by Jim MacInnis

Recently proposed changes to an admittedly creaky piece of legislation – dating back to 1882 – are giving paddlers a sinking feeling. The Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) was enacted during John A. Macdonald’s tenure as prime minister to protect the public right of navigation on Canadian rivers and waterways. The act requires that developers consider impacts on navigation before undertaking any construction along any navigable waterway in Canada. Now, subtle changes to the language in the act may increase the number of development projects along Canadian waterways.

Obtaining approval for a project that alters natural water flow or impedes navigation on a Canadian waterway is a lengthy and costly process, which involves a mandatory public consultation period. Last June, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (TRAN) tabled a report on proposed changes to the definitions of key terms in the act that would expedite certain kinds of development projects and reduce the massive backlog of projects awaiting approval.

According to the current NWPA, a “navigable waterway” is essentially any waterway that can support a canoe. Proposed changes to the act include amending the definition of “navigable” to exclude “minor waters” or any waterway unable to support a vessel with a draft – the submerged portion of a floating craft – of at least one metre. Under the new act, developers could theoretically reroute these minor waterways without having to complete an environmental assessment or take into consideration impacts on navigation. Other revisions include changing the definition of “works” to exclude “minor works,” as well as deleting specific references to the “four named works” – bridges, booms, causeways and dams – the logic being that these structures do not always impede navigation as they once did.

Many paddlers believe that the deletions will provide loopholes that will expedite future development. “The four named works are exactly the types of structures that, by design, interfere with navigability on Canadian rivers,” says Doug Skeggs, director of river protection for Les Amis de la Rivière Kipawa, a nonprofit river advocacy group based in Montreal. Last June, Skeggs led a group of paddlers in the Paddle to Parliament event, an eight-day, 500-kilometre journey from the Kipawa River in Laniel, Quebec, to Parliament Hill, to raise awareness about the proposed changes to the NWPA. “No one is saying, no dams, no hydro, no bridges, no causeways, no booms,” says Skeggs. “What we’re saying is that if you want to put structures like that on our rivers, then you need to think about what the environmental impacts will be.”

Jim Coffey, founder of Esprit, an Ottawa-based outdoor adventure company, participated in the event because he is dismayed by the potential impacts the changes would have on his business. “These changes would render three of the major rivers for ecotourism in [my region] no longer navigable. I think they’re trying to renovate old legislation, but instead of renovating it, they’re gutting it.”

The federal government will take the recommendations outlined in the TRAN report under consideration; a decision about the revisions is expected sometime this fall.

For Skeggs, the right of navigation goes hand in hand with the protection of our waterways. “Canada was discovered, explored and developed through navigation of our waterways, not in large motorized vessels, but in small people-powered craft. Removing navigation protection from rivers will remove one of the pillars of environmental protection.”