Changes to Navigable Waters Protection Act dangerously undermine environmental protection, say critics

Some First Nations and conservationists believe the new Navigation Protection Act will further undermine the health of Canada's waterways.

Creative Commons photo of Hartley Bay by Erin McKittrick

As the Idle No More movement gathers steam, some First Nations say changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act are the latest attempt by the federal government to undermine Aboriginal land rights.

Cam Hill, a member of the Gitga’at First Nation, has spent the last 20 years watching the steady decline of his region’s waterways in northern BC. Growing up, he never doubted that he would spend his life as a commercial fisherman, but after university, he found he could no longer support himself and his family that way.

“I’m 44 years old now, and 40 years ago my father and my grandfather and everybody in this community was self-sustained by the environment around them,” he recalled.

Now a schoolteacher in the Gitga’at territory of Hartley Bay, Hill still feeds his family of five primarily by harvesting the seafood and other resources readily available in the area, and he worries about the impact government deregulation of development on land and in the water is going to have on his family’s day-to-day life.

“Being the winter season, one of the freshest foods that we can get and can count on is flounder or sole. My family, my wife and my youngest went out and got our supper for this evening. That gives you an indication of just how much our family uses of the ocean.”

Industry interests on First Nations land

Hill says the changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act passed as part of Bill C-45 are just the latest in a long line of government mistakes, adding that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has done more harm than good, letting in invasive species and leaving the waters vulnerable to industrial damage.

“You’re looking at LNG (liquefied natural gas) proponents, you’re looking at the whole Enbridge situation," he said. "You’re looking at all kinds of industry that has wanted to come in and utilize the territory.”

Major changes to the act—now called the Navigation Protection Act—mean developers looking to build on and around lakes and rivers no longer have to notify the federal government of their plans.

As a result, future projects won’t trigger a federal environmental assessment, which First Nations say undermines their right to free, prior and informed consent for construction in traditional territories.

A direct attempt to undermine environmental protection 

The change in the act’s title reflects the government’s move to separate the navigation rights that belong to all Canadians from the protection the waterways themselves. But Annita McPhee, head of the Tahltan First Nation council, sees it as a direct attack on the environment. The Tahltan scored an important victory in December, convincing Shell Canada to withdraw from the Sacred Headwaters of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers.

Now, only one of those salmon rivers, the Skeena, is protected.

“It’s a direct attempt to undermine the protection of those lakes and waters and to allow access for developers," she said. "This is affecting First Nations, but it’s affecting everybody. How can we all not be affected by this?”

By releasing private companies from the duty to notify the federal government when undertaking infrastructure projects, the new act in turn takes away the federal government's duty to consult with First Nations before approving new projects such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.

Bypassing First Nations' opposition 

McPhee believes the Harper government had Enbridge and other energy companies in mind when they made the changes.

“That’s exactly why I think these processes are being created, to try to bypass First Nations,” she said.

“When it comes to development, we’re the only ones standing in the way. They have to consult us.”

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