Government of Canada launches consultation process for the new Canada Water Agency

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OTTAWA – The federal government is following through on its commitment to establish a Canada Water Agency (CWA) and improve freshwater management across Canada with the launch of public consultations last month. The announcement was made jointly by Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada and Marie-Claude Bibeau, minister of agriculture and agri-food. 

Water challenges such as droughts, floods and deteriorating water quality are intensifying, due in large part to climate change, and Canadians are seeing these costly impacts first-hand in communities across the country. “Canadians want a future with cleaner air and cleaner water for their children and grandchildren. Establishing the (CWA) will help to identify, better co-ordinate and address various issues relating to freshwater in Canada,” said Minister Wilkinson in a statement urging Canadians to participate in the consultations.

Farmers also need reliable supplies of quality freshwater to produce high-quality food to feed Canadians and export around the world and should make their voices heard, added Minister Bibeau. 

Matthew McCandless is the executive director of International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) in Northwestern Ontario. In July 2020 he co-authored an article in Policy Options with Carolyn Dubois of the Gordon Foundation to promote the development of the CWA as an opportunity to tap into existing innovations to answer fundamental questions about the state of freshwater in Canada and how to protect it. The article was meant to capture some things that could be done across the country and to sort out the federal role and what federal obligations are in terms of things like provincial regulations and the International Boundary Waters Treaty (which covers all waters shared by Canada and the United States), he explained.

“Management of the water has largely been under provincial jurisdiction while the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans tends to focus on the Fisheries Act, fisheries habitat and environmental protection,” Mr. McCandless said. “Things like drinking water allocation and wastewater are some of the things that have always been under provincial jurisdiction.”

He pointed to the difference in funding between Canada and the US. “If you look at monitoring stations that are already in place on the Great Lakes, there’s a stark difference between how much monitoring is done in the US versus how much is done in Canada. We just don’t have the money to put into our water resources.” He hopes that a CWA can provide a more co-ordinated and cohesive approach to water monitoring and management.

IISD-ELA looks at issues of freshwater using ELA science, both the problems of today and what might become the problems of tomorrow. Phosphorus is a water problem of today, he said, as is climate change. Better ways of cleaning up oil spills in Canada is something they’re working on for the future. Scientists are also doing a lot of research on pharmaceuticals that end up passing through the body and through the sewage plants and into water systems, he said. These are things that might affect fish health and behaviour. “More recently, we’ve been thinking about antimicrobial, antibacterial and antiviral cleaning products and what those can do to our water. What are the effects on the small organisms in the ecosystems that the bigger ones rely on? In a place like Manitoulin Island there is a lot of tourism and recreational fishing. What would it mean if suddenly, because of these chemicals, recreational fisheries were decimated? These are the future problems and we think that CWA should have a way to look at these emerging threats to freshwater.”

We should not only be dealing with things we already know about but also considering future problems that municipalities and small communities might be having in 20 or 30 years. “Right now we don’t really have guidelines for sewage plants treating these things so that’s certainly an opportunity for a water agency. Whether it’s research or monitoring or new policies and guidelines, it’s all important,” Mr. McCandless said. 

Canada has a large and sparsely populated land base that supports an abundance of water bodies spanning multiple borders and communities. The Great Lakes region alone supports 51 million jobs, or nearly 30 percent of the combined American and Canadian workforces, and one in four Canadians draw their drinking water directly from the Great Lakes. Freshwater issues also affect Inuit, First Nations and Métis communities, and water plays a central role in their well-being and cultural practices.

“Through the Canada Water Agency, our government is looking to strengthen collaboration between the federal government, the provinces, territories, Indigenous peoples and other partners to find the best ways to safeguard our freshwater. Consultations are an important part of this process and I look forward to input from Canadians,” Terry Duguid said in a statement. Mr. Duguid is parliamentary secretary to Minister Wilkinson and has been key in the development process.

The discussion paper, ‘Toward the Creation of a Canada Water Agency,’ presents key issues and provides an overview of the federal government’s existing activities to enhance freshwater management, and a virtual national freshwater policy forum is planned for January 27 and 28. A series of regional forums will be held in February that will provide additional opportunities to participate in consultations. The discussion paper and additional information can be found at placespeak.ca. Comments can be submitted until March 1.