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Take Back our Waterways!

Harper and Campbell want to gut a good old law. Here's why.

Rafe Mair 16 Mar

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Read previous columns by Rafe Mair here. He also acts as a spokesperson for the Save Our Rivers Society.

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Kayakers proving BC's Koch Creek 'navigable'. Photo Damien Gillis / Save Our Rivers Society.

Welcome to the new autocracy of Canada, "autocracy" defined by Merriam Webster as government "in which one person possesses unlimited power."

Our autocracy only differs from a pure autocracy because every few years the public gets to choose which potential autocrat to give all the power to.

In fact, we in B.C. have two autocrats set in authority over us: The Right Honourable Stephen Harper and the Honourable Gordon Campbell.

Both of these autocrats subscribe to the theory that the more humungous private companies doing their thing on our rivers, the better. They also believe in avoiding contact with the public. After all, the citizenry might not like what they are doing and stir up a terrible fuss. Although the Autocrats must know that they're safe because their tame media can be counted upon to be silent.

Harper's budget bill trickery

Harper has employed parliamentary trickery by including changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act in the budget bill making the amendments of the act a matter of confidence so that the only way the Commons can defeat the amendments is to defeat the government.

The Senate, if it had had any backbone, could have severed the amendments to the act but the parliamentary poodles decided not to do so.

Let's look at what the Navigable Waters Protection Act was designed to do and what the amendments will do.

Back in 1882, the federal parliament passed the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which was "designed to protect the public right of navigation in Canadian waters, as defined by the law, by prohibiting the building, placing or maintaining of any work whatsoever in, on, over, under, through or across any such navigable water, without the authorization of the minister of fisheries and ocean canada. The expression 'navigable water' designates any body of water capable, in its natural state, of being navigated by any type of floating vessel for the purpose of transportation, recreation or commerce and includes a canal and any other body of water created or altered for the benefit of the public, as a result of the waterway assigned for public use. The public right of navigation also includes the use of both pleasure craft and commercial ships as well as all other types of boats."

Now Autocrat Harper wants to amend this act, because, he says, the act is out of date.

How the Hell can an act be "out of date" unless it's been overtaken by new circumstances? In fact, the old act is more apropos now than ever before. So indeed is the Magna Carta upon which the right to navigation was based.

Gutting the Navigable Waters Protection Act

The changes that disembowel the old act are:

1. The removal of the four named works (bridges, causeways, dams, and booms) as obstructions to navigation.

2. Giving the minister of transportation the power to create "classes of works" and "classes of navigable waters" -- in other words: separating them into "major" and "minor" categories. It's noteworthy that the minister in charge of the act until now has been the minister of fisheries and oceans and it seems obvious that the change is more than merely cosmetic.

3. Giving the minister sole discretion in determining what constitutes "significant interference with navigation." In essence, this eliminates environmental assessments in most cases, as the matter moves from environmental protection to a matter of who has made wise political investments. It effectively permits the minister to do what he wishes.

It should be noted that estimates of Canada's supply of fresh water vary depending on whether we mean all fresh water or just from lakes. In total we have about 20 per cent of the world's supply and we live next to a thirstier and thirstier country that would vastly prefer importing our water than using their own.

Campbell's angle

Enter, stage right, Autocrat Campbell. His energy policy uses water and it's a considerable nuisance when kayakers and their ilk use these rivers, then claim that they are navigable rivers so that their use of them brings the rivers under the protection of the 1882 Act. Wouldn't it be nice and convenient for Autocrat C to call up Autocrat H and get him to name the rivers that Autocrat C needs for private energy production? What Campbell worries about is the definition of Navigable Waters in the old act, which, God forbid, actually gives people, ordinary people the right to use navigable waters! After the amendment passes, that right will be subject to the minister of transportation without any hearing or debate.

What if some or even all of the B.C. rivers coveted by private energy companies were in fact within the definition and needed a federal permit? Can't have that, you know! My God! This brings the rabble into the deal chanting for their rights going back to 1215 when John "The Bad" gave them those rights, the ones Autocrat Harper and Autocrat Campbell want taken away from them.

In short, gentle readers, I smell a rat. I see two governments bound and determined to see our water in the form of energy or in bulk going to the U.S. and my sensitive proboscis tells me that, as happened with fish farms, the federal government doesn't want any part of environmental protection of B.C. rivers.

What is the logical conclusion?

The Autocrat Campbell gets rid of a federal nuisance leaving him in charge of environmental assessment, which he can waive or, forgive the pun, "water down" to suit his private power pals and political donors.

The bottom line

Let's see then where we stand: Our Autocrat C says we need power, when we clearly do not and fiddles the figures to make that seem the case. (The government says we have been net importers of energy for seven out of the last 11 years. The real figures from the National Energy Board show we are net exporters of energy for eight of the last 11 years. The Campbell government's accounting includes power imported from Alberta and immediately "flipped" to the U.S., power that was never intended for domestic consumption.)

Autocrat C then says BC Hydro can't make that power we don't need. He then gives the job to friends in the business world. He forces BC Hydro to give them fat contracts for power, which can only be created in the spring thaw when BC Hydro doesn't need any power -- meaning that this private power is obviously intended for export.

Now, because he doesn't want we members of the public to make nuisances of ourselves, he has his federal government remove all obstacles to private firms that want to rape our rivers as their need and greed arises.

We British Columbians can do something about this on May 12 when Autocrat C and his party face an election. We will learn that day just how much we care for our rivers and the outdoors in general.

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Read more: Politics, Environment

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