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Canada’s Sustainable Freshwater Future

The Call to Action for federal leadership on freshwater aims to make water a top priority for the next federal government

Over the years, protection of Canada’s fresh water has largely been deferred to provincial and territorial governments.

Over the years, protection of Canada’s fresh water has largely been deferred to provincial and territorial governments. Collectively, provinces and territories have done well to renew and modernize their water laws, policies and strategies such as Ontario’s Great Lakes Protection Act and the Northwest Territories’ Water Stewardship Strategy, but freshwater protection is a shared responsibility. The Call to Action for federal leadership on fresh water urges the federal government to take a greater stance on freshwater protection and make it a national priority.

The Call to Action for federal leadership on freshwater — a project of Our Living Waters, a national initiative administered by Tides Canada and coordinated by the Canadian Freshwater Alliance — aims to put freshwater protection on the federal agenda. The Call to Action calls on the next federal government to “build consensus among aboriginal, federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments, and others in Canada’s water community, on a shared action agenda to achieve the national target of all waters in good health by 2025.”

To achieve this goal, the Call to Action outlines specific actions, organized into four themes:

  1. Mobilizing water knowledge to build capacity for science and to implement a common approach for assessing freshwater health
  2. Modernizing and implementing water law and policy for freshwater protection and management
  3. Building water sustainable cities and economies by eliminating the water infrastructure deficit and enhancing Canada’s water technology sector
  4. Supporting a collaborative water community by mandating a minister of a key department to focus on water and creating a funding source dedicated to the protection, restoration and enhancement of Canada’s waters

The Call to Action is just the first step in the Our Living Waters initiative. With over 50 organizational endorsements, the Call to Action aims to make fresh water a top priority for Canada’s next federal government. When the new federal government is established, attention will turn to influencing implementation of a policy agenda, starting with the government’s speech from the throne.

“Our Living Waters is intended to be a multi-faceted ten-year initiative,” said Tony Maas, primary author of Call to Action and project lead for Our Living Waters. “Down the road we’ll be putting pieces together to target the other levels of government.” The upcoming federal election has provided the opportunity to put their plan into action, but it is only the beginning.

The first, and so far the only, Federal Water Policy in Canada was created in 1987. This policy, tabled under then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, still stands today almost 30 years later.  The policy established a federal framework to achieve its two goals:

  1. To protect and enhance the quality of the water resource; and
  2. To promote the wise and efficient management and use of water. 

The 1987 Federal Water Policy was based on a two-year inquiry that gathered input from industries, environmental organizations, scientists and provincial and federal agencies across Canada with, prior to its release. Unfortuneatly, most of of the strategy’s commitments have not been fully implemented.

Just this past decade we have seen changes to key pieces of federal legislation such as the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Act and the Environmental Assessment Act, through which protection of waters have been significantly weakened. This year alone, British Columbia is suffering from a major drought, incessant algal blooms are plaguing Lake Winnipeg and Lake Erie, and Alberta declared a province-wide agricultural disaster. These current freshwater issues threaten Canada’s communities and economies. Provincial, territorial and municipal government cannot efficiently or effectively protect Canada’s freshwater alone; Maas says now is the time for greater water leadership from the federal government.

The Call to Action urges increased collaborative efforts among all orders of government to create and implement a national framework to lead Canada into a sustainable freshwater future. It was created to emulate some of the principles and goals included in the EU Water Framework Directive.

The European Union (EU) Water Framework Directive was created in 1980 and called for all waters in the union to be in good condition by 2015. Although the EU is unlikely be achieve this goal, Maas does not find this initiative to be a failure. According to Maas, “That [creation of the EU Directive] drove all sorts of things like the development of a scientific framework to assess freshwater health but also collaboration across 27 national governments in the EU, around common implementation efforts to get to that big goal”. The collaboration across governments in the EU Directive is a model for what the Canadian federal government could achieve by engaging more deeply with provincial, territorial, aboriginal and municipal governments on water issues.  

Endorse the Call to Action for federal leadership on fresh water here.

Do you want to make water a top priority for your community? Once you’ve endorsed the Call to Action, there is an accompanying list of questions you could be asking your local candidates.

Put water on the federal agenda. Download the Our Living Waters Communications Toolkit for talking points on each of the four themes of the Call to Action. The toolkit also provides a sample OpEd, a sample letter to the editor and sample social media posts. 

Eunize Lao is the Editorial Intern and a third-year Environment and Business student at the University of Waterloo.