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A Throne Speech Commitment to Water

Richard Farthing-Nichol   |   September 2020

Irrigation_Gov Alberta Flickr.jpg

The federal government’s recent throne speech was unlike any other in Canadian history. Delivered in the midst of a global pandemic and economic recession, with two of the opposition party leaders in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, much of the speech rightfully focused on public health and economic stimulus. Yet alongside these urgent and immediate priorities the government took time to reaffirm its commitment to establishing a Canada Water Agency. This is significant. A throne speech commitment demonstrates high priority under normal circumstances; in these extraordinary times, it is even more meaningful.

Why is a throne speech commitment so important? The government first pledged to establish a new Canada Water Agency in their 2019 election platform, a commitment they made official in the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change in December 2019. But the world has been turned upside down in the year since those mandate letters were released. It was important to see that, despite the tremendous change wrought by COVID-19, the government remains committed to protecting Canada’s water security through a new Canada Water Agency. This is how it was framed in the throne speech:

When the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration was closed by a previous government, Canada lost an important tool to manage its waters. The Government will create a new Canada Water Agency to keep our water safe, clean, and well-managed. The Government will also identify opportunities to build more resilient water and irrigation infrastructure.

The Agency’s inclusion in the throne speech is undoubtedly good news. For years, FLOW and our partners have been advocating for a new federal water institution to enhance knowledge and data, strengthen transboundary water management, advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and improve collaborative river basin planning, among other priorities.

Words in a throne speech are just words, not action, but they are a good starting point. The Agency must now be established (which can and should happen quickly) and the hard work of fleshing out the mandate and functions of the Agency needs to be undertaken. More importantly, as FLOW and our partners in the Water Security for Canadians Initiative highlighted in a recent policy brief, the work does not stop there. Establishing the Agency is only the first step in a broader program of reforms to modernize federal freshwater leadership, including renewal of the Canada Water Act.

Where does the government go from here? There were some nuances in the throne speech that are worth noting. First, the Agency was explicitly tied to the now defunct Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration and to “resilient water and irrigation infrastructure”, suggesting an agricultural focus. This is consistent with past policy signals; after all, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food was mandated with helping establish the Agency back in December 2019. Second, climate resilience, including extreme weather events such as floods, were a central theme of the environmental portion of the speech. Third, reconciliation was mentioned as a priority throughout the speech, and the government specifically committed to making investments to improve drinking water in First Nations communities.

These are only clues as to where the Agency may be headed. The throne speech lays out a broad vision that is intentionally light on details. Moving forward, there are a couple of short-term things to watch for. First, Environment and Climate Change Canada will likely wrap up its initial scoping work, including its PlaceSpeak public engagement platform, and produce a discussion paper on the Agency in the coming weeks. Second, and even more importantly, will be whether the government commits funding toward the Agency in the upcoming fall economic update. This would move the Agency from a policy commitment to a budget line item, a welcome promotion.

The throne speech clearly shows that the government remains committed to establishing a Canada Water Agency. This is a small milestone worth celebrating, but making sure it actually gets done, and gets done right, is the ultimate goal.

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