12/18/2012 06:13 EST | Updated 02/17/2013 05:12 EST

Abandoning the Stage of Federal Water Stewardship


The Harper government is skilled at paying lip service to deeply-entrenched Canadian values while often de- facto moving public policy away from those values. There is perhaps no better example of this double-sided strategy than in the area of federal water policy.

Water is an iconic resource that lies at the heart of the Canadian identity. Opinion surveys confirm that Canadians see Ottawa as having an important role to play in protecting and managing our freshwater even though natural resources are strictly-speaking a provincial jurisdiction.

Many Canadians in fact falsely believe that water falls exclusively within the federal domain. For their part, Quebecers accurately recognize that water is an issue for both levels of government, in contrast to many political leaders in the province who argue that any role by Ottawa in water management is an intrusion into Quebec's affairs.

The Conservative government claims to have the protection of Canada's freshwater high on its policy agenda. But when connecting the dots of recent federal decisions relating to water the picture that emerges is of a national government quietly bent on vacating its constitutional responsibilities for key aspects of water stewardship.

Examples of Ottawa's systematic efforts to avoid, or extricate itself from, an active role in water management are myriad: initial foot-dragging on recognizing the need for better monitoring of oil-sands industry pollution of the Athabasca River watershed; the gutting of the federal Fisheries Act; the muzzling of Fisheries and Oceans scientists seeking to inform Canadians -- and the world -- of the findings of their research; the neutering of the federal Navigable Waters Protection Act, legislation dating back almost to Confederation that has clear implications for the state of Canada's watercourses; and, last but not least, the decision to transfer the Experimental Lakes Area program, a federally-owned and -operated water-research field laboratory that has informed freshwater policy in Canada for over 40 years, to an outside third party.

It defies common sense, however, to think Ottawa can have a credible national water strategy without exercising significant control over its water research agenda. Implementing a domestic water vision requires that the government have the ability to direct core research activities according to its own water policy priorities -- not leaving the task to private entities or even United Nations agencies such as the International Institute for Sustainable Development which has a rumoured interest in taking the ELA off the government's hands.

ELA research has produced concrete federal legislative and international treaty initiatives to protect freshwater. The ELA's work led to a ban on phosphates in detergents in the context of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The program's world-class research also laid the groundwork for the Canada-U.S. Acid Rain Treaty. The ELA's current research on climate change's impacts on water and on the potential human health effects of pharmaceuticals in wastewater, if allowed to proceed in an independent and rigourous manner, can similarly result in evidence-based federal decisions to better protect Canada's water resources in the future.

A few years ago, the Harper government acquiesced in a Liberal motion calling for a national water strategy. But since then the government's actions have betrayed this objective. The government has instead proceeded to dismantle Ottawa's capacity to design and implement a national water vision. Saying one thing and doing another may be clever way of implementing an unpopular political agenda without attracting attention and opposition, but the tragedy for the country is that Ottawa is wilfully stranding itself on the shoreline, increasingly powerless to influence a key environmental policy issue.

Francis Scarpaleggia is the Member of Parliament for Lac-Saint-Louis and Liberal Water Critic