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Revisiting the Mackenzie River Basin Board

Michael Miltenberger & Merrell-Ann Phare   |    June 2020


In 1997, after years of negotiation, the governments of Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon signed the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement. The agreement established the Mackenzie River Basin Board (MRBB), a governance body that brings together multiple governments with the goal of sustainably managing a river basin nearly one-fifth the size of Canada. The MRBB is intended to manage water according to ecological boundaries rather than political boundaries, and has designated seats at the table for Indigenous representatives. It is a remarkable governance body considering its age, and over 23 years it has proven its worth, including helping to negotiate four bilateral agreements between the provincial and territorial governments. But a lot has changed since 1997. Recently there has been renewed interest, particularly in the Northwest Territories, in revisiting the structure of the MRBB.

MRBB membership is composed of representatives from each of the participating governments and one Indigenous representative nominated by each of the five provinces and territories. It is an innovative collaborative model for water management at the river basin level. In our extensive experience with transboundary water issues in the Mackenzie River Basin, including playing leading roles in the negotiation of the 2015 NWT-Alberta bilateral agreement, we have seen at least two key issues with the MRBB that should be addressed in order ensure it serves us well into the future.

Lack of Capacity

The Master Agreement tasks the MRBB with a wide range of responsibilities, yet the Board is not adequately equipped to fulfill its mandate. There are two key challenges regarding capacity. First, the MRBB is hugely under resourced. Its budget is cost-shared by the participating governments, but total annual costs are capped at $280,000, a very small amount for a governance body that is expected to fulfill such an ambitious mandate across a massive area. Second, capacity is hampered by a lack of political will and oversight, which makes it difficult for the bureaucrats who sit on the board to carry out their duties. For example, there has not been a full meeting of all the environment ministers of the MRBB since 1997. The MRBB cannot reach its potential without proper resourcing, strong political will, and buy-in across the participating governments.

Indigenous Participation

There is inadequate recognition by the MRBB of the governance obligations related to the Treaties, land claims agreements, and self-government agreements that have been signed between Indigenous Nations and federal, provincial, and territorial governments. The Indigenous representatives on the MRBB are not seen as Indigenous government representatives, but rather as individual representatives chosen by the provinces and territories, fulfilling a role that is more advisory than governmental in regard to Indigenous issues.

It is time to remedy that shortcoming and revisit how the provisions in the Master Agreement for Indigenous participation on the MRBB are executed. Currently, each of the five participating provinces and territories appoint an Indigenous representative at their discretion by whatever method is deemed appropriate. Given the number and diversity of Indigenous Nations in the region, it is time to increase this number and design a collaborative appointment process. Indigenous representatives are currently “appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the Minister representing the jurisdiction from which the nominee was selected”. This process can be made consistent with the principles of self-determination and nation-to-nation relationships if the Ministers and Indigenous governments agree to a collaborative process that appoints Indigenous government representatives. This approach could update the MRBB to align it with frameworks such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the federal government’s principles on relationships with Indigenous peoples.

The MRBB was an innovative shared governance body when it was established in 1997, but it has been neglected and under resourced for far too long. Empowering the Board to assume a more significant role in managing water across the Mackenzie River Basin would help strengthen collaborative management. It could also be a way to build the institutional capacity needed for watershed co-governance with Indigenous governments in a way that did not seem possible in 1997. Institutions must adapt to reflect changes in broader societal values – the MRBB needs to catch up, and it can do so with the required support and attention.

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