OTTAWA | March 16, 2012

No protection for Canada’s blue gold

Bookmark and Share Print this page Increase font size Reset font size Decrease font size

Parliament voted down another opportunity to create a national policy to control and protect Canada’s fresh water from export on Mar. 14.

Water experts worry that Canadian fresh water may soon be sold as a commodity.

Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia introduced the now-defeated private member’s bill in September 2011. This was the third time he has introduced it since 2007.

Had it passed, the bill would have prohibited the bulk removal of fresh water – by any means – from its natural basin, and imposed fines and jail time for violations.

It also outlined a partnership between the federal and provincial governments to make Canadian water a public trust.

As the world’s need for renewable fresh water grows, Canada must take legislative steps to maintain sovereignty over its fresh water stocks, say water experts and the bill’s supporters.

They are concerned that if water is sold as a commodity (excluding the existing sale of bottled water) it will be considered fair game for sale under NAFTA.

Once a good or service is sold as a commodity the government will be unable to stop its sale in the future, due to provisions in NAFTA.

“That’s where the risk lies,” says Elizabeth May, leader of the Green party. May co-seconded the bill in Parliament, and says Bill C-267 is a “far superior” policy than past legislation introduced.

One single hair-brained scheme could undermine an entire nation’s resolve to never export our water.
— Elizabeth May, Green Party leader

“It’s really a response to the threat that NAFTA presents,” she says.

Risky business

It is a province or territory’s responsibility to manage its own natural resources under Canada’s constitution, but as water management is not explicitly mentioned, the two levels of government have historically shared this responsibility.

The bill has been written to avoid infringing on provincial jurisdiction, says Ralph Pentland, acting chairman of the Canadian Water Issues Council, a group of Canadian water experts and former water policy-makers. “But there is still that fear, or feeling among some, that it may be a bit aggressive.”

“My bill requires [the government] to enter into negotiations with the provinces to determine the boundaries of basins, and you know, they really don’t want to do that,” Scarpaleggia says. “It’s too complicated, and they’re afraid to offend Quebec.”

The province has been urged in the past by the Montreal Economic Institute to export its “blue gold.” A 2008 report published by the institute said Quebec could increase its gross annual income by $65 billion by exporting its fresh water globally, especially if other countries are experiencing water shortages.

If Quebec changes current bans on exporting fresh water, other provinces may follow suit.

Will Canada turn off the taps?

Scarpaleggia did not expect his bill to survive the debate and vote at the second reading and anticipated that Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs would vote against the Liberals, NDP and Green Party. The motion was defeated 156 to 125.

"The problem is, all the provinces have bans at the moment, but it doesn’t take much for a province to change its regulations or its laws. And in Quebec there is […] nascent and increasing pressure” to sell its water," Scarpaleggia says.

If Quebec changes its current legislation, it could create a “chain-reaction” encouraging the rest of the provinces and territories to export their own blue gold for profit, he says.

“One single hair-brained scheme could undermine an entire nation’s resolve to never export our water,” says May.

A renewable resource

Canada holds about 20 per cent of the world's total fresh water, but only 7 per cent of the world's renewable fresh water.

When talking about fresh water, renewable refers to water that is available for consumption. This is usually water caught up in the hydrologic cycle where it falls to Earth as rain or another form of precipitation. It is evaporated and then falls back to Earth to continue the cycle. Even though people can pollute water with various chemicals, it is not destroyed.

Nonrenewable water is removed from the hydrologic cycle, either because it is underground or frozen in glaciers.

Source: Environment Canada

Fresh water in Canada
  • With a quarter of the world's supply, Canada is home to the largest volume of wetlands of any country. If all the nation's wetlands were compiled, they would cover more than 1.2 million square kilometres — an area larger than Alberta and Saskatchewan combined.
  • Canada has more area covered by lakes than any other country. Its borders encompass more than two million freshwater lakes. 
  • The Great Lakes, which straddle the border between Canada and the United States, are the world's largest source of renewable fresh water. The five lakes hold 18 per cent of the world's fresh surface water.
  • Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories is the largest lake situated entirely in Canada. It measures more than 31,000 square kilometres.
  • The deepest lake in Canada is Great Slave Lake, located in the Northwest Territories. It reaches depths greater than 600 metres.
  • Canada's longest river is Mackenzie River, which flows through British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. It travels more than 4,200 kilometres. 
Source: Environment Canada