Access to Canadian rivers and lakes may seem like an obvious right for all Canadians.
But not so according to Ecojustice Canada, the largest legal environment advocacy group in the country.
Their concern dates back to unexpected changes that former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government introduced in 2012 to Canada’s century-old Navigable Waters Protection Act, including renaming it the Navigation Protection Act.
In an omnibus piece of legislation, Harper’s altered legislation ended the federal government’s requirement to carry out environmental assessment studies on lake, water or river use permit applications, and reduced the responsibility of government mandated protection to just some 20 waterways across Canada.
“It was a huge loss in environment protection of our waterways and totally arbitrary at the time. There was no consultation leading up to that decision by the Harper government,” said Joshua Ginsberg, a lawyer with Ecojustive in Ottawa.
“It shifted the burden of protection of our waterways from government to the public. If someone’s right to navigation or use of a lake or river was being obstructed, they would have to sue in court.
“So it was still considered unlawful but now it was up to private citizens, if they could afford it, to enforce those regulations that the federal government had previously been responsible for upholding.”
In the last federal election campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised to restore those lost waterway protection measures.
Since being elected, however, the Trudeau regime has gone through a public consultation process that has led to the expected introduction of amended legislation this fall that falls short of what Ginsberg was hoping to see.
“They seem to be doubling down on the scheduling aspect, including now about 100 lakes and 64 rivers across Canada that fall under federal government protection, and vague promises to improve access to protect other navigable waters,” Ginsberg said.
“What we had hoped is we would return to the legislation that had been well-established before Harper amended it, but the Liberals have opted not to go that far at this point.”
Ginsberg says he can’t understand why that is the case, other than industry advocates are pushing to maintain reduced regulation by Ottawa.
Included under the expanded protective schedule would be Okanagan Lake, Kamloops Lake, Shuswap Lake, Little Shuswap Lake, Mara Lake, and Lake Revelstoke.
The lake protection extends to the mouths of all connecting waterways to those lakes.
Local rivers granted protection include the Thompson River, from the South Thompson River to the Fraser River, and the South Thompson River, from Little Shuswap Lake to the Thompson River.
Ginsberg says once tabled in Parliament this fall, the legislation will be referred to committee for further debate prior to final adoption.
“We are waiting at this point to see what will be in it, whether there may still be a change of heart from the government regarding navigable waterway enforcement, and if not there will be one more opportunity to influence those changes during the committee hearings,” Ginsberg said.
“Our waterways, all of them, are the lifeblood of our country. For more than a century there has been effective protective legislation in place and (the Harper government) took that away in one fell swoop. “Trudeau’s government has a chance to set that right, and we still hope it chooses to do so.”
A letter writing campaign this spring had the support of many area residents, including Sharon Bell of West Kelowna.
“We just want to show that many of us still care about protection of our navigational waterways from untethered development,” Bell said.