New Democratic Party
NDP: “Canada went from 2.5 million protected lakes and rivers, down to just 159 under the Conservatives.”
By: Fariha Husain on
New Democratic Party, on an official party webpage in 2014
There are now 159 lakes and rivers, plus 3 oceans, in Canada that are considered protected in the Navigation Protection Act (NPA). That is down from an estimated 2.5 million. However, protection here refers to keeping a water body useable for commerce or travel. While conditions for federal environmental oversight have also changed, they don’t have much to do with the NPA and the number 159.FactsCan Score: Misleading
Editor’s note: We received an open letter in response to this check. We agreed with the author on two points: One quote needed more context, and one of our assumptions needed to be stated. We made these changes on September 28.
The NDP created a petition calling for the protection of Canadian lakes and rivers, which the party claimed dropped from 2.5 million to 159 during the Conservative government’s time in office. These numbers have also spread through social media.
The petition reads: “Canada has one of the world’s largest supplies of fresh water. But instead of preserving this resource for future generations, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have stripped protection from most of Canada’s waterways. From 2.5 million protected rivers and lakes, down to just 159 now.”
The claim refers to the new federal Navigation Protection Act, which lists 159 protected lakes and rivers, plus three oceans. The number of waterways in this act (159) and in the claim (2.5 million down to 159) make it clear this act is the unstated focus of the petition.
It turns out this claim is only partly about the numbers. More important is the definition of “protection.”
The NDP petition does not describe the type of protection it refers to, but the party asks people to act if they want to “keep our waters safe and clean,” and accuses the Conservatives of not “preserving this resource for future generations.” The reference is clearly to environmental protection.
The law in question, however, is not about protecting the environment, said Michael Van Den Heuvel, director of the Canadian Rivers Institute. He called it “a very old piece of legislation that pre-dates even the concept of ecological harm due to human development activities.”
The Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA), created in 1985, centered around the protection of lakes and rivers for their use as commercial or travel routes. Its purpose was to maintain the accessibility of lakes and rivers. Any “work” or projects that occurred on navigable waters had to go through a federal approval process to ensure the lake or river was not obstructed. The law defined navigable water as any body of water through which a vessel could pass – even a vessel as narrow as a canoe.
In 2012, the Conservatives replaced the NWPA with the Navigation Protection Act (NPA). This act lists 159 lakes, rivers and riverines, as well as 3 oceans that are protected by the federal government. Here, protection still means that the waterway is left unobstructed.
In an article on their paper comparing environmental protection before and after the NPA, researchers Adrienne Davidson, Emma Hodgson and Amanda Winegardner concluded, “this change did not confer any real reduction in environmental protection. That change had happened earlier.”
Van Den Heuvel agreed the NPA is not the relevant law. “The [NDP] statement implies through the blanket application of the term ‘protected’ that this act was somehow critical in the environmental management of waterways. That is simply untrue,” he said.
Still, many laws are interrelated. Although the old NWPA and the new NPA are about navigation rights, there is a relationship with another law covering environmental oversight.
An environmental protection piece entered the NWPA in 1992 with the creation of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), a law that would trigger an environmental assessment as part of the approval process for “work” or projects on navigable waters.
The same year the NPA arrived, the CEAA also got replaced with the CEAA 2012. This resulted in a decoupling of the environmental assessment trigger from the NPA review process, and a new designated projects list that outlines when a federal environmental assessment is required. Changes to the CEAA in part intended to reduce environmental assessment duplication between the federal and provincial or territorial levels of government.
So we’ve gone from a system in which work on any body of water wide enough for a canoe to travel triggered a federal environmental assessment, to one in which federal assessments are only required under certain conditions.
This raises two questions: Does the new CEAA mean less environmental oversight? And if so, is it because of the NPA?
On the first question of less oversight due to CEAA changes, according to Amanda Winegarder, a PhD candidate in biology at McGill University, the answer is maybe. “It might be reasonable to assume that [the CEAA changes] will result in a decrease in the total number of required federal environmental assessments,” Winegardner said. “However, it is still too early to actually begin to parse out these numbers.” She also cautioned that reducing the number of federal assessments may not affect the degree of environmental protection.
Canada has other laws for that. Van Den Heuvel called the Fisheries Act “the major instrument of environmental management” and said other water bodies not covered by that law “are typically protected under provincial legislation.” For example, environmental assessment rules in Ontario and British Columbia.
But even assuming a loss of federal environmental oversight, the NPA has little to do with it, and it doesn’t make sense to talk about 159 lakes and rivers when discussing the new number of environmental assessments.
According to Winegarder, if the CEAA did not get updated along with the NPA, “this would have meant a reduction in federal oversight, as it would mean fewer triggers for an [environmental assessment].” But now there’s a separate designated project list doing the triggering, so “it is not this straightforward.”
The NDP claim that Canada’s 2.5 milion protected rivers and lakes fell to just 159 is true only where navigation rights are concerned. However, an average reader would likely assume that the petition referred to environmental protection, and on this interpretation, the numbers don’t makes sense.
While part of the petition is true, it omits important context on the nature of the axed protection. It’s a misleading claim because an average reader would take it to mean that 2,499,841 million lakes and rivers are no longer covered by environmental protection. And that is not accurate.
A word about numbers
How many navigable waterways does Canada have? Good question. Marie-Christine Fiset, an NDP press secretary, said 2.5 million is an estimate from the Library of Parliament. When we asked, a library researcher said, “the total number of lakes and rivers in Canada is not known for certain,” but directed us to an old Natural Resources Canada estimate of at least 2 million lakes.
Lakes and rivers are tricky to count, and the attempt can turn esoteric. “What are ‘lakes’ and ‘rivers,’” asked John Clague, an earth sciences professor at Simon Fraser University. Does a tiny pond count? Streams that flow for only parts of the year? John Smol, from Queen’s University and the Canada Research Chair in environmental change, uses the 2 to 3 million ballpark for lakes. The University of Alberta’s David Schindler said he’s seen counts of 2 to 4 million. All agreed it’s likely the number is unknown. So 2.5 million appears a reasonable estimate.