Speaking Points for
the Honourable Jim Prentice, PC, QC, MP,
Minister of the Environment,
Mcgill Institute for the Study of Canada Conference
March 26, 2010
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Thank you, Arnold Steinberg1, for your kind introduction, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity to join you for this conference on “Canadian Water: Toward a New Strategy.”
Heather Munroe-Blum joined me in Copenhagen at the Conference of the Parties this past December as an advisor on climate change issues. I know first hand to the value of listening to her and heeding her advice.
So it was easy for me to accept Heather’s invitation for this conference, particularly when she pointed out this would be a good opportunity to meet some of Canada’s outstanding researchers working on environmental issues—from policy to law to science.
I want to congratulate the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada for organizing such a thought-provoking program.
For 15 years, the Institute has had its finger on the pulse of the key issues of our day. What better time to discuss Canadian water. What better place than here in Montreal.
What better time because water will become a key issue for decision makers—and it deserves to be near the top of the policy agenda. In fact, on Monday, Canada joined nations around the world in marking International Water Day.
And what better place than a city where, every second, on the mighty St. Lawrence, 10,000 cubic meters of water flow past a given point. The St. Lawrence reminds us of the importance of freshwater to our history, our culture, our economy.
In his film “The Mighty River”, the artist and filmmaker Frédérick Back eloquently illustrates the importance and beauty of the St. Lawrence. In his own words,
"In all who have experienced it-from early explorers to present-day visitors, the huge waterway known as the St. Lawrence River has inspired surprise, admiration, fear and increasing concern for its survival. The fate of the river is, after all, closely tied to our own well-being.
It isn't easy to do justice to the beauty and extraordinary magnitude of the river. Everything to do with it is breathtaking. It's very challenging to capture, in animated drawings, the immensity of this body of water, the constant play of colour and light.”
As well, this is the river that gave Canada its destiny. From the time Cartier first sailed as far inland as the rapids allow, through the centuries in which generations settled the shorelines with their habitat farms, through to the trading network that spread the influence of Montreal across a continent—from the Arctic, to the Pacific, to the Gulf of Mexico—the St. Lawrence has been at the heart of the Canadian psyche.
You do not have to walk far from here to the Vieux-Port to see how, for centuries right up to today, the river has provided our transportation routes, a means for our industrial and national development, a commercial corridor, and a tourist attraction. It would be hard to imagine this great city without its great river.
The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence
Think, for a moment, about where this water comes from. At the western end of the drainage basin, we have reached an agreement to establish a million hectare national marine conservation area in Lake Superior—the largest freshwater protected area in the world. This is near-pristine water that provides a habitat for over 70 species of fish.
The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence provide many of the images we take pride in as Canadians. But they are also the focus of some of the “problematic myths” about water in Canada—such as those you discussed in this morning’s panel.
Canadians like to think we have an abundance of water. And why would they not? The Great Lakes, after all, represent the largest system of fresh surface water on Earth. They contain about 18 percent of the world supply of fresh surface water—about 84 percent of the North American supply.
But look more closely. Yes, it is true that Canada has vast water resources—but there is a mismatch between where the water is, and where it is needed. Today, there are regions in Canada that go through water shortages.
And when we take a closer look at the Great Lakes, we understand more clearly the challenge of what is known as “renewable” fresh water—water that is replenished and replaceable. Renewable water does not include the water that is locked in polar ice caps and glaciers. It does not include most of the water in our underground aquifers.
And it does not include the water that remains for many years filling our lakes. Out of that vast volume of water, only one percent is replenished each year by precipitation and inflow from rivers and groundwater. That one percent represents the renewable water.
It also happens that one percent is also the amount of Great Lakes water that we currently use for human consumption, agriculture, and industrial purposes. This area represents one of the fastest-growing regions of North America. The demands for water use continue to increase.
And yet—and yet—we cannot increase our consumption without depleting the resource—living off our water interest, and not dipping into our water capital, as it were.
