Canada Creeps, America Votes

Photo by Marek Slusarczyk

As Americans went to the polls on Tuesday to elect their next president, a distracted Canada crept closer to the kind of low-regulation, low-environmental-standards landscape that’s been so coveted by the federal Conservatives since their snatch of majority rule in May 2011.

The forging of that landscape has been a long, systematic process of regulatory streamlining, and on Tuesday it threw Canadian interest over US politics into stark relief. As impactful as the outcome of the American presidential election is to the immediate future of Canada, Canadians are paying little meaningful attention to the gradual ways their country is already changing for the long-term — from the inside out.

The latest evisceration of long-held and deeply entrenched standards came early Tuesday morning with the demise of the 130-year-old Navigable Waters Protection Act.

Critics suggest that the NWPA, which protected any waterway deep enough to float a canoe in, was yet another obstacle to the efficient establishment of large-scale projects, such as pipelines.

Over the course of an hour and thirteen minutes, in a Transport Committee meeting, the NWPA was given its final hearing.

Now it’s gone, or going — to be replaced by the ‘streamlined’ Navigation Protection Act, a significant piece of legislation which is being stuffed into the Conservatives second omnibus budget bill along with everything else controversial, thus minimizing the time for meaningful deliberation and criticism.

Under the new Navigation Protection Act, fewer waterways will be protected than under the old Navigable Waters Protection Act, meaning less paperwork and fewer exhaustive environmental impact assessments ahead of major water spanning or disrupting projects – such as pipelines.

Proponents of the new act don’t see the issue as one of a drop in protection.

”Protection of a waterway seems to imply that we are abandoning waters,” said Nathan Gorall of the Transport Department. “In fact there are plenty of environmental legislations that will protect the quality of the drinking water, the environment of the water. There are species at risk acts that will continue protecting the environment and the users of the waterway.”

That the new act will not lead to a drop in protection, and that already existing laws perform an equivalent level of protection, are both contestable assertions – but first, some context.

While there’s no exact consensus on the total number of lakes in this country, Natural Resources Canada claims there are 31,752 with an area of at least 3 square kilometers. Under the existing (terminated) act, all 31,752 are protected, while under the new act, only 97 are.

It’s equally difficult to ascertain a consensus figure on the number of rivers and their tributaries in this country, but in British Columbia alone there are at least 60 easily recognized rivers, and Natural Resources Canada counts over 150, Canada-wide, that empty into “Ocean-equivalent drainage basins.

Under the new act only 62 rivers will be protected, Canada-wide.

The argument in favor is that these changes will increase efficiency by removing regulations, while existing, alternative acts continue to ensure the protection of all waterways and bodies. Unfortunately, each of these acts and their corresponding agencies have been similarly defunded, neutered, or earmarked for future streamlining.

Tony Maas of World Wildlife Fund Canada partially raised this concern to the committee, among others, in his remarks, suggesting the changes “may leave unforeseen gaps in environmental protections when piled on top of the changes proposed in Bill C-38, in particular changes to the Fisheries Act.”

It was a concern not directly addressed in the final round of official responses to the questions and issues raised. An unsurprising fact given that the hearing had opened an hour earlier with the Vice-Chair, Hon. Denis Coderre, positing “we don’t want a long debate, do we all agree?” before handing the discussion over to the witnesses.

In the end, it is this lack of debate, which is perhaps precisely the point, precisely the purpose of legislative tactics that embrace omnibus bills, prorogations, and out of the public eye committee meetings on sweeping changes to century old standards.

Tuesday’s Transport Committee meeting on the Navigable Waters Protection Act was neither a discussion nor a debate.

It was eulogy.