Two hours of Transport Committee hearings Tuesday will be the last word the House of Commons hears on the 130-year-old Navigable Waters Protection Act.

The Act is to be replaced by the Navigation Protection Act, a piece of legislation included in bill C-45, the government's second omnibus Budget Implementation Act.

"We're losing our tools to protect fresh water and our federal government is really getting rid of their responsibility to protect our waterways," argues Meredith Brown, the Ottawa Riverkeeper, a watchdog group that monitors water quality in the Ottawa River and its tributaries.

The Ottawa is one 62 rivers, 97 lakes and three oceans that will be protected under the new act. The old act protected every body of water you could float a canoe in and required ministerial approval to be sought for any structure that went over, under or through a waterway.

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The Ottawa River is one of just 62 rivers in Canada that will remain governed by the new Navigation Protection Act. The proposed changes to the old Navigable Waters Protection Act are before a Commons committee in Ottawa Tuesday. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

Brown worries about who will protect the thousands of rivers and lakes that won't be covered under the new act.

The Transport Department says that the right of navigation in any waterways not protected under the new act are still protected by Common Law.

"Essentially, they [the Government of Canada] are reducing the regulatory burden on businesses and putting that regulatory burden on you and I, the public, to now look out for own river and our own interests," says Brown. But, she adds, under the proposed changes a project can only be challenged after it has been built, so any damage to a waterway will have already been done.

The government dismisses concerns like Brown's. Ottawa argues the NWPA was never intended to protect the environment but was designed to make sure waterways were safe for navigation. The Conservatives also insist that there are still many statutes written specifically to ensure sound environmental standards and management, for instance the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters agrees with the government's assessment. The Federation is one of the groups that is represented on the federal government's Hunting and Angling Advisory Panel, which advises Ottawa on conservation issues.

For OFAH, the main concern is one of access. That is to say, will the new act make it more difficult to get to a member's favourite fishing hole or duck-hunting blind.

But they have other questions about the NPA as well.

"Will we see any gaps for other things that may include fish passage or other issues in the aquatic environment," said Matt DeMille, a fisheries biologist with the OFAH.

The committee heard from department officials and from four outside witnesses:

  • Nathan Gorall, the head of Transport Canada's Navigable Waters Protection Act Task Force.
  • David Marit, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities.
  • Tony Maas, head of the World Wildlife Fund's (Canada) Freshwater Program.
  • Eddie Francis, Mayor of Windsor, Ont.