So much for the myth of abundant water! It’s a precious resource. We cannot squander it. And when it comes to demonstrating responsible stewardship of that resource, the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes give us lessons of what we have done wrong, what we have done right, and how resilient nature can be—if given half a chance.
Many of us can remember a time when the lower Great Lakes were regarded as an international disgrace—a time when the fish of Lakes Erie and Ontario were too toxic to eat, and a river could actually catch fire, so combustible was the combination of oil, chemicals and trash on its surface.
Governments took action. Building on the foundations of the Boundary Waters Treaty, Canada and the United States signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, and began the long process of rehabilitating the lakes.
The Great Lakes flow into the St. Lawrence. Here on this mighty river, we have the St. Lawrence Plan. This is a federal-provincial initiative to protect, preserve and restore the St. Lawrence River ecosystem. Currently, the Government of Canada spends an average of $14.9 million in the St. Lawrence of which $8.3 million comes from Environment Canada and $6.6 million from other federal departments.
The current five-year agreement with the Province of Quebec comes to an end this year. I am looking forward to working with my colleague, Sustainable Development and Environment Minister Line Beauchamp, on renewing this agreement in the coming months. Recently, we have made significant progress on major environmental issues in the Montreal region, including organic waste treatment2. Minister Beauchamp shares my passion for clean water—not surprising when this province contains 3 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater.
In Quebec, in Ontario, and in the neighbouring American states, provincial and state governments have worked with federal governments in both Canada and the United States to resolve many of the industrial problems that contaminated the river and the lakes in the past. We continue to clean up the sediments.
In fact, Budget 2010 continues to fund the Great Lakes Action Plan to clean up those “areas of concerns” around the Great Lakes which were most severely contaminated and degraded due to past practices. Environment Canada spends $28 million per year to address issues in the Great Lakes. Other government departments contribute another $22 million annually, bringing the total to $50 million per year.
You don’t need to look very far to see an excellent example of what can be done when governments, businesses, and communities work together to clean up a river.
The Port of Montreal used to be one of the most polluted sites on the St. Lawrence—clogged with oil, copper and selenium. By 1993, passing freighters were stirring up the sediments, and oil slicks began to spread across the river.
Environment Canada approached three of the biggest companies responsible for the sediment3. They sat down with the Port of Montreal and looked for ways to use the St. Lawrence Plan to resolve the remediate the site. An advisory group was drawn from the municipal and provincial governments and the local community to serve as a liaison between the experts and local residents.
The companies and the Port shared the $10 million cost of remediating the port4. The area was dredged in 2007, using booms and turbidity curtains to stop contamination from spreading. Within nine months, they removed 5,000 truckloads of sediment.
The result: 98 percent of the site has been decontaminated. That’s a spectacular success. And it was done because the Port and the companies were willing to do the right thing, and they were willing to work closely with the local community. We hope to see this model used again for other problem areas.
Of course, there is always more to do—and the political will to do it. I am very pleased that, last month, the Obama Administration has stepped forward with a very ambitious, $2.2 billion Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan. They have set the bar high, and their accomplishments will no doubt inspire further action on our side of the border.
I am also very encouraged that, in January, representatives from Canada and the United States met for their first meeting to renegotiate the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Much has changed since the Agreement came into force in 1972, and we must keep up with changing requirements.
In the meantime, there is one area where Canada can make a significant contribution—not just to the waters of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence—but to rivers, lakes, and shorelines right across this country.
We Canadians like to think of ourselves as responsible stewards of nature and of our water resources. And yet – and yet – from the east coast to the west coast, and from inland points across Canada, poorly treated wastewater continues to be a serious problem in our lakes and rivers.
This is 2010. We can do better than having untreated or primary treated wastewater pour into our rivers, lakes and shorelines in 2010.
Across the country we’re seeing raw sewage going into harbours and ports disposing of primary treated wastewater near estuaries.
We’re not talking about small amounts either. We’re talking millions of litres of raw sewage.
In 2010, it is unacceptable that we still dump untreated wastewater into our waterways. If more Canadians were aware, they would be shocked and disgusted. It’s time to do something about it. And we are doing something about it.
