New CJFAS paper on changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act

February 26, 2015

By Emma Hodgson, Amanda Winegardner and Adrienne Davidson 

This guest post is by authors of  "Reductions in federal oversight of aquatic systems in Canada: implications of the new Navigation Protection"  an article published recently in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 

In 2012, the federal government drastically altered the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA). This federal Act was designed to protect navigation rights on waterways, and it conferred environmental oversight through its relationship with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Controversy and speculation dominated news coverage about the changes, focusing on the loss of environmental protection for thousands of Canadian water bodies. This was accompanied by suggestions that the Conservatives were playing favourites, protecting waterways in Conservative ridings (McGregor 2012) and catering to the pipeline industry (Schoffield 2013). Importantly, the changes to the NWPA did not occur in isolation. Other legislation, namely the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), had undergone near-simultaneous modifications. As consumers of news media and political rhetoric, it became difficult to understand what the actual changes to the NWPA were, and what impact they would have on Canada’s water resources. 

The coverage of the changes to the NWPA peaked our (Winegardner, Hodgson & Davidson, 2015) interest. In particular, we wanted to test the rhetoric of both sides: (1) that the logic of the changes matched the discourse of an ‘overly burdensome’ process of red tape (government argument); and/or (2) that the changes to the NWPA fundamentally hollowed-out Canadian environmental legislation (opposition argument). 

In the end, neither argument fully held water.

We tested the first argument by asking the question: How long did assessments triggered by the NWPA take on average? And what fraction was approved? From 2003-2012, over 2400 Environmental Assessments were triggered by the NWPA. Of the third reviewed, we found the majority of assessments to be completed in under a year (72.6%), with average time of 0.95 years, and 82% approval rate. 87% of all EAs were completed in two years. Additionally, evidence suggests that the time to complete an assessment was already decreasing prior to the 2012 change. While we feel unqualified to speculate on Conservative favoritism or support of the pipeline industry—one thing is clear: despite the fact that 87% of the EAs fell within the two-year federal government timeline (outlined in the new CEAA), the government took moves to reduce the number required.

However, changes to the NWPA did not exactly have the impact that was widely noted in the media. When the NWPA was re-named and transformed to the Navigation Protection Act (NPA) in 2012, reactions to the change focused on the reduction in number of water bodies covered by this legislation. Whereas the NWPA provided oversight for any water body, natural or man-made, capable of carrying a water-borne vessel (Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure 2014) – the new NPA only provides federal oversight to a combined 163 oceans, lakes and (portions of) rivers. However, this change did not confer any real reduction in environmental protection. That change had happened earlier. 

Six months prior to the changes to the NWPA, the government had transformed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act as part of omnibus bill C-38. It was in this legislation that environmental protection was altered. Pre-2012, any proposed construction on a water body covered by the NWPA would trigger an environmental assessment. Under the new legislation, assessment only occurs if the type of construction is listed on the “designated projects list” ( This means that what Canadians thought were thousands of lakes and rivers covered by the NWPA, were in fact only covered if the type of construction was on the “list”. As such, changes to the CEAA had already removed what many might consider environmental ‘protection’. It was arguably these changes that resulted in the sweeping loss of environmental oversight in Canada, six months prior to the NWPA being re-written as the NPA. 

The wave of focus on an otherwise obscure legislative act is a reflection of the current climate around science and research in Canada today. In a system that seems to be ‘freezing out’ science from the policy process, we—as scientists—have to think carefully about our work. We have to think about how (and to whom) we communicate our results. Our results have further opened up a number of questions—Is the cost of delaying a project one or two years to do an assessment too high? With decreasing numbers of assessments, will we know less about our water bodies, and if so – whose responsibility is it to pick up the slack? Do we as aquatic researchers have an obligation to act and learn about what threats exist if government environmental review continues to be diminished (keeping in mind that provincial review mechanisms do still exist)? 

As scientists, we have to consider potential links of our research to changing policy regimes. We have to interrogate whether changes to government legislation will affect the systems we study. As a research team that has brought together students in fisheries, ecology and political science we feel strongly that interdisciplinary research and quantitative analyses are necessary to help both researchers and the public navigate recent changes to environmental legislation in Canada. 

About the Authors
Emma Hodgson
Emma Hodgson is a graduate student at the University of Washington in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. She was awarded an NSF fellowship to research ecological risk, and ecosystem responses to novel environmental stressors, such as ocean acidification. Her interests go beyond fisheries ecology into understanding the implications of environmental policies in both the U.S. and Canada.

Amanda Winegardner

Amanda Winegardner is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology at McGill University, where she holds a W. Garfield Weston Award for Northern Research. She works at the intersection of community ecology and paleolimnology, focusing on aquatic biodiversity change in subarctic systems, with a particular emphasis on the iron-ore mining regions of northern Québec. She works regularly with citizen science teams from the EarthWatch Institute at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Churchill, Manitoba. 

 Adrienne Davidson 
Adrienne Davidson is a PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto and Munk School of Global Affairs. She specializes in creative and interdisciplinary policy research with a focus on policy change and comparative federalism in northern Canada and the United States. Her research focuses particularly on the role of regional institutions in economic development, natural resource governance, and energy politics. She teaches in Canadian politics and public policy.

Papers published in NRC Research Press journals are peer-reviewed by experts in their field. The views of the authors in no way reflect the opinions of Canadian Science Publishing or the the journal editors. Requests for commentary about the contents of any study should be directed to the authors.

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