In the upcoming second act of the federal government’s massive omnibus legislation, the Conservatives have included major changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, one of Canada’s oldest pieces of legislation.
Notwithstanding the fact that using such massive omnibus bills is a cynical attempt to keep our politicians, parliamentary committees and ordinary Canadians in the dark about much of the legislation that has been included within, news of the Navigable Water changes have since been cheered by municipal lobby groups — both national and local.
As the Sun reported on Friday, the act dates back to 1882 at a time when our waterways were Canada’s primary transportation routes. A press release issued by Brandon-Souris Conservative MP Merv Tweed this week said that over time, the scope and application of the act significantly expanded due to many factors such as amendments, judicial decisions and changes in operational practices of mariners.
Essentially, Tweed’s release said, it became a bureaucratic “black hole,” that has held up simple projects such as municipal infrastructure and small recreational docks that do not actually interfere with navigation.
The proposed amendments, under the newly titled Navigation Protection Act, would not only usher in a risk-based approach to the regulation of works and obstruction and build on the 2009 amendments, but “seize the opportunity to create a modern, robust and flexible legislative scheme” that is responsible to the needs of Canada in the future.
The intention, Tweed noted, was that these changes will refocus the scope and application of the legislation to better balance the efficient movement of marine traffic with the need to construct things like bridges, wharfs and transmission lines.
Scripted in those terms, we would have to agree with the Association of Manitoba Municipalities and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which noted the changes would remove delays due to administrative red tape for infrastructure projects and minor projects like building boat docks for lakeside cottages.
“Municipal governments do not have sufficient funds to build infrastructure that long ago ceased to be necessary. We are therefore very pleased to see these amendments,” AMM president Doug Dobrowolski said this week. “They will make the act work better for communities and make it more affordable to build basic infrastructure.”
But the devil, as they say, is in the details and there are a few details missing from this rosy picture.
When the new navigation legislation is passed, the list of navigable lakes, rivers and streams currently covered by the Act would be reduced to 97 lakes, 62 rivers and three oceans.
Postmedia News reports that Transport Minister Denis Lebel has suggested the changes could ease the burden on companies seeking approval on new industrial projects such as oilsands development or mining extraction.
Previous changes introduced to the same law in the last major budget legislation removed pipeline projects from the scope of the act.
While all projects currently in the middle of the approval process under the existing act would be held to the existing rules, future project approvals on many rivers would no longer be subject to a review under the new law, unless Transport Canada expands its list of protected bodies of water.
The Tories are defending the changes by saying that they are trying to fulfil the original intention of the act — protection of navigation, not water.
But as the Globe and Mail reports, environmentalists and opposition MPs said changes to the legislation are part of a broader move by the Harper Tories to weaken environmental oversight. The last federal omnibus budget bill had already overhauled the rules for environmental assessments away from federal oversight.
Had the federal government properly strengthened environmental oversight instead, we would not be concerned.
While we do believe unnecessary impediments to municipal construction should be eliminated, we’re concerned that the Harper government is using the popular “cutting red tape” line in a not-so-subtle attempt to further weaken environmental law in favour of corporate interests.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 20, 2012