12/26/2012 07:21 EST | Updated 02/25/2013 05:12 EST

Protecting Canada's Lakes, Rivers: 2012 Media Fail

Protecting Canada's lakes, streams and rivers and the habitat for fish and wildlife is the one out of the many issues raised by Idle No More that has the greatest potential to expand across much of non-urban Canada, uniting aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, and crossing the political spectrum from the green left to the small c conservative right.


The most blatant fail by the Canadian media in 2012 was the fact news coverage all but ignored the gutting of the Navigable Waters Protection Act by the Conservative government in its latest anti-democratic omnibus bill.

There are crucial current issues (not to mention well-founded historical and contemporary grievances) that are driving the hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat and the Idle No More movement among aboriginal Canadians and their supporters.

The one out of the many issues raised by Idle No More that has the greatest potential to expand across much of non-urban Canada, uniting aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, and crossing the political spectrum from the green left to the small c conservative right is protecting Canada's lakes, streams and rivers and the habitat for fish and wildlife, all of which are now in danger from industrial development and political expediency with the passage of the latest omnibus Bill C-45 as well as the cuts to fishery and habitat protection in the first omnibus Bill C-38.

Nathan Cullen, NDP House Leader and MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley, raised navigable waters as a top issue of the 2012 in his year-end conference call with local northwestern B.C. reporters, saying:

"It means the removal of almost every lake and river we know from the Navigable Waters Protection Act. From one day to the next we went from 2.5 million protected lakes and rivers in Canada to 159 lakes and rivers protected. The Skeena is one of the few that was saved but none of its tributaries. You name the river, you name the lake and it is no longer protected by this act, and this has nothing to do with the budget that the government rammed through, it has everything to do with pipelines, because you are able to now are able to ruin navigation and not trigger an environmental assessment."

Canada's major media seldom bothered to explain to Canadians the consequences of removing protection for the lakes, rivers and tributaries, either before or after the passage of Bill C-45. (There was one story in The Globe and Mail that had a good summary, but even that was too Ottawa-centric.)

The first time Navigable Waters was mentioned recently on CBC's The National was by Rex Murphy and Murphy treated it as a joke, as an example of dull, political process in Ottawa. The threat to Canadian waterways is not a joke, including for those people in rural Newfoundland and Labrador that Murphy always purports to support.

The National hasn't touched the story and that, my former colleagues, is a major failure for the news service. Even in its current diminished state, the National has a mandate to tell the stories of all of Canada.


The Ottawa Press Gallery's diluted coverage of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, even as part of the controversy over the omnibus bills, shows how low the press gallery has fallen in recent years. More and more it doesn't look beyond the Queensway.

To the press gallery today, it seems that "politics" is limited to electoral politics, personality conflicts and how the parties do in the polls. The consequences of politics are ignored even if it affects that Mississippi River that is a tributary of the Ottawa River that flows past Parliament Hill. (where I used to work) brushed off navigable waters as just one example of the problems with Bill C-45. Most coverage, such as a story in Macleans treats it as an inside Ottawa issue.

To be fair to the press gallery, their job is to cover Ottawa. In years past, editors would have assigned reporters to follow up on those issues across Canada. These days those reporters no longer exist in the newsrooms, so Canadians are stuck with Ottawa spin.


I say non-urban Canadians, because both in the media and the calculations of the political war rooms, people outside of Canada's suburbs, whether aboriginal or non-aboriginal, matter less and less in the equation of the electoral horse race and the media bean counters.

When Richard Stursberg was vice-president of everything English at the CBC, he made that clear as he cut coverage in "the regions" over both staff and local objections. Ignoring and scorning the CBC's mandate, Stursberg said that covering Canada outside of the big urban areas did not meet his cost benefit analysis. (He then renamed the regions "centres" — meaning urban centres.)

That problem is not limited to the CBC. Declining advertising dollars are aimed at the urban and suburban audience, so non-city issues are not a priority. Stephen Harper's electoral majority rests largely on Alberta, Saskatchewan and in the suburban metro belt around Toronto and to a lesser extent the Vancouver suburbs, where the issues of rivers and lakes probably mean nothing to those honourable members.


When the Harper government killed the controversial long gun registry, it claimed it was championing rural and wilderness Canadians, supporting hunters and farmers. Then why are so many of the people I know who were either opposed to or wary of the long gun registry now seething with anger against the Harper government?

The main reason is this: the rural and wilderness way of life doesn't just mean taking a rifle and going hunting. It also includes fishing, hiking, camping and sailing. To hunt or fish, you must protect the habitat of those animals and the ecosystem that allows salmon or deer to thrive. Those ecosystems are now in danger from the omnibus bills. So one has to question whether Harper's campaign against the long gun registry was really a support for wilderness and rural Canadians, or nothing more than imported conservative ideology, driven by Canada's NRA branch plants.

Many non-urban, small c conservatives across Canada are beginning to say, at least on the issue of rivers, lakes and streams, forests and mountains, they have more in common with the green and aboriginal activists on the left, than the blind ideologues in the urban right-wing think tanks, eastern editorial boards and the Prime Minister's Office.

Whether the political and media power centres will care in the future about navigable waters is another matter. If Idle No More continues to grow, maybe those power centres will begin to sit up, pay attention and realize there's a lot of Canada outside the big cities.