Cities are taking action. We can see it not far from here in cities like Ste. Agathe, where we joined with the municipality and the Quebec Government on a $20 million project to bring its wastewater treatment plant and overflow installations up to standard. We can see it in Sherbrooke, which has one of the best wastewater treatment facilities in Canada—not only providing secondary treatment, but removing additional phosphorus and suspended solids as well.
We’ve seen it in Sarnia, where we have helped the city eliminate sewer overflow, and in Brockville where we’ve supported the city’s measures to improve the wastewater system5.
Most recently, we’ve seen it in Hamilton. Earlier this month, the Government of Canada committed $100 million under the Economic Action Plan to upgrade a wastewater treatment plant. Our investment leveraged support from the city and from the province. The end result: a $456 million investment that will protect water, remediate the harbour, and ensure the city’s sustainable growth.
As part of the infrastructure stimulus fund, we have already announced $740 million for some eleven-hundred (1,100) wastewater projects across Canada. We have also made the Gas Tax Fund permanent and doubled it to $2 billion per year—money that the municipalities can count on; can budget on. All totaled through the various infrastructure funds the Government of Canada, under the leadership of the Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has spent or committed $3.25 billion for wastewater and water infrastructure.
The era of dumping raw sewage into our rivers, our lakes and our coastal areas is coming to an end. After four years of hard work and consensus-building, the federal government, provinces and territories now have a Canada-wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent. Four years of hard work to reach an agreement that will benefit generations for many years to come.
As you can imagine, the issues have been complex, and we had to work very hard to forge consensus. After all, there are more than 3700 wastewater systems in Canada. They vary in their capacity to treat sewage. They have been governed by a confusing mish-mash of policies, regulations and legislation, administered at the federal, provincial and territorial levels, but implemented by the municipalities. Now we have one Canada wide standard for wastewater treatment. One for everyone to live up to it.
My colleague, Charlene Johnson, may tell you more about the Canada‑wide Strategy in her capacity as President of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment later. Let me just say here that Environment Canada will implement the Canada-wide Strategy through regulations under the Fisheries Act. In fact, we introduced draft Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations on March 20th. We are aiming to finalize these regulations by the end of this year.
These regulations are very comprehensive. They will set a minimum national effluent quality standard reflecting secondary wastewater treatment agreed to in the Strategy. Using a phased approach, they will apply to all land‑based wastewater systems under municipal, provincial or federal government operation, and those on federal land or on Aboriginal land that discharge effluent to surface water.
Over time, wastewater facilities in Canada will have to meet these national standards. The national performance standards will keep our waters safe and clean, so that Canadians can continue enjoying the social, economic and environmental benefits of this precious resource—now and in the future.
Wastewater—it doesn’t grab the headlines. It doesn’t inspire a rallying cry. And it doesn’t sound like much of a gift to give to future generations.
But I believe that if we can do this one thing right—put an end to dumping raw sewage into our rivers and shorelines—we will have made a major contribution to the health of our people, and for generations to come.
It’s time we began to live up to the image we have of ourselves—of Canada as the land of pristine waters. The conscientious stewards of a precious environment.
Canadians are proud of our water resources—this great gift of water that our geography has bestowed upon us. It’s time to face the many challenges that come along with such bounty. This includes being better stewards of the environment and protectors of the health of our people. We need to protect water legacies such as the St. Lawrence.
We have the technology for better management of our water resources. We have the tools. We must show the will. And Canadians must make it a priority.
We’ve seen it before in how the Great Lakes recovered after generations of industrial effluent. We are also witness to the environmental results achieved under the St. Lawrence Plan in reducing toxins from industrial effluent.
We know that nature is resilient if given half a chance. Our gift to the future will be cleaner water across this great country.
1 Chancellor, McGill University
3 Imperial (Esso), Shell and Xstrata (Noranda).
4 Unlike the Canada-Ontario Agreement Respecting the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem, the Canada-Quebec Co-operation Agreement on the St. Lawrence has no decontamination budget to defray a portion of the costs. Nor are there any other aquatic site remediation programs—federal or provincial.
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