Musicians, including environmental activist Sarah Harmer, are joining those raising concerns about the Harper government's second omnibus budget legislation.

C-45 includes changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act that limit federal protection for waterways to only 62 rivers, 97 lakes and three oceans that are specifically included in a list annexed to the bill. The government says it has chosen to protect only the busiest waterways in Canada that meet specific criteria for navigation.

Harmer, who said she was in Ottawa "representing the common citizen" but also fellow artists like Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie and singer-songwriter Leslie Feist, said she didn't think there was enough room on Parliament Hill to hold all the people who were equally concerned about the bill.

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Musician Sarah Harmer has a long history of activism, particularly for environmental causes. She's adding her voice to those concerned about the latest omnibus budget bill's changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"We write about the land, we travel this great country, our history is based upon our ability to travel through our waterways. It's a huge part of our Canadian identity," Harmer said, adding that "culturally, our land and our water has been a huge source of inspiration" for artists. 

The singer read a statement from Feist that said the legislation "leaves our waters open to exploitation by the first person to get there with a backhoe."

"Water isn't something that we can isolate from ourselves," Harmer told reporters. "It's the most crucial thing to be concerned about.

"We need to be informed as citizens," she said.

"This attack, in the name of 'eliminating red tape,' is actually about eliminating concerned Canadians from the discussion around the health and safety of their waterways, of their communities," said Downie, in a printed statement circulated at the news conference. The singer called C-45 an attack "on our democracy [or what's left of it.]"

Political opposition continues

In a written statement, Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the government is trying to reduce the "thousands of applications that are currently reviewed by the government which do not actually have a substantial impact on navigation."

"The red tape even holds up an action as simple as fixing a culvert. That’s a waste of time and money," Lebel said.

"Under this new system, small projects can be pre-approved. Docks, launch ramps and minor bridge repairs will not require a call to the federal government."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and her Commons seatmate, northern Ontario Independent MP Bruce Hyer, spoke about their efforts to oppose this latest omnibus budget bill.

"As a paddler, as a fisherperson, as someone from Thunder Bay who's at the hub of what used to be the fur trade to the West, this is a very sad day if they're actually going to pass this act," Hyer said.

"Harper has a majority, he can do pretty much what he wants right now, but this is not good for Canada."

May intends to introduce amendments at the report stage for the bill as early as Wednesday, similar to what she did for the first omnibus budget bill last spring. She says the elements of the bill concerning waterways are not budget measures that should have been included in C-45.

May said the changes were being made without proper review or engagement with the kinds of groups present at the news conference. She said she was hopeful at least some Conservatives would reconsider in light of "growing" public concerns.

"I don't think any Canadian would have ever imagined — even the people who voted Conservative — that they would propose to eliminate the navigation protections over 99.5 per cent of the waterways in Canada," May said.

May wants to investigate the possibility of a court challenge, based on the federal government voluntarily withdrawing from an area over which it has responsibility under the Constitution.

She also thanked the Liberal Party for its "spirited effort" to oppose the bill at committee.

Warnings from environmentalists

Previously, legislation protected every body of water in which one could "float a canoe." Ministerial approval had to be sought for any structure that went over, under or through a waterway, including small docks or even culverts.

"If these changes go through, no public consultation — you won't even be aware that a project is built — so now it becomes reactive," said Meredith Brown, a member of the watchdog group that monitors water quality in the Ottawa River and its tributaries.

"Your only chance to change things on 99 per cent of our water bodies are to take a court case on," she said, noting that legal action can be expensive and cumbersome for members of the public who want to challenge decisions on a project by project basis.

John Bennett from the Sierra Club said that the changes raise the possibility that the responsibility for reviewing a major project, such as a hydroelectricity development, could now rest with the proponent of a project, such as a province that wants the development to proceed.

"We've always had a system in which those who are disinterested in the outcome should be the ones who make the decisions," Bennett said.

"By taking away protections of water, we're opening the way for privatizing water in Canada," he said. "Those rivers that aren't protected, there will be no defences now to those governments that want to privatize them, export our water, or sell us our own water in the future.

"It's being pretended that this is somehow an efficiency. It's a big lie. They're out to steal our resources and give them to other people. That's why Canadians should be concerned," Bennett concluded.

Mountain Equipment Co-op warns of economic consequences

Last week the CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canada's largest recreational and outdoor supply company, told a Senate committee studying the changes that many Canadians relate to the outdoors through their recreational use of water.  They fear the changes will affect their ability to use lakes and rivers, however small, for outdoor activities.

David Labistour told senators the outdoor recreation industry creates at least six million jobs in the country and is a growing industry. 

"The proposed [Navigable Waters Protection Act's] focus on commercial navigation minimizes the importance of paddling, boating, fishing, hunting and other water-based recreational activities, he said. "In short, the [act] discounts the socioeconomic importance of these activities to Canadian society."

The Harper government says the act was never intended to protect the environment but was designed to make sure waterways were safe for navigation.

But Labistour told senators that the act has been around for so long it's become the backbone of other environmental laws and narrowing it down affects the health of water too.

"Most of us who spend time in the outdoors know that protecting navigation cannot be achieved without protecting the medium in which we navigate –namely, waterways." he added. "All this to say, no water, no navigation, no recreation."

Labistour also provided the committee with a list of 40 popular recreation waterways that the new act does not protect.

Transport Canada says that the right of navigation in any waterways not protected under the new act are still protected by common law. Provinces or municipalities still could regulate activities on waterways not included on the federal list.

May disagrees, saying that under the Constitution, the rights of navigation on waterways can only be protected by the federal government. Large-scale resource development projects may not fall under other jurisdictions.

"It's hard to put into words how devastating this is," May said. "The entire framework of environmental laws is being systematically destroyed in Canada."

With files from Margo McDiarmid