Sometimes a government decision comes completely out of the blue, and much to the surprise of many, actually turns out to be a wise decision. I refer to the recent federal government decision to change the Navigable Waters Act to the Navigation Act. In the process the new act will only cover waters that actually have genuine navigation by vessels of a minimum size. The old act was so misinterpreted over time that it covered virtually every watercourse in the country including some ditches and sloughs. That interpretation was a surefire playground for federal government busybodies.
To most folks the announcement was probably the first time they had even heard of such legislation. But if opposition party naysayers were to be believed, even the thought of changing the act was sure to bring down upon Canada an environmental armageddon. Which might cause the innocent citizen to ponder what has navigable water to do with saving the environment?
Municipalities, provincial government agencies and anyone owning property that bordered on water would sooner or later have been made aware of the much abused piece of federal legislation. Those who had to deal with the federal bureaucratic watchdogs of the regulations attached to the act would surely have some pointed perspectives on their experiences with government busybody enforcement madness.
But first a bit of history. The original legislation dates to the 1880s, and its intent was to protect navigation on lakes and rivers in Canada. It was designed to have federal government oversight on provincial government schemes to dam rivers that might impede navigation or affect river flows downstream in other provinces. It was never designed to deal with the environment, since back then no one even knew what the word meant. Luckily for Alberta the original act (by accident or design) did not interfere with the development of the irrigation industry that began around the same time.
However over the ensuing years, particularly the past 40 years, all of that changed. That’s when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, now known as Fisheries and Oceans Canada (FOC) began its quiet expansion into landlocked and seemingly non-navigable Alberta and Saskatchewan. Over time it quietly built up local offices and filled them with bureaucrats looking for something to do. One of the pieces of legislation the FOC used to expand its empire was the iconic 1880s Navigable Waters Act. To justify their activities clever senior officials attached new environment-related regulations to the act. One could surmise that it didn’t take much prodding to get the Liberal governments of the day to inflict some political mischief on some of those defiant Alberta voters who had the audacity of always voting against them.
The additional regulations reinterpreted the act to define navigable waters as anything that could float a canoe. Somehow no affected party at the time figured out what impact that new interpretation would ultimately have in the countryside. The new rules required the FOC to approve any action that might affect navigation including adverse environmental impacts. That became a free ride to get the FOC involved in anything that affected water including road culverts, drainage of almost any significance, diversions for irrigation, and even cottage boat docks amongst other activities.
Previous to the FOC bureaucratic invasion, municipalities and provincial government regulators had quietly and competently handled those matters themselves. Legendary farm writer, the late John Schmidt, used to regale readers of his columns with tales of outrageous FOC bureaucratic bungling and stonewalling of even the simplest of county repair work.
It’s been stated that if the now-defunct regulations had been enforced 100 years ago by FOC, there would be no irrigation industry in southern Alberta. Most folks don’t realize that the main reason the infamous “road of death” to Fort McMurray has not already been twinned is the mindless interference by FOC demanding endless environmental assessments every inch of the way. To date literally millions of dollars have been spent to satisfy those never-ending demands. Those federal assessments were in addition to the ones that were already required to be carried out by the provincial government. It was all a gold mine for an ever-increasing army of environmental consultants.
Well it seems the glory days of the FOC may well be over if the original enabling legislation is changed. The biggest losers will be the buses full of private environmental consulting companies that were hired to create the endless environmental assessments. One might ponder whether environmental impacts will be ignored. Not likely; provinces have been mixed up with assessments of their own for years. All this does is eliminate a layer of duplication, but it will save millions. But don’t count the FOC outposts on the Prairies out yet — federal bureaucrats are remarkably adaptable and ingenious at circumventing actions they don’t like. They may lie low for a while, but I expect they will institute a medium-term survival plan to wait out the time until a more friendly federal government is elected.