You’ll think I’m mad, but I paddled around in the Humber River yesterday. It’s not the stygian mess of discarded diapers and human waste that you think. It’s nice. It’s a small, flecked emerald in our city.
I put my kayak in near the end of Jane Street, at the bottom of a small park. A nearby impromptu campsite was covered with dumped garbage, but almost as soon as I pushed off I could have mistaken Toronto for Lake Kawartha.
Trees hang low over the broad, slow river, and there were floating seeds being carried on the wind. A deer drank at the water’s edge and we stared at each other for a few minutes until my passenger, my dog Sofie, startled her.
It wasn’t undisturbed wilderness, mind you. There was some graffiti and a few floating bottles. I could hear the highway and construction. I also saw two docks—likely illegal ones put in by nearby homeowners from Baby Point, a wealthy neighbourhood.
I don’t mind. The docks aren’t doing any harm. But, as the law stands now, I could have those docks removed with a phone call. The law, and the government, are on my side. Sometime soon, that will change. The law will be on my side, but the government will stay out of it. If I want to have the docks removed, I’ll have to sue.
Right now, the Humber is protected by a law almost as old as Canada: the Navigable Waters Protection Act of 1882. The NWPA protects any river or lake deep enough to float a canoe in, and it requires anyone—like those dock owners—who would build in a waterway to get permission.
This was a great law. Unimpeded rivers are healthy rivers. The law, written when getting around by water really mattered, had the happy side effect of protecting aquatic environments. Dams, for instance, make it hard for both fish and canoes to navigate a river. By protecting fishermen, we protected fish.
As part of the 2013 omnibus budget bill, though, the Conservative government has gutted the NWPA. There are hundreds of thousands of rivers in Canada—perhaps more than two million. The feds will now only protect 62 of them. There are at least 31,000 large lakes in Canada. Only 97 will be covered.
The new law, now called the Navigation Protection Act, contains a list of protected waters. The old law protected any river, wild or well-used, far or near, but the new NPA only protects the ones on the list. The rest of the rivers will be protected, if at all, by common law and local regulations.
This is a problem. Common law is the law of lawsuits. If I had tipped the feds off to those illegal docks in the Humber, civil servants would have come, removed them, and billed the owners. Under the new law, I will have to take the owners to court myself.
You can see the problems this will cause. I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t have a lot of energy. I might need to get standing and prove that the docks actually affected me, not just navigation in principle. And I, a poor Westonian, would need to take a Baby Point millionaire to court. She’ll cream me.
The docks in the Humber are small potatoes, though. The Kitimat and Fraser Rivers in BC are not on the list. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would cross them. Who can afford to take Enbridge to court? Tens of thousands of smaller, less known rivers and lakes are not on the list either. Nobody at all will protect them. Does our federal leadership expect trappers to take mining companies to court? Or is that the very idea—to help corporations even at citizens’ expense?
The federal NDP is pushing back against this deregulation. Our own MP, Mike Sullivan, put forward a private member’s bill to protect the Humber, and other members of his party have put forward bills to protect 26 other rivers.
This is a nice gesture. Private member’s bills never succeed, though, and we don’t need protection for 27 more rivers. We need protection for all rivers, lakes and ponds.
The Navigable Waters Protection Act was not good environmental protection. Far from it—it was ecological only as a happy coincidence. But dismantling any environmental protection is regressive. The government should rein in moneyed interests and protect the natural world. It should serve the public good; corporations can serve themselves.