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Failing grades and Water Worries Continue

Originally Published in The Winnipeg Free Press April 22, 2022

Thomas S. Axworthy | April 2022

The freshwater priorities included in the federal Liberal Party’s 2021 platform amounted to one of the most ambitious commitments ever made to preserving and enhancing Canada’s freshwater resources.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised an independent, robust Canada Water Agency to drive national water policy, an update to the Canada Water Act, which has not been revised for 50 years since its passage in 1970 under Pierre Trudeau’s government, and most breathtaking of all, a commitment to invest $1 billion over 10 years in a Freshwater Action Plan to revitalize river basins and lakes.

The fact Winnipeg South MP Terry Duguid, well known for his commitment to the environment in general and Lake Winnipeg in particular, co-chaired the platform committee likely had a great deal to do with the centrality of water in Liberal campaign commitments.

But the hurrahs of water advocates across Canada for the 2021 Liberal plan turned into a chorus of boos after the federal budget was released on April 7. Rather than the expected annual $100-million investment to fulfill the commitments in the Freshwater Action Plan, Chrystia Freeland’s budget announced only $19.6 million for an extensive list of water bodies that includes the Great Lakes, the Mackenzie River and Lake Winnipeg.

That tiny down payment of $19.6 million will have to cover an awful lot of water.

Many in the water community feel they are seeing a replay of an abiding weakness of the Justin Trudeau governments: a propensity to over-promise and under-deliver. Lake Winnipeg Foundation executive director Alexis Kanu, for example, told the Winnipeg Free Press that “reading the budget, I was stunned.” The foundation promptly revised its report card on how authorities were meeting water commitments by giving the federal government an F.

Duguid defended the government’s plan, maintaining the money in the budget was simply “to tide us over” until the Freshwater Action Plan is properly fleshed out. But perhaps it’s not surprising the government was not given more of the benefit of the doubt on the Freshwater Action Plan, because it has virtually no defense on why the far simpler commitment to create a Canada Water Agency has also not yet been fulfilled.

The government promised such an agency in its 2019 platform and renewed the pledge in 2021. It has now been three years since the original commitment to a relatively minor reorganization of the Department of the Environment and Climate Change, and we are still waiting.

Environment and Climate Change Canada is consumed with how to achieve Canada’s targets on reducing greenhouse gases and how to mitigate the effects of global warning. The Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg, among many other research institutions, argues climate change and extreme conditions such as flooding are inextricably linked, but for whatever reason, the department’s responses on water have always been reactive and underwhelming.

That is why we need an independent Canada Water Agency to champion the priority of water in Ottawa.

Consultations on the water agency have been held across Canada (some of which I organized). Fifty leading research institutes on water have endorsed the concept of the agency, and detailed plans have been submitted on what units should be moved and how dynamic leadership can be recruited.

But still, stasis reigns: most likely, the department is too busy with other priorities to give the agency the attention it requires, or it is playing the oldest bureaucratic game in the book, which is to hold onto control at all costs and prevent independent entities from acquiring influence.

Either way, the clear direction of the last two Liberal platforms is being thwarted.

Budget allocations for big programs such as the Freshwater Action Plan are indeed complicated, but creating the Canada Water Agency is not. The environment minister need only summon his officials and utter three words: “Do it now.”

Until he does this, the Liberal government will be receiving many more F grades from Canadians seeking action on water.

Thomas S. Axworthy is public policy chair at Massey College.​

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