NDP wants to 're-protect' waterways in Canada

NDP MP Mike Sullivan to table private member's bill to extend protections along length of Ontario's Humber River.

Toronto MP drafts bill to extend protection along length of the Humber River

The NDP is using private member's bills to bring attention to the government's changes to waterways protections. MP Mike Sullivan will table a bill to extend protection the entire length of Ontario's Humber River. (Humberriver.ca)

A Toronto NDP MP is launching a private-members bill to get the Conservative government to reverse some of the sweeping changes it has made to waterways protections by focussing on one of the Toronto area's best-known rivers.

NDP MP Mike Sullivan used a park in his riding (York South-Weston) beside the Humber River to announce he's tabling a private members bill on Wednesday to have the entire of the length of the river protected under the federal Navigation Protection Act.

"It's our intention to re-protect this water, to re-protect this wonderful piece of Canada that is the water source for much of Toronto and the five million people who live in the GTA," he said.

Currently only one kilometre of the Humber, from Lake Ontario to Bloor St., is protected under the new Navigation Protection Act. Sullivan says the entire length should be protected, because not protecting a major source of drinking water in Canada's largest city is "a dangerous thing."

The Humber River is one of a long list of waterways in provinces and territories that the NDP wants protected by the new federal law.

They are excluded from federal protection as a result of changes made in last year's federal budget.

2% of waterways protected

The Conservative government revamped the Navigable Waters Protection Act to remove federal protections from thousands of lakes and rivers. Since the 1880's, the act required any projects that could affect the navigation of the rivers and lakes to undergo a strict federal environmental assessment.

The new Navigation Protection Act now protects 62 rivers, 97 lakes and the three oceans, about two per cent of the waterways in the country.

The rest of the lakes and rivers are covered by a patchwork of provincial laws. In some cases it will be up to private citizens or even municipalties who want to stop development on their local waterways to take the matter to court.

In defending the changes in the budget last year, federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel and officials from his department said they focussed on protecting navigation in the busiest waterways in the country. They believe that equivalent provincial laws will protect rest of the lakes and rivers, and the new law will help "streamline" approvals of many development projects.

Last week, the opposition NDP started its campaign by tabling a series of 10 private members' bills to get protection for an additional 27 heritage rivers in Canada.

Mike Sullivan's is the next one to be tabled, this week, in the House of Commons. It is also about one of the most high-profile rivers that are not fully protected by federal law.

A spokesman for Lebel dismissed the NDP move.

"The NDP is playing silly games by introducing bills that likely won't even be brought forward for debate," Mike Winterburn said Tuesday in an email to CBC News. "We're proud of the new Navigation Protection Act, which fixes an outdated law to reflect its historic intent: to protect navigation."

Drinking water and beaches

Mike Mattos, a board member of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, says the Humber River needs all the help it can get. Its growing pollution is getting into the Toronto water system and into local beaches.

"We need everybody to help us protect the Humber so we can have clean water and hopefully we can canoe from Weston (Road) to the lake and enjoy the benefits of the Humber for the rest of our lives and the rest of our children's lives," said Mattos.

In announcing the campaign on the recent Earth Day, NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie said most people are still figuring out how changes to the federal law will affect their local waterways.

"People do not know we have lost the protection of the navigable rivers, she said. "For example, in North Bay Trout Lake is not protected, it is the source of their drinking water and it is not protected. Everyone in the community meeting was in shock."

But the opposition NDP knows it has an uphill battle on its hands. Getting a private members bill through Parliament isn't easy at the best of times.

"This is a majority Conservative government, said Mike Sullivan. "I'm not holding my breath."

However he hopes it will draw attention to the ongoing issue of water protection that he thinks has hit a nerve in Canada. The opposition MPs are planning to fan out to their ridings this summer to ask constituents about which local waterways they want "re-protected" federally.

They'll bring back petitions to give to the Harper government in the fall sitting of Parliament.