Controversial changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act won’t leave Yukon waterways unprotected, according to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board chairman Stephen Mills.
In December, the national Idle No More movement began protesting a host of changes in the federal government’s omnibus Bill C-45. Some of the movement’s most vocal opposition was over changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act – now simply called the Navigation Protection Act.
Those changes removed thousands of lakes and rivers from the act, leaving only 97 lakes and parts of 62 rivers protected as navigable waterways. In the Yukon, only the Yukon River and the Arctic Ocean are covered by the new act.
First Nations protesters, backed by environmentalists, the Council of Canadians and thousands of non-indigenous Canadians have accused the Harper government of stripping important environmental protections from the vast majority of Canadian waterways.
But Mills said that the changes won’t have much impact in the Yukon.
Even under the old act, there were very few assessments triggered by Transport Canada. The majority of projects that the assessment board reviews, including waterway developments, are already part of larger project proposals that are being assessed already, said Mills.
“Very few projects have ever come in with just a Transport Canada authorization only. I would say at this point – the change itself and the fact that Transport Canada won’t be a decision body for projects that occur outside of the Yukon River – I don’t think that will have a big impact on the number of projects we assess,” said Mills.
He said it’s rare that developments on waterways like bridges or roads are proposed in isolation. They’re usually included in bigger development projects like a mine, an oil and gas development or a transmission line.
“We don’t usually get projects that are a bridge replacement where that’s the only project. We typically get projects like bridges that are part of a larger mining project. When we assess that, we still assess the bridge, we still assess the road. We still assess all of those factors. When we do assessments we will still consider all of those elements in a project,” said Mills.
While Transport Canada won’t be a decision body under the new act, Mills said it would still play an important part of the assessment process by offering recommendations.
Rachel Forbes, an environmental lawyer with Vancouver-based West Coast Environmental Law, explained that the risk posed by the omnibus bill changes aren’t just due to the Navigation Protection Act, but to a raft of other legislative changes.
“It’s part of a larger deregulation movement by the federal government. A lot of the impacts will be felt not just because of changes to the Navigable Waters Act but also because of changes to the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the National Energy Board Act, the Species at Risk Act, and all of the things that those used to protect together,” said Forbes.
The old Navigable Waters Protection Act was administered under Transport Canada. It required an environmental review and the department’s authorization for any development that could impede navigation or recreation on waterways deep enough to float a canoe.
“It’s a death by a thousand cuts, and this is one of the cuts,” said Lewis Rifkind, the mining co-ordinator for the Yukon Conservation Society.
Rifkind said, that in the Yukon, waterway navigation often means recreation, tourism operations or subsistence fisheries, and impacts to those activities are no longer protected under the new act.
“If Yukon Energy wanted to build a weir across the Atlin River, which they’ve proposed in the past, that would have been covered under the Navigable Waters Act because people jet boat along that river,” Rifkind said.
“Now, we have one less piece of legislation to fall back on, meaning we have to turn to territorial legislation or possibly municipal legislation in dealing with our navigable waterways.”
Forbes said that the new act will mean less environmental assessments, but it also puts the onus on local interest groups to know about and oppose developments they’re not happy with.
“There used to be much more of a mechanism for people to know what was being proposed in their recreational waterways, environmental waterways. Now we have to go to a reactive system because … it’s up to a local citizen or environmental or recreation group that has a problem with something that is already happening and put up resistance to it,” said Forbes.
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