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BC Politics

BC Must Jump into the Deep End to Protect Our Water

Collaborative consent with Indigenous nations is a proven solution that will help create a bold new water-use agenda.

Oliver M Brandes, Rosie Simms and Jon O’ Riordan 18 Oct

Oliver M. Brandes is co-director of University of Victoria's POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the Centre for Global Studies. Rosie Simms is the water law and policy researcher with POLIS. Jon O’Riordan is the former deputy minister of the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management and POLIS’s strategic water policy adviser. The three of them authored the report “A Revitalized Water Agenda for British Columbia’s Circular Economy” to catalyze action on water in B.C. Brandes and Simms also recently co-authored the report “Collaborative Consent and British Columbia’s Water: Towards Watershed Co-Governance” with Merrell-Ann Phare (executive director, Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources) and Michael Miltenberger (former Government of the Northwest Territories MLA and Minister of the Environment).

Nearly six months into the new B.C. government’s term of office, no shortage of pressing issues and challenges are demanding its attention. One thing that is evident, however, is that water must be a focal point of our new leaders’ agenda. Water underpins the myriad issues of the day — from energy production, to agriculture, to drinking water security, to conflicts over rights in Indigenous territories.

British Columbia is endowed with a rich freshwater heritage that is vitally important to all its citizens. For Indigenous peoples, water is the foundation of their constitutionally protected rights, and also integral to connections to the land, spiritual and physical well-being and community and economic development. All communities across the province rely on abundant and clean fresh water for quality of life, healthy ecosystems and vibrant economies.

Until recently, considerations of “sustainability” were secondary to the priority of building B.C.’s resource-based economies. Past management practices struck an unsustainable balance between developing the economy and protecting the environment. These practices were based primarily on draining, channelling, damming and diverting water out of streams, lakes and aquifers, and dumping waste back into those systems. In the process, watersheds have become fragmented and natural capital has been degraded. Indigenous nations have been excluded from the major decision-making regime, yet the outcomes have a significant impact on Indigenous rights and important cultural, spiritual and economic water uses. Community and citizen concern is mounting.

Water is the foundation of any sustainable integrated resource development and management regime. With a new provincial water law now in effect — the Water Sustainability Act — B.C. has an opportunity to build a world-class water management regime and address the province’s pressing water challenges. The Water Sustainability Act was introduced in 2016 after almost a decade of work, replacing the former Water Act (which had been in place since in 1909). However, more effort is needed to turn this legislation into reality on the ground — and in the water. Many of the act’s most promising elements, like watershed planning and a robust regime to protect water for nature, still require implementation with adequate resourcing.

To offer vision and support to B.C.’s new leaders, the team at the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project has created a 10-step plan with specific elements and actions required for meaningful progress on a new water agenda. Beyond the full implementation of the Water Sustainability Act, this agenda provides direction to: build resilience through protecting vital environmental flows; provide the necessary science and information to make informed evidence-based decisions; and ensure independent oversight and accountability.

Building a bold new water agenda is a wonderful opportunity for B.C. Doing this successfully will require attention to the fundamental role for Indigenous nations in water and watershed governance. Recent research from the POLIS Project and the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources outlines a viable path for this through a concept and approach known as collaborative consent.

Collaborative consent provides a powerful way to tackle difficult questions about how Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments can work together to make decisions about water and land use. With collaborative consent, the parties commit to working together over the long run, each with their asserted authority and with a goal of achieving each other’s consent on decisions, policies and plans as part of a committed and ongoing relationship.

This kind of approach can work. Territorial and Indigenous governments in the Northwest Territories have been leaders in a collaborative consent approach for years and have successfully co-drafted legislation and undertaken major collaborative negotiations for lands, waters and transboundary water agreements.

Freshwater governance and implementing the Water Sustainability Act offer a compelling opportunity for a genuine collaborative consent approach in B.C. Advancing the implementation of the new provincial water law regime in a partnered and proactive way — with Indigenous nations as full partners in managing and governing water and watersheds — will benefit all British Columbians for generations to come.

The leaders of the day must focus on water if they are to set B.C. on a different trajectory from our unsustainable resource extracting past. Now is a critical moment of opportunity to follow through on commitments to protect our precious watersheds, govern B.C. according to the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and build a future of shared decisions and opportunities for the province going forward.  [Tyee]

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