac La Hache happenings

Taralynn Leclair with her kids Juliette, 4, and Jaxson, 6, juggles home, work and the family hobby farm. (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Moms rule home, hearth and farm

Women hold down the farm while their husbands go off to work

FILE PHOTO
Second doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be available, as AstraZeneca supply runs low: Interior Health

Province expecting large volumes of Pfizer BioNTech as age-based cohort immunization program ramps up

Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes shared this photo of the binders and binders of letters and paperwork she’s received on area roads in the past few years. (Submitted photo)
Cariboo MLAs call on province to fix region’s roads

Minister Rob Fleming said more resources were on the way to the region

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

RCMP are looking for information on an alleged shooting attempt near an elementary school in Smithers March 10. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News/Stock)
UPDATE: Man killed in brazen daylight shooting at Vancouver airport

Details about the police incident are still unknown

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Most Read