As part of an omnibus budget bill introduced on Oct. 18, 2012, the Progressive Conservative federal government has included changes to the 1882 Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA). It is unclear how proposed changes to the act could affect the long term protection of the many lakes and rivers in Northwest B.C., including Babine Lake. Neither Babine Lake, nor any of the rivers flowing from it would be included in the new list of federally protected lakes and waterways proposed in the bill under debate in Ottawa.
In a press release issued by Transport Canada, a reform to the act was called for because it had become cumbersome and ineffectual. Waters not listed under the new Navigation Protection Act would ‘continue to be protected through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 2012, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Fisheries Act.’
The new list of protected lakes and rivers does not include any of the waterways that have been in local news recently like Babine Lake and the Babine River, as well as the Nechako River and its already threatened sturgeon population.
Chief Wilf Adam of the Lake Babine Nation said that they are still assessing the changes to the act, but he is concerned. “Babine Lake needs cleaning up from the past,” Chief Adam said. “Past logging practices and decommissioned mines need much attention.”
“[We] can’t just take the resources and leave the mess to the people who have to live there,” he said.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation have been more vocal in their criticism of the proposed changes to the legislation. “This is unacceptable,” said Eriel Deranger, Communication Coordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, “[the conservatives] have made a unilateral decision to remove protection of waterways without adequate consultation with First Nations and communities that rely on river systems for navigation and cultural practices protected under treaty.”
Shell Canada is currently applying to the federal government for approval to mine 21 kilometres of the Muskeg River in bitumen sands development. “We’re fighting [the] Shell application right now. Part of the application is to mine out the Muskeg River which is no longer protected,” Deranger said. After realizing that the changes to the NWPA meant that the Muskeg River was no longer protected, “It became strikingly clear to us what the act was really about,” she said.
“It’s not that we won’t be able to fight applications without the act, it’s the fact that the tools for doing so are becoming fewer and fewer as the years go by,” she said. “Under the conservative government a lot of the environmental tools that we’ve used in the past are gone.”
The government’s position is that the act was meant to deal with navigation and not environment, and this new act is needed to ‘cut through the red tape’ of an act that has come to apply to ‘all waters in Canada that can float a canoe including some brooks and streams that are only full for a few weeks during the spring runoff and other waters that are not normally navigated.’
But according to Deranger, “Many of these smaller rivers and streams are still used by band members as navigation points and entry points into parts of traditional territories that otherwise would be much more difficult to access.”
“We’re definitely not the only ones affected,” she said. “Many First Nations and rural communities utilize smaller rivers and streams that are no longer listed on the waters protection act. They use them for navigation into their communities or to access fishing, hunting and trapping grounds. We’re not unique.”
Jessica Clogg, Executive Director and Senior Counsel for West Coast Environmental Law described the bill as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing that will have major implications for the environment and human health.”
“Under the [proposed changes], the Skeena River would be the only body of water in Northwest BC that would have some level of protection under the act,” said Tadzio Richards of Rivers Without Borders.
While federal environmental assessment acts remain in place the problem, according to Richards, is that the previous omnibus bill already weakened those protection mechanisms. “They’ve weakened fish and fish habitat protection in the Fisheries Act, and greatly eroded the environmental assessment process,” said Richards.
Large industrial projects require federal as well as provincial environmental approval. By replacing the inclusive NWPA with the slimmed down WPA, “the [federal] requirement for a project to describe waterways affected by the project has been removed.”
“Essentially the federal government has off loaded much of its responsibility to the provinces,” says Richards. “That means the federal government has removed key protections for the lakes, rivers and fish in Northwest B.C., at the same time as they’ve made it easier for large scale industrial developments to go ahead.”