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Navigating the Parliamentary Waters

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The Canadian government introduced (another) sweeping omnibus budget bill on Thursday, changing as many as 60 different acts in a way that eliminates oversight from parliamentary committees.

One of those acts -- the Navigable Waters Protection Act -- is one of Canada's most important and oldest pieces of environmental legislation. It preserved the age-old right of every individual to navigate Canadian waterways.

If the omnibus bill changes, the new law will no longer protect Canadian waterways. Transport Canada stated that this better reflects the "historic intent" of the bill. Transport Canada is wrong.

The simple act of dipping oneʼs paddle into the water and pulling, propelling oneself forward -- such is an act that defines "Canada."

We use the word "navigation" because we have no other word, at least not in English, that captures the full meaning of the action. To "navigate" is to be constantly moving, coming from somewhere and moving towards somewhere else. "Navigation" is an act of faith that there will be some place waiting for you when you arrive. It is the gift of living near places of wealth and of being blessed with routes by which you may travel between them.

Navigation is not a recreational pursuit. It is not an economic pursuit. It is the act of converting the gifts of oneʼs physical surroundings into pleasure, freedom, wealth, or survival. Navigation is an act of citizenship.

For 2,000 years, to navigate water has been considered an act of human freedom. The ability to move from place to place and to access waterways free from tyrants, dictators, monarchs, and other powers has been one of the most important hallmarks of a just society.

It has been roughly 500 years since European and First Nations customs met, 800 years since Magna Carta, and 2,000 years since Roman Times; yet, notions of navigation, access to waterways, checks on power, and the rights of all people are still relevant. Collectively, they are the foundation of Canadaʼs legal system. They influence both legislators and justice officials to this day. For this reason, we cannot discuss issues such as navigation without understanding the history of thought, achievement, and struggle that came before us.

The relentless assault on Canada's Navigable Waters Protection Act turns a right into a privilege, politicizes decision-making, eliminates government accountability, and institutionalizes a system in which some organizations and individuals have greater access to our nation's waters than others.

Waterkeepers have been working to inform and educate people about the roots of navigation rights in Canada for years. You can learn more about the history of this act and the first government rollbacks in our 2009 paper, Born with a Grey Beard.

Krystyn Tully is Vice President of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and co-creator of the Waterkeeper Swim Guide and Drink Guide apps. Learn more at www.waterkeeper.ca.

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